Bouffon is the truth-telling step brother of clown. With origins in Greek satire (and modern day versions in many late night comedy shows) the grotesque Bouffon exists to mock everything that humans do! By mocking big issues – war, family, politics, religion – the audience (i.e you!) ends up in an ethical dilemma: do we keep doing these terrible things or not?
This article is one of a series where I write how different forms of theatre, movement and philosophy inform great public speaking.
One rich and complex form I have written comprehensively about previously is clown. I have particularly covered the clown concept of complicite, or playing with the audience. The clown wants to be loved.
Bouffon, by contrast, is already an outcast and has no need to be cherished.
So what does this strange form teach us about getting up to speak in front of 500 people at a conference?
Bouffon: complete compassion, no empathy
I’ve just finished a week training Bouffon with Italian Artist, Natural Scientist and Pedagogue Giovanni Fusetti, and look forward to Clown in March. Giovanni will soon publish one of the only books dedicated to the art of Bouffon. In his training, Giovanni explained the differences between Clown and Bouffon: for one, “the audience laughs at the clown, but the Bouffon laughs at the audience”.
Secondly, “the Bouffon knows and feels everything (complete empathy) but doesn’t care about you (no compassion)”.
Bouffons play the serious issues of human life as a game
While Clown is human, Bouffon comes from somewhere else; they are “other worldly”. The Bouffon watches what humans do and assumes – that if we are going to go to work, fight in wars, or dig up graves – we must love it. So, a group of Bouffons (technically, a “Chorus” of Bouffons) will play that game too. Imagine a grotesque group of bodies playing at Australian politics, the Vietnam war or addiction. It’s hilarious and ridiculous – until you realise how true it is.
Why, as speakers, do we want to be funny?
Initially I was terrified to study Bouffon. I then discovered Bouffon is less terrifying to practice than it is to watch. One moment I laughed hysterically as my colleagues played at posh women clinking champagne glasses. Within seconds their scene had transmuted into babies addicted to screens (and worse). I felt sick.
The laugh’s power in this sketch was what it set up: we, the audience, were winded by the subsequent hit of social commentary on modern addiction.
That same week, a good friend referred me to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, The Satire Paradox. It’s a great listen, pointing doggedly at comedians (specifically, satirists) who mocked the US election campaign. The point Gladwell makes is that in many cases audience laugh at satire – but nothing changes. (Listen to his contrast of of a hard-hitting Israeli satire on children raised in a particular political system.) Gladwell distinguishes clearly between satirists who ‘chase the laughs’ and performers whose laughter gives the audience a different perspective of their life that leads us to change something, or at least think about it.
Many speakers use jokes to make themselves comfortable. They don’t do it for the audience.
Speakers I work with occasionally say they want to open with a joke. I, of course, always ask, “Why? What are you hoping to achieve?” Sometimes, they tell me they think being funny is something we “should” do as speakers. We must entertain our audience, which means making people laugh.
It’s true laughter can send a social message that connects.
More often, though, the desire for the laugh comes from the speaker’s need to feel comfortable. They want the audience to like them. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this per se: if you feel more comfortable and give a better talk as a result – go for it.
You can make the audience uncomfortable without them hating you.
I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of public speaking. Once you are comfortable with the comfortable, audience-pleasing talk, I’d love you to learn from new forms to go a bit further.
Challenge the audience (appropriately!).
Bouffon is just one form that has so much to teach about the way humans communicate and the results we expect. As example, there’s the distinction between you and the work. Giovanni explains,
“The actor may have a political or ethical issue in mocking the person in the audience, but the Bouffon doesn’t care!”
When you see a play, you know you are watching the actor play. When your children are naughty and you respond you are often playing a role: “scolding parent” is not your entire existence. When you challenge your audience, which role are you playing?
By understanding the distinct forms of theatre, movement and philosophy we can ask better questions about how we are speaking – and why.
I think it’s important to be clear about context. If you are doing Bouffon, do Bouffon. If you are clowning, do clown. If you want to play games to build a team, do that. The activities may look the same on the surface but the outcomes are different. It’s like going to a yoga asana class to prepare for meditation, and ending up in the yoga-for-a-nice-butt-class. The postures sort of look the same but the vibe ain’t quite right.
Here are four big Bouffon-inspired questions I’ve been pondering about being a great public speaker:
- Is your position as unique as you think?
The Bouffon style I learned operates in a “Chorus”. Our little band of awkward-bodied Bouffons played human games as a collective i.e. we learned to play together. Distinct roles gradually emerge from the Chorus (for example, a scene of climate activists suddenly gave birth to a coal advocate).
Interestingly, though, the new, individual role always emerged as a natural tension. For example, in the climate piece we played (and when I say play, the play comes from an ecstatic group state) the physicality of the activist naturally led to a contrasting role of coal advocate.
A lesson here: when you speak on a controversial topic, notice how what you are representing is (potentially) a natural outcome of a previous tension, rather than seeing yourself as separate and distinct. In Bouffon everyone gets a go at playing all the roles.
2. What do you want to achieve with your laughs, and does that happen?
If you’ve been the subject or object of bullying you’ll know laughing is never just social lubricant. In Why is that so funny? John Wright describes 4 kinds of laughs in physical comedy – the surprise laugh, the bizarre laugh, the visceral laugh, and the recognized laugh. Each performs a different role. There are many more.
When you make your audience laugh, are you trying to entertain or enact change? Without considering the outcome you want, a joke that gets laughs may, at best, use up valuable time; at worst it could show you up as incompetent. Rather than throwing in a joke for the sake of it, think precisely about what your humour makes possible.
Most speakers just want to feel a bit more comfortable in themselves. Laughter can do that. But there’s power when you relax your audience completely with humour and then throw the big hit.
3. Who am I challenging and am I allowed to?
Giovanni encouraged reflection on everything: what had we just done, what worked, what didn’t work? This included being being precise in naming what we are being funny at. Who are we mocking? Do we have the right to? Whose voices are not represented? When you mock the company president, whether in a major event or the Christmas awards night, why, truly are you doing so? The satirist can be dangerous. We do operate in a social and cultural system that may or may not understand what is happening.
4. Are all voices represented, including my own?
It’s safer, of course, for a white woman, for example, to mock those in the same class. It’s generally considered OK to mock those of higher status, and not OK to mock minority groups. But if we only mock those who are like us, how do we ensure the other voices are represented and heard?
Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach interested in the link between how we move, how we think and what our ideas do once we put them to the world. She had helped engineers, scientists, social entrepreneurs, startups and more, to nail their first speaking appearance, or build a compelling keynote.
Image: Christian Santiago