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Philippe Gaulier on the Art of Clowning and Sacha Baron Cohen

Clowns remain a staple of the circus, but the reach of the ancient art is much wider these days, with a growing theatrical scene as well as performers crossing over into other forms. The alumni network at Gaulier’s school, where many make lifelong connections, is expansive — spanning film and theater (Emma Thompson, Kathryn Hunter), circus and live comedy, with students like the Los Angeles comedian Dr. Brown becoming gurus themselves. Another protégé, Zach Zucker, is the host of Stamptown, a popular showcase of cutting-edge comics in Brooklyn, its name inspired by the town of Gaulier’s school. “He has become the name to drop,” Geoff Sobelle, an acclaimed performer and former student, said about Gaulier’s reputation among clowns.

In a two-hour interview last month, Gaulier, speaking in English, came off less like a teacher than a very funny insult comic, teasing and trash-talking, tossing jabs at everyone from Slava Polunin, the Tony-nominated Russian clown (“For children who has problem to sleep, can be good”) to the legendary mime Marcel Marceau (“He’s a maniac with his gestures”). Asked if someone can be funny who didn’t make him laugh, he said it was possible, before turning back to me, gesturing at my clothes: “It’s possible that you with your glasses, your hair, that you are funny,” he said, before the punchline. “And someone really well-dressed is, too. The opposite of you.”

He’s allergic to anything that smacks of pretension, which inevitably inspires one of his favorite expressions: “of my balls,” as in Slava is a “poetic clown of my balls.”

Compared with other clowning teachers, Gaulier said he does not emphasize technique or physical virtuosity. His pedagogy aims for something more intangible, nurturing a childlike spirit, a sense of play onstage. The most important quality in a clown is keeping things light and present, and, as he said with the utmost respect, stupid. Finding “your idiot,” as he calls it, is the essence of clowning, which, unlike comic acting, requires a performer to stick with the same character. “A clown is a special kind of idiot, absolutely different and innocent,” he said. “A marvelous idiot.”

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