They make silly faces, play funny tricks, love having a good time, and can’t help but enjoy making all of us laugh. And they’ve been doing it for a long time. Clowns have a long and storied history, having been present in king’s courts, our favourite films, and our birthday parties. The history of clowns goes far back in time, and to this day they are still making us all laugh. Let’s start in the early modern period:
Clowns in Shakespearean times
Although the idea of a foolish character solely for laughs goes all the way back to Greek theatre, our idea of the clown really starts to come into its own around the time of Shakespeare. He was well known for penning “fool characters” into his works, and soon after 1600 the term clown came to be known as someone who professionally and habitually acted like a fool to get people to laugh. Over time, these characters became more and more clumsy, eventually becoming a “buffoon or a bumpkin.” In the early 1800s the character was completely solidified by Joseph Grimaldi when he played a clown character in a famous play called “Peter Wilkins: or Harlequin in the flying world.”
Explosion in early films and circuses
The clown character really took off when it was blended in with North American circus acts for entertainment. These clowns were less fools and more a mix of hilarity and tragic themes, and were made to resemble hobos (traveling homeless workers of the time period). The character transcended the circus, though when the film industry exploded in the early 20th century. Famous names like Red Skelton, Willard Scott, and Lou Jacobs were all launched either in films or on TV. Even Charlie Chaplin had a great clown character. People could really identify with their mix of funny outer appearance and inner, more personal themes.
Modern children’s entertainment
It’s interesting how a phenomenon that arose from Shakespearean theatre eventually ended up as a form of children’s entertainment. The clowns that we supply at your events in Toronto are much more of a recent trend than their older cousins from the theatre. Toward the end of the 20th century, clowns like Ronald McDonald and Bozo really helped solidify the role. Eventually these clowns came to dominate our perception of the typical clown character. In modern times, the majority of clowns are entertainers at parties or on children’s television programs.
For a character that is normally seen as just comic relief, clowns have a fascinating history. Their history goes back centuries, and has seen several different stages of development!