A post that deals with some concerns evident in ‘Dash Dash Dash’, a series of shows I wrote and directed in 2010
There is, of course, nothing funnier than a man covered in shit. It’s hilarious. What’s even more hilarious is when the man is first not covered in shit (because nobody wants to be covered in shit) then, because of a failure, he is suddenly covered in it. If he were to walk in covered in it that would be quite funny but not as side-splitting as when he comes in, with all his innocence, his arrogance, his complacency, his sheer deserving of something bad, his cleanliness, the fact that his things are in the right place and then he falls into a hole full of shit or, equally, a load of shit falls on him from out of nowhere. This is real humour.
The clowns of the Zuni and the Yaqui and other Native American tribes had devised antidotes to such pomp that were a corrective to lifetimes of muscle control. The practice of ‘filth-eating’ by the clowns drew startled responses from the 1930s anthropologists who ‘discovered’ them:
“These masked men teased one another…they simulated eating and drinking the excreta they would pretend to catch from their wooden machete from the body of passing burro or horse or man or woman, even of one kneeling in prayer.”
The Sacred Clowns of the Pueblo and Mayo-Yaqui Indians. Elsie Clews Parsons & Ralph L. Beals. American Anthropologist, Vol 36, No. 4. 1934.
Most of the people I know say that one of the toughest tasks they ever faced in a long life was learning to control their bodily functions. Before the Law was introduced, life was endlessly forgiving. In fact, the very concept of ‘forgiving’ was inapt. What was to forgive? You could do what you wanted, where you wanted. For a while, this looked likely to be the general setup. Then a reward system was introduced and you knew something was up because before that they didn’t need to reward you because everything was so dandy in the first place.
The purity and danger economy prevailed, however, and it was only natural that there arose a great nostalgia for the golden days of incontinence. This was a fraught state of affairs insofar as attempts to invoke such a return risked a possibly terminal social exclusion.
Another commentator finds that the practices were not merely pantomime:
“The scatalogical practices among some of the clown societies of the Pueblo Indians, particularly the Zuni, are notorious examples of this clownish capacity for pointing to and containing the total human condition. One is initiated into the Zuni Ne’wekwe by a ritual of filth-eating – a strange sort of Eucharist indeed. Mud and excrement are smeared on the body for the clown performance, and parts of the performance may consist of sporting with excreta, smearing and daubing it, or drinking urine and pouring it on one another. Among the Hopi, a group of males known as ‘singers’ play about with vulva-shaped sticks during initiation ceremonies, singing taunting and obscene songs to the women and running after them to ‘bless them’ with filth. The women, in turn, being well-prepared, douse the singers with foul water or urine.”
The Spirituality of Comedy: Comic Heroism in a Tragic World. M. Conrad Hyers. 2008