Stewart Lee is a standup comedian, writer and star of the TV series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, and the author of the novel The Perfect Fool, as well as several non-fiction books like Content Provider (Faber & Faber 2016).
Comedian Stewart Lee has long had an obsession with the pueblo clowns–religious figures that upturn the laws of the Native American cultures and embrace their taboos–which have never been recorded by video or audio. Cameras and phones are not allowed in during this ceremony. While Lee was researching The Perfect Fool, the American Southwest novel he wrote, he visited Taos, New Mexico to witness one of these religious ceremonies. In his radio documentary White Face, Dark Heart, he recounts that experience:
The pueblo clowns–called Koshare–took little kids from their parents and threw them in the river. It frightened every kid in that square to tears, but symbolically, it cleansed those children to make them better people. Likewise, they even tried pushing some adults in. The Koshare, dressed in black and white stripes with loin clothes and corn husks in their ears, tried to get some of the anglos in cowboy hats to have gunfights with each other. Clowns are an important part of pueblo Native American cultures (pueblo is a general term umbrella-ing several peoples who share the same region and architecture) because they show you what it’s like when people don’t follow the rules. The purpose for this clowning ceremony is to knock everyone down a notch, to emphasize that no one should feel they are above anyone else.
Jesus did much the same thing, says Roly, a vicar who wrote a thesis on how Jesus played the role of the clown. Stewart Lee interviews him in the program. Roly dresses up as a clown, but still in his dog collar, and seeks to get a reaction out of people the same way Jesus did: lowering the status of authority, for example, or being the truth teller.
In this documentary, which is available for free from Stewart Lee’s website, we also meet Michael, a clown in L.A. who does things like invades office buildings with crew of clowns or puts up silly plaques in dog parks. He has based his clown on his father from the Bronx who panicked and ran away when he first met Michael in clown guise. Other modern clowns who Stewart interviews do it for political reason. They are trying to change the world. You don’t need a mask to be a clown, they say. It’s all in the eyes.
Clowns are sacred in the pueblo cultures, and many other religions have considered clowns as messengers between people and gods. Even look at the role of Shakespearean clowns who always know a little more than the rest of the characters.