Clown society

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Clown society is a term used in anthropology and sociology for an organization of comedic entertainers (Heyoka or "clowns") who have a formalized role in a culture or society.

Description and function[edit]

Sometimes clown societies have a sacred role, to represent a trickster character in religious ceremonies.[citation needed] Other times the purpose served by members of a clown society is only to parody excessive seriousness, or to deflate pomposity.[1]

In the sense of how clowns function in their culture:[citation needed]

  • A clown shows what is wrong with the ordinary way of doing things.
  • A clown shows how to do ordinary things the "wrong way".

By doing ordinary things "the wrong way" the clown reveals what would otherwise be perceived as the serious or true state of things in a different fashion.

Members of a clown society may dress in a special costume reserved for clowns, which is often a ridiculously extreme or improper form of normal dress.[citation needed] Some members paint their body with horizontal black and white stripes, which represent a skeleton.[2][3]

In the case of the Zuni clown society of the Pueblo Indians, "one is initiated into the Ne'wekwe order by a ritual of filth-eating" where "mud are smeared on the body for the clown performance, and parts of the performance may consist of sporting with mud, smearing and daubing it, or drinking and pouring it onto one another".[4][5] The sacred clown and his apparently antisocial behavior is condoned in Native American ceremonies.[6]

While in their costume, clowns have special permission from their society to parody or criticize defective aspects of their own culture. They are always required to be funny. Other persons living within the same culture may recognize a clown when they see one, but seldom consciously understand what the clowns do for their society. The typical explanation is "He's just a funny man."[citation needed]

In the case of the jester at the English Royal Court with his cap of bells and pig's bladder stick he was allowed to make fun of, be indelicate and sometimes downright rude to members of the royal family and their entourage without fear of reprisal.

Clown societies usually train new members to become clowns. The training normally takes place by an apprentice system, although there may be some rote schooling as well.[citation needed] Sometimes the training is improvisational comedy, but usually a clown society trains members in well known forms of costume, pantomime, song, dance, and common visual gags. Occasionally these include a scripted performance, or skit, which is part of a standard repertoire that "never gets old," and is expected by members of the culture that the clown society is part of.

Humor assumes "a sacred position within ceremonials" in many Native North American societies;[7] examples are found in Trickster traditions, Pueblo clown societies, Cherokee "Booger" dances, and aspects of the Northwest Coast Potlatch.[8] Humor is a fundamental aspect of Native American life, and has many purposes related to sacred rituals and social cohesion.[8]


Difference from school for comedians[edit]

A clown society is different from, but closely related to a school for comedians. Comedians serve many of the same social functions of parody and social criticism, and also embody the role of the trickster, but a comedian usually only uses slightly exaggerated mannerisms to show that he/she is joking. Comedians who are not also clowns do not wear a blatantly outrageous or formalized costume.[citation needed] Also, a comedian has to take personal responsibility for his/her humour and its consequences, whereas a person in clown-costume has some protection from reprisal.

As a general rule, a comedian says funny things, a comic does funny things, and a clown does things funny.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Hayman, David (Winter 1983). "Toward a mechanics of mode: Beyond Bakhtin". NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 16 (2): 101–120. doi:10.2307/1345079. JSTOR 1345079.
  • Honigmann, J.J. (1942). "An interpretation of the social-psychological function of the ritual clown". Journal of Personality. Blackwell Synergy. 10 (3): 220–226. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1942.tb01904.x.
  • Crumrine, N. Ross (Spring 1969). "Capakoba, the Mayo Easter Ceremonial Impersonator: Explanations of ritual clowning". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 8 (1): 1–22. doi:10.2307/1385250. JSTOR 1385250.
  • Bunzel, Ruth L.; Pareto, Nancy (intro.) (1992) [1932]. Zuni Ceremonialism: Three studies. University of New Mexico Press. Reprint of the three titles published in the 1932 47th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology See ref [9] below.


  1. ^ "Facebook removes "honk" post". New Media Central.
  2. ^ Patterson, Lotsee; Snodgrass, Mary Ellen (1994). Indian terms of the Americas. p. 122 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ Cazeneuve (1957). [no title cited] (in French). p. 242. ... leur corps est peint souvent de raies blanches et noires qui leur donnent plus ou moins l'apparence de squelettes.
  4. ^ Parsons, Elsie Clews; Beals, Ralph L. (October–December 1934). "The Sacred Clowns of the Pueblo and Mayo-Yaqui Indians". American Anthropologist. 36 (4): 491–514. doi:10.1525/aa.1934.36.4.02a00020. JSTOR 661824.
  5. ^ Hyers, M. Conrad (1996). The Spirituality of Comedy: Comic heroism in a tragic world. Transaction Publishers. p. 145. ISBN 1-56000-218-2.
  6. ^ Shanley, Kathryn W. (Autumn 1997). "The Indians America loves to love and read: American Indian identity and cultural appropriation". American Indian Quarterly. 21 (4): 675–702. doi:10.2307/1185719. JSTOR 1185719. The sacred clown and his apparently antisocial behavior which is condoned in Indian ceremonies seems outrageous to Western people who believe it is savage for a culture to institutionalize behavior that seems to be psychotic and perverted.
  7. ^ Emmons, Sally L.A. (2000). A disarming laughter: The role of humor in tribal cultures: An examination of humor in contemporary Native American literature and art (Ph.D. dissertation). University of Oklahoma.
  8. ^ a b Johansen, Bruce E. (May 2005). "Catharsis vis-a-vis oppression: Contemporary Native American political humor". University of Nebraska at Omaha Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education. 5 (2). Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-06-07.
  9. ^ Bunzel, Ruth L. (1932). "Introduction to Zuni Ceremonialism; Zuni Origin Myths; Zuni Ritual Poetry". Annual Report. Bureau of American Ethnology. 47. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. pp. 467–835.