There’s a now famous joke from the comic Watchmen which goes as follows:
“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, ‘Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.’ Man bursts into tears. Says, ‘But doctor…I am Pagliacci.’ Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”
It’s actually based on an older joke which has essentially the same story and punchline. In that version, the clown is named Grimaldi. Joseph Grimaldi was a clown who made the art of clowning popular in England in the late 1700s.
But really, how was the doctor to know that he was talking to the famous clown Pagliacci? It might have helped if Pagliacci had been wearing his makeup. After all, clowns do typically have very distinctive facial makeup. Grimaldi’s whiteface makeup, with its classic red lips, and red patches along the cheeks, really set the norm which many clowns today follow. But herein lies a problem. Even if wearing classic clown makeup would have allowed the doctor in the joke to figure out that he was talking to a clown, how would he have known it was Pagliacci and not some other clown?
Well for that, he could have looked at some eggs. Well, not just any old eggs. Specifically the eggs which form the Clowns International Egg Registry in London, England. Here, several clown artists work to immortalize the makeup different clowns use by painting their faces onto ceramic eggs (they used to use real eggshells, but they were too fragile). This way a clown’s unique look can be recorded, and other clowns trying to create their own unique look can make sure they are not copying someone else. A large part of this collection is actually stored at the Holy Trinity Church, which is where Joseph Grimaldi is laid to rest.
While some consider this egg record to be a form of copyright, its creators do not think of it that way. To them, the eggs provide a historical register, help new clowns to find their own look, and helps prevent repetition of designs. It does also lend a certain amount of professionalism to an otherwise unruly career, while retaining its whimsy.
So the next time you need to take a trip to the doctor’s, maybe check what clowns are in town first.
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