Clowning Achievement

One alumnus takes a serious look at what’s so funny about clowns

By Tara Laskowski, MFA ’06

When you spend almost two decades working for a clown college, watching grown men and women learn to juggle bowling balls or twist a balloon into the shape of a puppy, a dissertation topic can literally hit you like a pie in the face.

Rodney Huey, PhD Cultural Studies ’06, had worked in public relations for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for nearly 15 years before he entered Mason’s PhD in Cultural Studies Program. His unique experience had him thinking seriously about the use of humor and the role of the circus in modern society—the perfect dissertation topic for a man who owns a round, red plastic nose.

Not that Huey was ever a clown.

“I’m not a performer at all,” Huey says, though he admits a certain admiration and affection for the business. One of his favorite memories is the first time he sat in on a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performance. As the clowns performed silly, buffoonish jokes involving cars and big shoes, all Huey could look at were the faces in the crowd. “Kids and parents were going crazy, laughing and happy. It made me think, ‘What’s so funny about what clowns do? Why do we like this?’”

Huey’s dissertation, “Social Construction of the American Circus Clown: Production of Clowning in the United States from 1968 to 1997,” focuses on how clowns are made and their role in society. “The clown questions authority and the status quo,” says Huey. “Clowns are absolutely mandatory in every society because they are the figures that can make fun of the power structure.”

Following the 30-year history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and how the image and routine of trained clowns changed during that time, Huey compares what he calls the “corporately produced clown” with the alternative circus clowns found in independent troupes such as Cirque du Soleil and the Big Apple Circus.

“In some ways, alternative clowns are much more interesting because they address real issues in society—the single mom or death, for example. In a more intimate space, these alternative clowns can really bring these issues to life,” Huey says.

In contrast, Huey found the larger spectacle of the Ringling Bros. circus was meant to appeal to a wider audience. “The clowns from the clown college still made fun of society but in a sanitized way, for kids, not really addressing the issues.”

For his research, Huey interviewed many clowns from different eras, as well as the college’s past directors about what they were trying to do and the kinds of clowns they wanted to produce. He also used information he had gathered from sitting in on the college’s classes on acrobatics, magic tricks, and face painting.

Even though Huey was not a performer, he found that juggling a full-time job, family, and other commitments while working on a PhD rivaled the best clowns’ skills. Now that he has graduated, he hopes to have his dissertation published and perhaps do more research on humor and society. He is also teaching at the college level—a course at Mason on public relations, not clowning. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College closed in 1997.