“I read a book about ten years ago by Howard Jacobson called ‘Seriously Funny’. It was a massive historical overview of comedy, but what really caught my imagination were these two paragraphs about Native American Clowns.
Six years ago I’d come to the American southwest to research the area and find out more about the clowning tradition of the Hopi, but no-one would talk to me. I wrote to the Hopi Culture Centre and
to all these different academics but no-one would tell me anything about the clowning. I think the problem was I didn’t realise it was regarded as a spiritual religious kind of thing.
They haven’t allowed anyone to document it, but it really caught my imagination and I wanted to find out as much as I could.
As I went on an organised walk with an old woman around the Hopi village with some Swedish tourists, they asked the woman something about a rock we passed– and I knew it was a sacred rock – but she just pretended not to hear them and look the other way. I understood this immediately, as they obviously thought that asking this was intrusive about their beliefs.
I now realise that they felt the same way about comedy and that’s why no-one would tell me anything. On my first trip, I also had not realised how lucky we are that it still survives in any way and part of why it survives in a reasonably pure form is because they kept us out. It’s for them and not for us and, yes, we’re invited to be onlookers but it’s not up to us to take it like we do with so many things from other cultures and use it for our own ends.
I partly ended up going back there for a Radio 4 documentary series as a spectator of the yearly St Geronimo festival because it was the Hopi that I’d mainly read about. But they were all very secretive about the clowning stuff. This festival at Taos, which takes place every year in September, was where you could go and see the stuff first-hand, as long as you didn’t take any recording equipment of any sort in.
I’d got to do this documentary, ‘White Face Dark Heart’, after meeting the producer, Alison Vernon-Smith, through a documentary she had made about the late comedian, Malcolm Hardee. I mentioned this whole thing to her and she became very excited by the idea. She then somehow managed to get Radio 4 to fund a trip for us to go and see the pueblo clown ritual even though they knew we were not going to be allowed to record it. It was kind of weird radio, where at the end of the day I ran outside into the car, hid and dictated all my immediate thoughts and memories into the recorder.
I liked the notion of making a documentary about a thing that you had no material to show of. I could only describe it. The really great thing about that was you realised how much – when touring your acts – that there’s people with camera phones, and here you were forced for the six hours you were there in Taos Pueblo to appreciate it here and now. It reminded you of what theatre is. What’s theatre and what’s life performance? It’s about something that exists in the moment and isn’t necessarily there to be documented.
I think that with the kind of existence of so much broadcast media and great storage facilities, we kind of forget that there is something amazing about the moment that will never come back and can only be written about or remembered in your memory. That was really great and I think comedy and improvised music are the best kind of examples of that; things that are very hard to capture – you have to be there.
On the Friday night of this St Geronimo’s festival, there’s a big service in the church on the Taos reservation, which we didn’t go to because you’re not really invited. I had been inside little white church before, though, full of Catholic icons and you can kind of see why Catholicism almost did well in those cultures, with the very pagan images with the saints and all the colours surrounded.
The next day there’s obviously what is the ancient, traditional ceremony where there’s six hours of clowning. You’d be walking around and there’s like these eight to ten guys all turning up naked with stripes on them. They stood around me shouting and then they got my producer’s drink and threw it on the floor.
Everyone was trying to look to the floor and not look at them, which in itself is hilarious. They look amazing but you’re worried that if you look at them, they’re going to get you. Once you’ve made eye contact, you’re fucked.
During the course of the celebrations, the clowns would come up and snatch the kids off the parents – who would let them go – and these children were screaming, naturally terrified that these clowns were taking them, putting them in the water and desperately escaping back to their parents. There was none of this kind of stupid stuff about, “Ooh will they be traumatised?” Yeah, probably! I expect it’s good in some way – I don’t know how – but it was really funny seeing children made upset!
The ceremony itself sees the clowns climb up a pole and they have to get this dead sheep off the top of it, but part of that involved climbing this roof – a big wooden structure – that had three life-size crucifixes made out of branches and covered in leaves.
At the end of the first lot of clowning, the clowns dismantled these giant crosses and threw all the branches at everyone, with these people then running off with them.
I don’t know what it all meant; whether Saturday was maybe a day where the clowns made fun of Friday’s ceremony. But you can’t necessarily assume that the Native American Clowns were against religion.
One of the things that really annoyed the white settlers and the Catholic Church were these clowns because they thought it was all a bit dangerous, scatological, rude and disrespectful. So it was kind of driven underground and the only photographs there are of this sort of thing are from the early part of the last century.
So what seems to happen that’s really interesting for the society is that you have this serious ritual but alongside of it, or part of it, the clowns are there making fun of it, so it is sort of like a self-satirising society.
It’s like the clowns seem to relieve you and relieve the other members of the society of the responsibility of misbehaving or upsetting the order by doing it themselves.
Likewise, what I saw of the clown behaviour, although funny, there was obviously a lot that was going on about social control, or lancing the boil of imminent problems.
An old woman I was talking to in a book shop about it said it was the best piece of theatre in the south west. I think she was vastly underestimating it; it was the best piece of theatre.. actually, probably the best thing I have ever seen.
I used research about the Hopi for my first novel, The Perfect Fool, but I wouldn’t have written that book now having been to Taos and had some contact with them. I feel it was really naive and thoughtless of me to use the aspects of Hopi clowning culture in the novel in the way that I did. I would still have done something similar but I would make it totally fictionalised rather than have bits of true stuff.
I think the problem with the book was that some of it was accurate and the rest of it they’re there to try and speculate what those people would be thinking about or what they were doing. I don’t think you can really know and in retrospect it seems rather presumptuous stomping into a whole load of religious symbolism without understanding it.
Now I know a little more about it, I regret it. There was a point where I was kind of 60 per cent towards funding a film version of it and I’m really glad it never happened because I think it would have been really crass to do it as it stood. I’d of really had to change it all and I didn’t realise that at the time.
It was really hard to find out about and I now totally understand why that is and it’s partly because the people there are used to be patronised and stereotyped. What I found was that if you began a conversation about what was going on, people were initially extremely hostile. After 30 seconds they would realise that I wasn’t a twat and they would be alright, but it’s kind of hard to get your head around.
You’re watching a load of clowns running around and pushing people over and jumping in rivers, but you’re also watching something that’s of spiritual importance to people. It’s a bit like if I were to be standing in St Peter’s in Rome where all the stuff was happening, to be turning to Catholics and going, “What’s going on now? What is it?” and then applauding the communion.
A few days later on the way back from Taos Pueblo I met Steve Coogan in L.A., who I used to write for 15-20 years ago and he was talking to me about how he was trying to get various projects going and how this thing had been knocked back or something else had been picked up and I just thought, “You need to go to this thing on the 30th September every year and it will make you feel like the best thing you could possibly do as a comedian or clown.”
As comedians, we worry about ‘Aw, they wouldn’t give us a place at this gig’ or ‘Aw, they turned my idea for a radio sitcom down’ and like here was a whole culture of comedians that were effectively trying to be stamped out for being too weird, too mad and too disturbing to the status quo. I think it’s worth remembering what a privileged position it is to be paid in any capacity – or even just allowed – to behave wrongly and to say the wrong things.
About the time I was writing that book, I was in the process of giving up and I think partly why I gave up actually was reading about the Hopi clowns and about what comedy could be. At the risk of sounding self-aggrandising, I think some of that was brought to bear on Richard Thomas whose Jerry Springer the Opera, in the National Theatre at least, did have a feeling of being like a day of misrule; like the loonies had somehow got into the theatre and all these differently sized, different kinds of people were doing really mad stuff and saying wrong things.
What I understood about pueblo clowning and this kind of karnival (with a capital k) influenced my work in the National Theatre where I managed to get these extensions built to the stage that kind of came out round about half the audience. People would feel engaged and like they were in the middle of it.
Really early on when I was work shopping, I met this Italian Clown, Marcello Magnini, and he told me that I should think of Jerry Spring the Opera – when I came to direct it – as being like a circus in Rome. Circus Maximus-esque with all the guests in the middle and all the people all the way around it. That was a really good start, but I think thinking about the clowns as well made me try getting the action off the stage and fill it all up rather than just this circular space.
Partly why I gave up stand-up amongst other things for four years was because I felt, when reading about pueblo clowns, that there was sort of something there that was really vital. It wasn’t cynical. I felt all the stand-up I did in the 90s was tending to be sneering about things and when I came back to it, I wondered if there was a way that I could complain about things in a more energetic fashion and perhaps leave people with a broadly positive feeling somehow. I think again that was partly about reading all this stuff and it’s difficult to say how it all influences you but just that feeling that comedy could be a good thing, rather than just bitter.
I’m always surprised when I get described now as cynical. I think cynicism now is very, very close to sort of defeated romanticism. I think it’s always more interesting to watch a romantic than a cynic.
I worry a lot about things and I worry about what’s the point of being a comedian and what’s it for. I came away from it all with much more of an idea. It has already started informing the things I do.
I’m not a religious person but obviously everyone has something that they attach significance to, that either becomes the way you understand things or the systems that you work out to process your feelings.
For the last decade I’ve had at the back of my mind this romanticised idea of this pure essence of comedy.
In a way that’s a patronising image to impose on native people, like saying, “We’re so corrupted. If only we could go back to the source.” It’s sort of racist, but actually it wasn’t as simple as that. It was much more complicated because lots of what they were doing was about their relationship with the colonisation.
I think there’s something very romantic about pueblo clowns and they seem to believe that turning things around is a sort of end in itself.
To make beautiful people ugly and at the same time also romanticise and praise the people who are the outcasts.
This way of making fun of people that everyone liked and being kind to people that everyone was uncomfortable about was reversing the order of everything. This is what the essence of comedy is – to overturn the rules.
It was an ambition fulfilled, but I now want everyone I know to go. I really want to go back with my wife and my kid – when it’s due in April. I want my son or daughter to be picked up by a terrifying, large clown and have them screaming and crying. My kid will be about five months old then, so just about the right age to have them thrown in a river by a clown.
I feel like its been a real revelation. The great thing about that was everything I’d read about the festival had led me to believe it would just simply be as described, and I was very worried about fully knowing what to expect and being disappointed.
Just the experience, though, of being there in the moment was superb.”