The History of Circuses (the Birth of Comedians and Clowns…)

Postcard, probably from the late 1800s.

Courtesy of Bob Cline

From the earliest:

The Origin of Comedy

Ancient Greeks
Comedians can be dated back to 425 BC, when Aristophanes, a comic author and playwright, wrote ancient comedic plays. He wrote 40 comedies, 11 of which survive and are still being performed. Aristophanes’ comedy style took the form of satyr plays.
-Wiki Commons-

By Plato comedy is defined as the generic name for all exhibitions which have a tendency to excite laughter. Though its development was mainly due to the political and social conditions of Athens, it finally held up the mirror to all that was characteristic of Athenian life. By a consensus of authorities comedy has been arranged in three divisions, or rather should they be termed variations in form–the old, the middle and the new–and these it will here be convenient to follow.

The evolution of comedy is much simpler than that of its sister art, though as to its origin and earlier development there is little exact information. All that Aristotle can tell us is that it first took shape in Megaris and Sicyon, whose people were noted for their coarse humor and sense of the ludicrous, while Susarion, the earliest comic poet, was a native of a Megarian town. Add to this that it arose from the Phallic processions of the Greeks, as did tragedy from the dithyramb, and we have about all that is known as to the inception of the lighter branch of the drama.

At country festivals held in celebration of the vintage it was the custom for people to pass from village to village, some in carts, uttering the vile jests and abuse unjustly attributed to the tragic choruses; others on foot, bearing aloft the Phallic emblem and singing the praises of Phales, the comrade of Bacchus. In cities it was also the custom, after an evening banquet, for young men to roam around the streets with torches in their hands, headed by a lyre or flute-player. Such a band of revellers was called a comus, and a member of the band a comoedus or comus-singer, the song itself being termed a comoedia, or comedy, just as a song of satyrs was named a tragoedia, or tragedy.

The Phallic processions were continued as late as the days of Aristotle, and we learn from one of the orations of Demosthenes that the riotous youths who infested the streets of Athens delighted in their comic buffooneries. Pasquinades of the coarsest kind were part of the exhibitions, and hence, probably, it was that comedy found a home at Athens during the time of Pericles, for it furnished the demagogues with a safe and convenient means of attacking their political opponents. When formally established as a branch of the drama it had its chorus, though less numerous and costly than the dithyrambic choir, and the actors, at first without masks, disguised their features by smearing them with the lees of wine.

Get more facts at source

and– Then Came Vaudeville

Vaudeville was variety entertainment, consisting of a highly diverse series of very short acts, or “turns.” The acts ranged from singing groups to animal acts, from comedians to contortionists, from magic tricks to short musical plays. A typical vaudeville bill consisted of approximately 13 acts, most of which were typically 6-15 minutes long. Many of the modes of performance developed in vaudeville had a profound effect on popular culture that continues into the present day. For example, many of the ethnic stereotypes prevalent in television and film — Jewish, Irish, Italian, African American — derive from the ethnic caricatures that were a mainstay of Vaudeville comedy. The comedian Frank Bush, whose act is recreated for Virtual Vaudeville, exemplifies this brand of ethnic humor.

Vaudeville was the most popular form of American entertainment from its rise in the 1880s through its demise in the 1930s. It played much the same a role in people’s lives that radio and later television would for later generations. Indeed, many early radio, television and film stars began as vaudeville performers: Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger (the latter two being best known today as the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz). Every medium-to-large size city had its own vaudeville theatre, and performers on the vaudeville circuit preformed for a national audience by traveling constantly from town to town. With its national circuits, its reliance on train transportation and the telegraph, plus its production of a mode of performance with interchangeable parts, Vaudeville was the first truly modern form of popular entertainment.

Our vaudeville theatres make strong appeals to the public by offering an entertainment that amuses without taxing. To those whose minds are full of business cares and who do not feel up to following the dialogue and situations of a play which demands a certain amount of intellectual effort, vaudeville is a boon.

— New York Herald, September 3, 1893

Laurel and Hardy

The Marx Bros (

Abbott and Castello


For more than two centuries, (before Vaudeville) the circus has been a gamut of odd and hilarious entertainment, and, a grouping of well-traveled shows. The many humorous concepts and teamwork of the vaudeville era, were undoubtedly, inspired by the circus. But, then came industrialization which brought in radio, stage and television technologies.

In view of circus clowns send their evolvement within the western ideology, it is important to note its roots in early Greece. Painted clown faces were actually used for Grecian entertainment. The concept was adopted by Rome and France. And today, clown mimes (silent, humorous actors) are iconic of France. Japan shows some obvious cross-culturaling by similarly using, painted clown faces in Kubuki, a mimed stage performance.

During the silent movie era, similar clown-faces gave life to the on- screen comedy genre, which was premature. The mime style of acting worked well without movie sounds. Mime acting brought great fame to comic Charlie Chaplin. It is easy to recognize the transformation of the regular mime, into a Hollywood mime.

A French mimist


Charlie Chaplin Silent Film Actor Comedian image source

The continual advances in communications made a big impact that popularized many other personalities of Vaudeville. The reality was that Vaudeville had become more like a modern circus, traveling a full gamut, throughout cities and abroad. On the other side of the spectrum, are those who disagree with the origin of the circus and its impact on comedy. I have a rebuttal–traditions, however, tell a story which validates times and occurrences. None of which can be disputed by families who have performed and trained in many specialty circus acts for generations. Let us applaud, the creators of variations in artwork imagery, the tightrope/trapeze entertainers, clowns and tricksters/comic sideshows whose practices have always given us bits and blurts of circus history.

~ AmericaOnCofee(AOC)~


By Dominique Jando

If the history of theater, ballet, opera, vaudeville, movies, and television is generally well documented, serious studies of circus history are sparse, and known only to a few circus enthusiasts and scholars.

What little the public at large knows, on the other hand, is circus history as told over the years by imaginative circus press agents, and repeated—and often misunderstood and distorted—by writers of popular fiction, Hollywood screenwriters, and journalists too busy to investigate further. One of the most popular misapprehensions about circus history is the oft-repeated idea that circus dates back to the Roman antiquity. But the Roman circus was in actuality the precursor of the modern racetrack; the only common denominator between Roman and modern circuses is the word itself, circus, which means in Latin as in English, “circle”.


The origin of the modern circus has been attributed to Philip Astley, who was born 1742 in Newcastle-under-Lyme, England. He became a cavalry officer who set up the first modern amphitheatre for the display of horse riding tricks in Lambeth, London on 4 April 1768. -Wiki Commons-

image source

milo ventriloquist 1880 circus(Courtesy of Pinterest)

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