Bert Williams and the (Funny) Sadness of Clowns

WC Fields described his fellow Ziegfield Follies mate Bert Williams–‘one of the pre-eminent entertainers of the Vaudeville era and one of the most popular comedians for all audiences of his time…the best-selling black recording artist before 1920′–as ‘the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.’ Williams certainly made no secret of the melancholia in his work; as Jervis Anderson notes in This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait 1900-1950 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1981):

Williams once said that nearly all his songs were based on the idea that he was getting the worst of it….If he had any sunshine in his heart, only his friends and family saw any evidence of it. Onstage, it seldom broke through the overcast of his face, the melancholy of his voice, and the other inclemencies of his style. [pp. 41]

Anderson quotes a critic of the time remarking that:

Williams is the…butt, the abused one. He manifests…a pathetic knowledge that something is wrong somewhere with the eternal scheme of things. [pp. 38]

Funny and sad; how can those afflicted with the wrong kind of humors be humorous? The ‘tears of a clown’ trope tells us that in fact we are quite familiar with this seemingly incongruous blend. We are not unfamiliar with the proximity of laughter and misfortune; it’s only a short journey from snickering at banana peel slips to full-blown schadenfreude. It might even be that our awareness of the grimness partially visible behind the facade put up by the performer makes us laugh just a little harder as a protective measure, a warding off of the black clouds that might roll over us too.

I learned myself once, quite dramatically–literally perhaps–how close together laughter and tears run. A few years ago, I attended a clown workshop taught by the brilliant Matt Chapman of Under the Table Theatre. One of our final exercises was a partnered effort: we paired off with fellow students, sat down next to each other, and then, one of us began laughing while the other one began crying. We were asked to raise the intensity of our laughing and crying from one to ten, and at the ‘ten’ mark, to abruptly switch over to the other: the ‘laugher’ would become the ‘crier’ and vice-versa.  The pair would then wind down from the ‘ten’ to the ‘zero’ mark.

I expected this to be difficult. I didn’t see how was I going to ‘fake’ laughing and crying so hard and how I could switch over from one mode to the other. But it wasn’t. Turns out, when you are laughing really hard, you’re close to crying anyway. (Remember that bit about ‘I laughed so hard I cried’?) And interestingly enough, when you force yourself to laugh, you find yourself overtaken by a great embodied chuckle that further fuels all the guffawing and chortling. The converse held true too: my crying made me genuinely sad and shaken for a while afterwards.

Perhaps William found the laughter of those who appreciated his act infectious; perhaps he found it easy to summon up a chuckle as the outward manifestation of an inner lament.

Perhaps, hopefully, he found his own routines the best palliative for the pain he felt.

3 thoughts on “Bert Williams and the (Funny) Sadness of Clowns

  1. So glad you wrote about this, I really find that exercise fascinating. Coincidentally, I was just talking about your clowning experience this morning!

  2. Your remarks on how close laughing and crying are to one another reminded me of how, when I was a child, I mistakenly thought people in the newspaper were laughing instead of crying. The grimace and body language are surprisingly similar, especially if the moment is frozen in a photograph.

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