Day 2 of Clown at Gauiler.

Today was my second day locked in my room with Covid and watching the Gauiler class on Zoom.

And today, I decided I was going to gather as much as possible from the classes from my restricted vantage point behind a computer screen…

Part of that meant paying much more attention to what Philippe was saying – and specifically how he was saying it – compared to when I’ve been in the room for the classes.

When you’re in the room, you’re partly worried about what you’re going to have to do when you get up on stage. You laugh at Philippe’s jokes, but you don’t necessarily get to enjoy them as much as you would if you didn’t have that pressure to perform hanging over you.

Philippe has a bunch of “set pieces” that he uses in his classes (that’s a term I’m using, not his).

In comedy, set pieces are little routines that you know work. You’ve performed them various times before and you know you can reliably get laughs at particular points.

Philippe’s set pieces are often just little interactions with students. Technically, they might even be too short to call a full “set piece”.

For example, with one classmate today, he had this little off-the-cuff piece:

Student: “I know exactly what you mean.”
Philippe: “What?”
Student: (speaking louder and clearer) “I know exactly what you mean.”
Philippe: “What?” (which got a huge laugh from the room).

This was an impromptu exchange. But I’m willing to bet that it’s also part of Philippe’s repertoire of funny pieces. It would work if the student said anything along the lines of “I understand” which is quite common in a teaching setting… though quite rare in Philippe’s classes.

Being here for 4 weeks, I’ve seen some of his little routines like this come up a few times. They remain funny even on repeated viewings. Michiko, Philippe’s wife, also often laughs at them, and I’m sure she’s heard them all many times.

Today, Philippe had probably the longest set piece I’ve seen him do so far. And I felt he did this to show us the qualities he’s looking for in our comedy performances in the Clowns course.

He spent almost half an hour telling us how to string a red nose with elastic.

It was hilarious.

As with any good clown performance, it’s almost impossible for me to describe his red nose lecture in any way that does it justice. So I won’t.

What I will share are some of the qualities that I saw him demonstrating in it:

  • Turning something ridiculously simple, even boring, into something funny and engaging. You could probably explain how to string a red nose in 30 seconds if you were being “boring.”
  • Complete comfort being very silly. One of my favourite parts was when he yelled “aargh” when threading the elastic through the hole. A ridiculous thing to do, but very pleasing. One thing you would never know about Philippe if you were to look at a photo of him (he never smiles in photos) is how much he plays the fool. As you’d expect, he’s a real clown.
  • Having fun. He was clearly enjoying himself a lot, which is what he’s been telling us to do for the past 4 weeks.
  • Saving the laugh when it doesn’t work the first time…

Throughout the last 4 weeks, I’ve noticed how Philippe skillfully “saves the laugh” when his joke doesn’t land with the audience. This happens quite a lot. He’ll make a comment and it won’t get the reaction that he was looking for, so he makes another comment which does get a laugh.

One example of “saving the laugh” came when he was talking about how to shorten the red nose elastic.

As he does sometimes, his explanation descended into a silly repetition of a single phrase, in this case “The elastic will come back. The elastic will come back. The elastic will come back.”

Often, he gets a good laugh when he does this. Not today. Maybe because there were so many new students who don’t know him so well yet.

So he stopped, looked sincerely at the students, and said, “I know. It’s a bit philosophical.” Which then got a big laugh.

Philippe is never phased when he doesn’t get a laugh.

There are plenty of times when he makes a potentially funny comment and it doesn’t land.

Often, he’s able to save the laugh.

Sometimes he isn’t.

But he never seems to care.

He just moves on to the next thing.

It’s actually quite refreshing to think of it this way. Even after decades of teaching, he still doesn’t get it right all of the time.

I think a lot of us have a tendency to crumble a bit when a funny idea doesn’t work. We signal to the audience that our funny idea has failed and we start to worry.

I know I’ve certainly seen a lot of new stand-up comedians saying things like “Oh, I thought that joke was going to work better.” Which is a surefire way to make the audience feel uncomfortable.

In Clown, Philippe told us at the end of the day: when something doesn’t work you just move on with a new idea and do something else that’s funny.

And his teaching is a perfect example of that philosophy in action.

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