Clowning was developed from a broad tradition of historical performances, and it is difficult to point out a singular tradition or even a few different ones as being the primary precursors to clowns. However there are a few past prominent forms of entertainment contemporarily linked to clowning as its possible antecedents.
Examples of historical, "clown-like" comedic performers have been the pantomimus in ancient Greece, the Lazzi of Commedia dell'Arte, bouffons, court jesters, as well as the French mime tradition. On top of this there are many non-European clowning traditions (including clown-like figures in Japanese Kabuki theatre), North American native shamen traditons to consider which may or may not have influenced what we now think of as a clown in the western world.
A whiteface character does not always wear the classic whiteface makeup. Additionally, a character can wear traditional whiteface makeup and be an auguste.
Classic appearance. Traditionally, the whiteface clown uses "clown white" makeup to cover his or her entire face and neck with none of the underlying flesh color showing. In the European whiteface makeup, the ears are painted red. Features, in red and black, are delicate. He or she is traditionally costumed far more extravagantly than the other two clown types, sometimes wearing the ruffled collar and pointed hat which typify the stereotypical "clown suit".
Character. The whiteface character-type is often serious, all-knowing (even if not particularly smart), bossy and cocky. He is the ultimate authority figure. He serves the role of "straight-man" and sets up situations that can be turned funny.
Some circus examples include Pipo Sossman, François Fratellini (the Fratellini family), Felix Adler, Paul Jung, Harry Dann, Chuck Burnes, Albert White, Ernie Burch, Bobby Kaye, Jack and Jackie LeClaire, Joe and Chester Sherman, Keith Crary, Charlie Bell, Tim Tegge, Kenny Dodd, Frankie Saluto, Tammy Parish, David Konyot (Circus Barum and The Toni Alexis trio), Jay Stewart and Prince Paul Albert.
The auguste face base makeup color is a variation of pink, red, or tan rather than white. Features are exaggerated in size and are typically red and black in color. The mouth is thickly outlined with white (called the muzzle) as are the eyes. The auguste is dressed (appropriate to character) in either well-fitted garb or in a costume that does not fit - either oversize or too small is appropriate. Bold colors, large prints or patterns, and suspenders often characterize auguste costumes.
The auguste character-type is often an anarchist, a joker, or a fool. He is clever and has much lower status than the whiteface. Classically the whiteface character instructs the auguste character to perform his bidding. The auguste has a hard time performing the task given which leads to funny situations. Sometimes the auguste plays the role of an anarchist and purposefully has trouble following the whiteface's directions. Sometimes the auguste is confused or is foolish and is screwing up less deliberately.
The contra-auguste plays the role of the mediator between the whiteface character and the auguste character. He has a lower status than the whiteface but a higher status than the auguste. He aspires to be more like the whiteface and often mimics everything the whiteface does to try to gain approval. If there is a contra-auguste character, he often is instructed by the whiteface to correct the auguste when he is doing something wrong.
The character clown adopts an eccentric character of some type, such as a butcher, a baker, a policeman, a housewife or hobo. Prime examples of this type of clown are the circus tramps Otto Griebling and Emmett Kelly. Red Skelton, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin would all fit the definition of a character clown.
The character clown makeup is a comic slant on the standard human face. Their makeup starts with a flesh tone base and may make use of anything from glasses, mustaches and beards to freckles, warts, big ears or strange haircuts.
North American character clown types
The most prevalent character clown in the American circus is the hobo, tramp or bum clown. There are subtle differences in the American character clown types. The primary differences among these clown types is attitude. According to American circus expert Hovey Burgess, they are (in order of class):
- The Hobo Migratory and finds work where he travels. Down on his luck but maintains a positive attitude.
- The Tramp Migratory and does not work where he travels. Down on his luck and depressed about his situation.
- The Bum Non-migratory and non-working.
Emmett Kelly was the preeminent clown of this type. Others include Barry Lubin, Tom Dougherty, Bill Irwin, David Shiner, Geoff Hoyle, Funny Man Poodles, John Gilkey, Peter Shub, Poodles Hanneford, Bluch Landolf, Larry Pisoni, John Lepiarz, Bobo Barnett, Happy Kellams, Fumagalli, Charlie Cairoli, Bebe, Jojo Lewis, Abe Goldstein, Rhum, David Larible, Scott Linker, Kenny Raskin, Oleg Popov, Rik Gern, and Bello Nock.