Feature Article Vol. VII – No. 6

Finding the Funny

John Towsen’s Physical Comedy Labs occupy a unique niche in the numerous schools and classes offering instruction in clowning.  There are no classes in makeup, costuming, prop building, partnering, finding your inner clown or learning to play.  People who come out of  programs with this kind of instruction don’t know how to create a program or an act.  They have a kind of cutsey, baby clown character, but sometimes it just doesn’t go anywhere.  The potential is limited.

Instead Towsen’s labs are what he calls pure research.  It is an opportunity to explore a process and play with possibilities and probabilities.    It is also a place to develop community, to meet and jam with new people.

Towsen uses the word “jam” in much the same way that jazz musicians do.  “I don’t come in with a lesson plan,” he says.  It’s just the opposite, a jam.  He coordinates;  he doesn’t present  lessons.  The group’s work begins with  a warm up that someone leads for several minutes and then that is passed on to someone else. After about twenty minutes everyone is warmed up, and they may play a game that someone suggests.  Towsen likes to have new people come in and suggest new games.  Sometimes there is a skill session.  Keith (Nelson of the Bindlestiffs who is a regular participant) may teach something.  Maybe they will do partner acrobatics.  People come in with different skills.  Someone once did partner yoga.  It’s all about stretching oneself creatively.   And then someone may come up with something he or she has wanted to explore, a gag or a skill, and the group looks for ways in which  a skill   might translate  into a routine.  The object  in all this is to find humor or comedy in a physical situation.

“I don’t directly teach them specific things,” Towsen points out.  “My specialty has become, over the years, physical comedy, by which I mean trying to use skills most of which are circus based but used in a funny way, with their characters, or with a story, in the way that somebody like Buster Keaton or Bill Irwin works.  They have all these physical skills, but they are not doing a circus act per se.  They are doing theatre of sorts.  They are doing a character in a situation.  I work with skills.  That tends to be less presentational.  So when  I work with something like plates, I am not teaching Keith Nelson’s plate spinning routine, that is presentational.  I will teach moves with plates that might work in a restaurant scene with a waiter.  I teach pratfalls.  If I teach acrobatics as a series of tricks,  I will teach things that could be used  in a chase scene or in partner acrobatics that could be comic.

“Sometimes we try to physicalize something that is more textual or physical and see how the positions we get into might lend themselves to stories.”

Recently he has become fascinated with doors, trick doors.  This dates back to piece of film Edson made back in 1894 (You can probably find it on YouTube)  with seven different components or doors that function in different ways from swinging to revolving. The participants in that particular lab set about exploring the comic possibilities in using these props in order to come up with different  gags.  First comes the exploration, then the findings are videoed and studied   “It is a process of finding what we can do.  Rediscovering.  Its fun.”

Towsen’s labs are offered every Tuesday in a Brooklyn studio from 10 am to 1 pm from Sept. to June.   Each session usually has about twelve to fourteen people.  Who they are varies as to who is in town.   So the makeup of each lab is somewhat unpredictable.  “Performers in New York have crazy schedules,” he notes.    Often out of towners show up as well.  They may be in town for a festival or a gig.  It’s a chance for everyone to network.   During the summer months Towsen travels throughout the world on a home exchange program.

This past April he did three workshops in different cities in Italy, these ran for four days, all day long.  In two of the cities he worked with full companies.  One was a street theatre ensemble, people who would continue to work together the next day after he left, which, he says, is better than working with a bunch of strangers.  He will back next spring in Vienna  and Barcelona.

There are different worlds who hire him.  In Vienna he was hired by a group of clowns who work in hospitals.  They do an extensive series of workshops every year, are well  funded and organized.  Another group he works with is Clowns Without Borders, who go into refugee camps and places like that.  Of course there is some overlap between these groups.   “People aren’t into tight categories so much any more,” he observes.

In Italy in Bologna he worked with two different companies one might call street theaters or circus companies.  One actually had a tent.  One was more strictly street theater.  Not the kind of street theater where you pass the hat.  This company is hired to perform in festivals and municipal sponsored events.  He himself will soon be touring a show he has created with Angela Delfini.  They will be going cross country, and he will do workshops in the various city they play and others they will pass through  to hopefully pay the bills.  These will be more general and geared to people in the field, people who are clowns or circus oriented performers who want to do more comedy.

And where do they earn a living these people who attend Towsen’s workshops and labs?  The largest employer is hospitals.  “Hospital clowns do wonderful stuff.  They aren’t getting rich but they are making a living.”  The Big Apple  Circus’ Clown Care Unit has been revitalized, independent of the circus management into an organization called  Healthy Humor.  They have recently added a couple of new hospitals.  It’s not as big as it was in its hey day, however.  But it and other hospital work provides a steady pay check, and the clowns don’t have to travel all the time.  That’s the problem even in Europe.  Places like Barcelona and Torino where I’ve taught, the performers can’t make all that much money performing there, but it is an inexpensive place  to live and train  so then they have to hit the road to earn a living.  In addition to hospital work there are also corporate gigs, many of which are produced by our friend  Michael Bongar.  Festivals and street performances, along with parties and  bar mitzvahs also provide  work .

Towsen with Keith Nelson and lab partner Hilary Chaplain

Towsen’s own introduction to the profession was as a child actor, starting when he was just six years old. His first role was in a sketch about baseball with Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason and another kid.  Having been born and raised in New York City,  working in show business was not all that strange, at least not until he was thirteen when his parents decided he should grow up as a normal kid.  Besides there wasn’t much work for a teenage actor. “ As a kid I was a cute blond and then the industry was moving out to the west coast  so it all came together like that.”  He didn’t really get back into thinking about acting and circus until he was in college.  Then he was introduced to people like Hovey Burgess and Brooks McNamara, both of whom became mentors.

One of the reasons he went into popular entertainment and especially comedy was because  “I was kind of shy and repressed at that time of my life and so it was a kind of release;  it helped me to be able to talk to people.”  In college, at NYU,  he  wound up majoring in drama and French literature.  The French was a sort of an accident and the path of least resistance. “ I wasn’t really into it.  I had taken French in high school and when I went to college I started exploring everything. I didn’t know what I wanted to be.  I was good in math and science and people said I should be an engineer, but I kept taking French.    I didn’t want to be an English major and have to do a Beowulf and Chaucer symposium so I became a French major.”

The year after taking Hovey’s class at NYU he was at clown college when Hovey and his then wife Judy Finelli were teaching there.   This was in 1973 when Bill Ballantine was still dean.  “It turned out to be everything I already knew.  I thought the training very external and not very valuable.  I think it got better with Steve Smith.  I even taught there in ‘94 in Baraboo.” But at the time he was there it was all rather rigidly formulaic.  “They’d look at your face and decide you should be a white face clown: here are the gags.  The class that met the most was called ‘arena action’ and it was just learning how to work in the specs, how to parade around the ring.  Not the walkarounds, the specs.    I just found I didn’t get much out of it.”  Also in his class were such eventual notables as Penn Jillette, Michael Davis, Michael Bongar, and Ron Jenkins.  He was neither awarded nor wanted a contract to go with the big show.     “I did get a partner out of it, though.  Fred Yockers and I started performing and worked  together for twelve  years.  We actually had a business and made some money.  We did everything.  We even worked  a few small circuses.  Mostly we did school shows.  I was the straight clown.  I started with white face but got away from that. I was more the boss clown.  We had an adult show not x rated, for the college market,  kind of a Don Quixote idea of  two aging showmen, Fritz and Blondini. (Now I am Baldini.)   There weren’t that many venues out there.  We made most of our money from schools and festivals and special events.  We had material, for an hour and forty-five minute family show and other shorter pieces we could plug into anything,  anywhere.

He  married in ‘84, had the first of two sons in ’85, and once he became a father traveling became a problem.  So did not having health insurance and all that kind of stuff.  Then Fred fell in love and married.  So much for their partnership.  Towsen ended up getting a college teaching job.  I thought I could do it all.  But I couldn’t and life got complicated.  His wife died of breast cancer in 2000. He ended up spending twenty-six years at Bloomfield College in New Jersey.  “The visual arts instructor and I got kind of uppity and ended up creating our own division.  I was seduced by technology by then and kind of drifted away from the circus world, at least in active involvement.  Not from enthusiasm.  I had a circus class and a circus troupe at the college.  But I started getting into desk top publishing and some video.”

Towsens’ classic book Clowns was not planned.  I was accepted to graduate school in French and then asked to switch to drama.  “I started getting seduced by popular entertainment.   I did a little writing for The Drama Review and  TDR  (Tulane Drama Review), and I was also involved in performing.  An editor at Hawthorne, a publishing house, had the insight to realize there was no authoritative book on clowning in English.  She heard about me and asked if I was interested and if so I should write a proposal for the sales force.  I didn’t do anything about it.  I was twenty-five, and I didn’t think I knew that much.   Eventually one afternoon I sat down and wrote a proposal and sent it in and pretty much forgot about it.  They had to send it to the sales force and the sales force took it around to the bookstores to see if there was any interest.  The bookstores said they would stock such a book.  Months later he got a call that they wanted to publish the book and were going to give me a ten thousand dollar advance.  It was a lot of money for me.  I was living on nothing so I ended up doing it.  It wasn’t my great idea.”

Clowns was published in 1976 and remains the most authoritative book on the subject, and over the years it has added to Towsen’s reputation somewhat, but a lot of people didn’t even know he wrote it.  “My student didn’t believe I had actually written the book. In many of the places  I teach now, people don’t know about the book at all.”

John Towsen retired from full-time teaching at the age of sixty-two, and for the past seven years has remained officially retired.  But that hasn’t kept him from running his labs and workshops.  When he started doing them again he says  “I didn’t realize I had drifted away from all this.  After my wife died I was raising two sons ages ten and fourteen on my own.  But I was pulled back into it by friends.”

His first  lab, after a fifteen year hiatus, was for the Big Apple Clown Care Unit.   “They kept asking so I finally agreed.  I found some old index cards with notes, and I did a three hour workshop which went very well.  Then I did a workshop at the Clown Theatre Festival which also went well and one thing led to another.

“There was a point when I thought I was gone from this world as a working participant, although I was still a fan.  I did develop a physical comedy curriculum and I didn’t see anybody doing that.  When I came back I thought everyone knew all this already.  But everyone was asking what is this vocabulary?  Most of the vocabulary was lost.  Ringling was always a rushed program with no time for process.  I was able to teach comedy as a full length college course.  I did it at Julliard for six years in the theater program.  I had them twice a week for the whole semester.  I did six summers at Ohio University.  The same thing. Twenty-five sessions.  So you have time to develop things.  Now it’s just a few days, six hour days so you get in a fair amount.

“I see a lot things that cry out for more physical sense of comedy.  All directors don’t have it.  Some don’t have a clue.  Directors aren’t trained in that.  Sometimes a physical comedy choreographer may be brought in, but if the performers don’t have the skills it’s hard to make it work.  On Broadway One Man Two Guvnors brought in a physical comedy choreographer who helped make that a hit.

“It is hard to market.  It scares people away.  A lot of clowns, if they see the words ‘physical comedy’ they think they may not be able to do that.  They worry about it.  To help we keep the fee low; everything doesn’t have to be for profit.  I lose money on the labs.  I am retired, with a pension from twenty-six years of full time teaching.  Now it is a labor of love and a service to the community.  It’s an interesting thing to do with your life.”


John Towsen’s blog is titled All Fall Down.  He may be reach at JohnTowsen@gmail.com


Theose who participated in the lab session photographed  by Maike Schulz are  Katherine Horejsi. Keith Nelson, Evelyn Tuths, Eugene Chow, Megan Maungs, Charles STcharles, Lex Alston and John Towsen and Hilary Chaplain who is his partner in the labs.