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a comic character usually distinguished by garish makeup and costume whose antics are both humorously clumsy and acrobatic. The clown employs a broad, physical style of humor that is wordless or not as self-consciously verbal as the traditional foolfool
or court jester,
a person who entertains with buffoonery and an often caustic wit. In all countries from ancient times and extending into the 18th cent., mental and physical deformity provided amusement.
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 or jester. Clownish figures appear in the farces and mimes of ancient Greece and Rome as foils to more serious characters. Probably the most famous clown, the arlecchino, or harlequin, grew out of the Italian commedia dell'artecommedia dell'arte
, popular form of comedy employing improvised dialogue and masked characters that flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th cent. Characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte
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 in the late Middle Ages. The acrobatic harlequin wore a mask and carried a slapstick, which he repeatedly employed on other characters. One of these, the bald-headed, white-faced French character, Pierrot, had by the 19th-century developed into the now classic lovesick, melancholic clown. The modern clown's costume developed in Germany and England during the 18th-century with the evolution of such popular characters as Pickelherring, whose costume included oversized shoes, waistcoats, hats, and giant ruffs around his neck. One of the first circus clowns, established by Joseph Grimaldi in the early 1800s, was the "Jocy" character, a comically self-serving clown who alternated between arrogant gloating and cringing cowardice. Hard economic times, as during the Great Depression, made popular the hobo clown, best exemplified by Emmett Kelly. By that time, however, motion pictures, especially the films of Charlie ChaplinChaplin, Charlie
(Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin), 1889–1977, English film actor, director, producer, writer, and composer, b. London. Chaplin began on the music-hall stage and then joined a pantomime troupe.
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 and Buster KeatonKeaton, Buster
(Joseph Francis Keaton), 1895–1966, American movie actor, b. Piqua, Kans. Considered one of the greatest comic actors in film history, Keaton used his considerable acrobatic skills, which he had developed as a child in vaudeville, in many silent comedies in
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, began to supplant the live clown acts, relegating clowning to a circus sideshow entertainment.


See H. Sobol, Clowns (1982); C. Gaskin, A Day in the Life of a Circus Clown (1987).



(1) In 16th-century English theater, the comical character of an awkward and unsophisticated rustic. These clowns usually told rude jokes that satirically mocked the aristocratic and the wealthy. In the 17th century clowns appeared only in pantomimes and balagan (circus-like) performances.

(2) A circus artist performing in comic scenes, which often accompany the entire program. In the modern circus there are comic clowns, including red clowns (wearing red wigs) and whiteface clowns; carpet clowns (who perform between acts); music clowns; clowns that train animals; and acrobatic clowns.


a comic entertainer, usually grotesquely costumed and made up, appearing in the circus
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