The origins of the word "clown" tell us a lot. Giovanni Fusetti first told me about how "clown" comes from the old word "clod", or "Wet Earth." He was trying to explain to me his take on the difference between Clown and Improv Comedy. Improv is dry, he said. Clown is wet. This website does a nice job of talking about where the word comes from. A low-German word for klutz, a Scandinavian word for boor. There's even a possibility that the Latin word for farmer, colonus, is in the etymological mix. So, to sum up, the foundations of the word "clown" are deeply rooted in possessing the following qualities: FILTHY, WET and INAPPROPRIATE.
That could be why this pandemic feels like the end of everything to me.
Of course, I'm a pessimist. I believe in staying pessimistic so I don't have to get... you get my point. My pessimism is an ancient, inherited, shtetl pessimism that comes from the old country and goes very deep. She entwines her gnarled fingers around each individual DNA strand I've got and knits me into my very own walking Pessismism Sweatervest, all the time.
So you, dear reader, can take anything I say with a giant grain of kosher salt. But, personally, I'm calling it The End. The end of my Butt show (technically impossible to do without saliva), the end of my breathy, wet, intimate workshops... oh shit, wait, this all looks like I'm into porn. Am I into porn? Is clown soul-porn?
I don't expect to perform or teach in person again for up to a year or maybe more. Am I a big downer? Sure, absolutely. Take two of me and take a nap. I'll still be here when you wake up.
Anyway, so I'm watching too much TV and rending my garments and wailing, like everyone. My biggest delight so far has been the discovery of jello-making. The first week it was a pomegranate jello, followed by a prosecco jello, and then my most impressive feat yet, a 5-layer deconstructed Thai iced tea jello: 3 layers of thai tea jello, 2 layers of sweetened condensed milk jello. Life-altering.
Beyond the jello, I feel like my big takeaways so far have been aimless grief and TV.
Speaking of, What We Do In The Shadows. The movie was cute, but the show is sooooooo cute!
But anyway, my pessimism and grieving have a point, or could. Acceptance and trying to dig in for the long haul and hopefully—eventually—evolve feels like a reasonable choice. It at least gives me something to aspire to. I'm still a good capitalist stooge, after all: aspirationalism is my middle name, sandwiched between Good and Capitaliststooge.
Hopefully I'll get unemployment. Plus I am a saver. So I feel relatively hashtag-blessed for the mo', in terms of basic needs. I believe plenty of other people will get their jobs back sooner than I will; there are ways that we can social distance and still shop or whatever. Capitalism loves it some shop.
And it's not that I'm sad all the time. Most of the time, I appreciate my privilege and feel like I'm trapped on a packed schoolbus of chorus kids that's broken down in a snow drift. There's a lot of metaphorical snow around us, blanketing freshly, and lights are twinkling in the distance. The driver's name is Collingswood or something equally last-name-first-y, with a deep comforting voice and a sense of calm. Help is on the way, and until then, we're all together.
Incidentally, this has made me realize that, usually when the Depression Monster has me in its clutches, it's the isolation that I experience most bitterly. Somehow when everyone else is bereft too, I feel weirdly better. Which seems fucked up, but true. Not schaudenfraude, exactly, but there's got to be another long German word for it.
So I'm not super depressed right now, but I definitely feel obsolete. I see the essential workers, more essential than ever. I see the white-collar-work-from-homers, going on with their zoom-meeting selves and still getting those paychecks like no big thing. And then here I am, trying to put together another reasonably-cute at-home outfit that I can both exercise and curl fetally in.
I am humbled and amazed by my friends and colleagues who seem to have figured out... anything about how to work in this new reality. I am not there yet, but I admire you so much! You can stop reading this and go on back to being a pandemic art hero!
I dedicate this blog post to everyone more like me, performing artists currently in love with jello or whatever your non-Jewish equivalent is, who have the feeling that everyone else has figured out more than we have about how to artistically survive in this strange new world.
This is a very exclusive club we've got here, here in this blog post. I've put the red velvet ropes up and the only people I'm letting in are the aimless grievers and jello-makers and cake-straight-out-of-the-pan-eaters. Are you not just watching RuPaul's Drag Race, but the RECAP videos as well? Or whatever your heteronormative equivalent is? Whatever your preferences, you and your aimless grief are super welcome in this blog post.
I may be a long way from figuring out how to feel anything like useful or productive, but I feel like I have a few useful suspicions, so I figured I'd get them down before another recap video comes on.
1) PROBABLY EVERYONE ELSE FEELS SECRETLY SHITTY SOMETIMES TOO.
Even Taylor Swift has got to feel sad. Feeling sad is okay. Even before the pandemic, sometimes it's okay to feel sad. Here is Rosey Grier, former footballer, bodyguard and men's needlepoint activist, singing "It's Alright to Cry." I'm going to feel okay about being sad and try not to beat myself up for it. Thanks, Rosey Grier.
2) HA HA HA ON YOU, SIZE QUEENS.
If you're like me, you used to be a real size queen when it came to audience and workshop numbers. Ha ha ha, ego maniacs like me! While there's something moving about seeing a lot of strangers in a zoom room, I've personally had trouble feeling pulled in by big group experiences, and I suspect I'm not alone. I wonder if, when our attention isn't necessary, it's much easier to lose focus. That's one of the many joys of TV. It doesn't care if you're watching it, so you can have it on in the background or pause it, just toss it around attentionally-speaking and not give a shit.
As a performer and teacher, that's not what I'm personally aiming for.
The best experiences I've had so far have been super intimate. I attended/participated in a Zoom-based show called Couples Therapy for one audience member at a time, I got to play the couples therapist, highly recommended if it comes back.
Before the quarantine, I did a lot of coaching of artists on their solo shows via online platforms, and that actually worked pretty well. Hoping to do more of that. I'm also trying to work on online performance experiences for just one audience member. And by "trying", I mean, I'm thinking about it. Between jello layers.
Having to recalibrate and value quality of attention over quantity of attendees, that's a fascinating shift. And it could make me a better performer, in the long run, because of all the practice I can potentially get just playing for one person at a time.
I always used to say, if you can make one person laugh, that's harder than getting an audience to laugh. But I didn't really mean it, because I was still thinking about those big fat crowds I used to have. So maybe that's the new goal. Just to believe the stuff I used to say about the importance of individual audience members.
3) MAYBE GET REAL WEIRD.
You know how performing live, you get laughs from human beings who are a few feet away? That experience is gone for a while. The new experience of being a comedy artist might be about trying to get something else.
What if we don't try to be funny anymore. Crazy concept, but it might just be too painful for our sensitive comedy organs to try jokes in empty rooms. Comedy organs are very touchy things, and if you expose them to too much not-laughing, your brain can start sending you signals that the comedy organs aren't functioning properly, which may or may not actually be the case. U like all that science I just dropped? All accurate.
What if we tried to be beautiful. To be cinematic. To be weird. To be gorgeous. To be surprising. The good news is, we will probably end up being funny just because we're idiots. But I think focusing on something other than comedy feels healthy somehow. See above science.
I've done a few "clown" playgroups with friends on Zoom where we just get real weird with each other. They've been amazing. I get dressed up like a tragic telenovelas star (actually jewnovelas) with a velvet turban, mascara and lipstick (glossy, sticky-looking lipstick! that's the key! keep it wet!) I've rolled around and drooled on the floor every time. And my friends are of course brilliant and weird and they've surprised and delighted me, so that's been therapeutic. I'm learning about how to position the camera so that I've serving my friends the best angles, the most interesting tableaux. And I can tell they're doing that too. So that Zoom screen just looks beautiful, each of us our own tableau, creating little cinematic gifts for each other. That's been nice.
4) AND WHEN POSSIBLE, SPARK SOME JOY.
You know Marie Kondo, right? The very charming celebrity-author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Runs an entire tidying empire with her flutey voice and deft-folding fingers. If you don't know Marie Kondo, you live under a messy rock, and that's totally fine. I'll summarize her. She's all about getting rid of stuff, and keeping the stuff you do have real clean. And the big question you have to ask yourself about every single thing you own is DOES IT SPARK JOY.
does it spark joy does it spark joy does it spark joy does it spark joy does it—
An incredible question, and congratulations to Marie Kondo for coming up with it.
Let's apply it to everything in our lives immediately.
does it spark joy does this spark joy does that spark joy do they spark joy do we spark joy do i spark joy do i do i do i do i—
But seriously, do you? Do you spark joy? Do you spark joy in every person who has an interaction with you. Could you? Could that be your little assignment?
Let's ask Marie Kondo what the fuck "spark joy" really means, because, define your terms bitch. Marie Kondo says that in order to determine if an object that you own in fact sparks joy, you have to hold it in your hands. Marie Kondo says that if the object sparks joy, then it will lift you up cell by cell, so that all parts of your body feel a little bit lifted. How do you know if the object doesn't spark joy? Every cell, every part of your body seems to be a little heavier. According to Marie Kondo, it's that fucking simple.
You know what? I think she's right. Her point is that the body knows more about joy than the brain does, and it's important to listen to it.
So let's apply the Kondo Principle, shall we? First of all, in order to have the potential to spark joy for another human, they have to be "holding" you, which obviously in today's day and age they can't do. But let's say, they have to be holding you in their attention. So the UPS guy who throws the box down on your stoop and runs away is probably not a good candidate. They have to be focused on you for a moment at least. Long enough to have an experience of you.
Okay, so now that you've got them, it could be time to spark joy.
How do you spark joy with everyone? You're a clown, you probably already know. You've been working at this your whole life. Try to break through, try to tickle. Try to have an effect on their body, lift it up, cell by cell. Even for a moment. You know when you've sparked joy, you see it. The energy around them gets fluffy for a moment. A tiny gust of hope.
That's your only job now, clown. If you're doing that, you're doing something. Get 'er done.