Clowning + Unicycles


My name is Chuck and I am doing a project on clowning for school. I need to find information, more of a history of sorts, on how clowns use Unicycles. If anyone can help me that would be appreciated very much. I have tried looking all over the Internet but can’t find a thing.


Chuck Harris

Ladies and Gentlemen, be nice.:wink:

Re: Clowning + Unicycles


I’m not really an authority on this subject, but as a result of various threads on this subject, I did some reading of a number of books on the history of circuses and clowns. As this was somewhat informal, I do not have a bibliography, but could piece one together later if it would help.

In none of the books could I find specific references to clowning and unicycling being related in any way other than both are activities/performances done in circuses. Certainly clowns unicycle, but the common perception that if you unicycle you must be a clown is probably (hypothetically speaking) based on the fact that both are most commonly seen in the circus and so go together. Interestingly, if one is a clown, it is not commonly assumed that one unicycles, but this probably has more to do with the fact that unicycling is the more rarely seen of the two.

The long and short is that you’re probably going to have to do some serious research to dig up meaningful material. I emailed the editor of a magazine called Spectacle: The Quarterly Journal of Circus Arts ( and they have not written anything specifically on unicycling.

I suspect, but again this is pure speculation, that clowns use unicycles not much differently than any professional performer uses them. As props to go along with their juggling, acrobatics and comedy. I had also emailed the Ringling Brothers circus about the unicycles used by their performers and they couldn’t provide any details; each performer chooses his/her own models and modifies them to suit their needs; not too surprising.

I’m rambling a bit now, but one person on this newsgroup commented, accurately I think, that unicycling in the circus is usually done by performers other than clowns, e.g. jugglers who use them in the acts, high wire performers, etc. Clowns tend to use them more as incidental props.

To summarize

  • The books I have seen have not been much help.
  • There is some (limited) information in older issues of the USA Newsletters (Unicycling Society of America) and One On Wheels (the successor to the USA Newsletter) but it is not detailed or systematically extensive; email me privately at about this.
  • You might want to try looking for major newspaper and magazine reviews of circuses from the 20th century; indexes are available at larger public libraries as well as the full text on microfiche/film.
  • I did not do a serious literature search (periodicals) about clowns and clowning or biographical material on them and this might provide some insight, but would require a hit and miss approach.

I’m drawing a blank on other places you might look, but I’m sure others here will have good suggestions, too.

Good luck,
Raphael Lasar
Matawan, NJ

Thanks alot for the Help.

I want to start by saying that I realize that all Unicyclists are not clowns. I just figured that some one here might have some info.

The information you have given me will really help me out. See, im doing an Educational CD-Rom for a Grade 12/OAC class as an assignment for one of my college classes. The teacher has been of no help to me and had given me the ideas of what she wanted in the CD. Unicycle’s are one of those things. So, I began this wild goose chase trying to find info.

Thanks for the help,

Chuck Harris


Why don’t you modify the project; the conception that clowns and unicycles go together is a fallacy.

Do a project on off road unicycling or maybe on the origins of unicycles (apparently they came about as modifications of ‘penny farthing’ bikes) as you’ll be able to get a lot more info

Chuck says the project is on clowning. As for the history of what clowns have done with unicycles over the years, the answer is really the same things everybody else has done. This applies to other skill areas as well. Some clowns have been numbers jugglers, amazing acrobats, musicians, physical comedians, etc. The very best clowns do it all.

There are cultural differences between clowns. In different countries, there are different expectations of what a clown should do. In the Russian (formerly Soviet) circus, there is generally always one or more central clown characters in a show. They appear throughout the show, and may or may not exhibit all of the skills mentioned above.

In the American circus, on the other hand, clowns are more commonly used as window dressing. It is less common for them to have the ring(s) to themselves, and to do whole acts. Rather, there are lots of shorter bits, sight gags, slapstick, etc.

Clowns in the Ringling show are known for being violent to each other. I’ve seen lots of beating each other up acts, that seemed to miss the point that when that stuff happens, it’s only funny if it’s not on purpose.

Some people are terrified of clowns. This usually relates to experiences when they were young, being confronted by a clown that did not know what he or she was doing. Or by parents that forced the kid up to a clown that was otherwise doing nothing wrong.

So. If your central topic is clowning, perhaps your focus should be on how to use the unicycle for comedy. One approach might be to use it as a prop and do all sorts of things with it–without necessarily riding it. That can be a good act. Or make a fun act out of trying to learn to ride.

I remember seeing a French guy at UNICON VIII in England. He did a non-speaking act in which he used a ladder to attempt to climb onto a giraffe unicycle. Except he kept getting tangled up in the ladder, the unicycle, and everything else in sight.

But the concept here is of an act. The clown part is optional. For an act to be good, any act, it has to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. And it has to accomplish its purpose, whether that be to make people laugh, or make ooh and aah.

Simply being in the guise of a clown does not make one a clown. And no balloon, unicycle, or other prop will change this. The person must think and act like a (good) clown to pull it off.

I hope that was useful!

I am a Fool (hence Mike Fule) with a team of Morris dancers. I have attended and conducted many workshops on Fooling and Fool-related skills and ideas. I have come into contact with a few semi-professional clowns (and a few professional semi-clowns;) ) in connection with this.

A Fool is not a clown, but there are similarities.

Clowning is a skill. Clowning is what a clown does. Unicycling is a skill. IF a particular clown happens to possess the skill of unicycling, THEN the clown might choose to incorporate the unicycle into his or her act. Other than that, there is no substantial traditional connection between clowns and unicycles.

As others have suggested on this thread, and elsewhere, it seems likely that the public has conflated the idea of the clown and the unicycle because they both appear in the circus, and they are both absurd.

An additional factor is the recent (last few decades) growth of street circus, and the concept of ‘circus skills’ as a challenging and rewarding hobby for children from 7 to 77 (etc.).

Gone are the days when people were happy to do one thing and do it well. Now, as soon as one skill is learned, another beckons. This is why so many people (including me!) have experimented not only with unicycles, but also with stilts, slack ropes, juggling, fire eating and clowning. In the traditional circus, skills were taken more seriously. Specialisation was the norm. Skills were passed down through families. People did not trespass on the acts of their colleagues.

A clown is a character. There are several categories of clown - the American hobo clown; the grotesque; the white face; Pierot; and so on. Within the show, each clown would have a role - one would be in charge; the other would be down trodden; another would be rebellious. A traditional bit of clowning ‘business’ would revolve around something as simple as the ‘boss’ clown telling the others what to do, and the others failing to do it, through a mixture of stupidity and mischief. The aim was to entertain, not to impress with ‘circus skills’.

Clowns were often low ranking in the circus hierarchy, although some individuals made their names and fortunes. Sometimes clowning would be a ‘second string’ for other performers, who would regard their main act as (say) knife throwing, but would put on the clown suit and makeup for the rest of the show. The quality of their clowning performance might reflect this.

But the modern ‘clown’ is often a different thing altogether. It is a student collecting charity money in a bucket, and wearing a hired clown suit; it is a bored man in a colourful suit and daft hat, tying balloons into amusing shapes; it is someone spicing up a drab unicycling act by wearing stripey trousers and shouting when he wobbles; it is the strange character bouncing around at burger bars, pretending to like children… and so on.

Not all modern clowns are this bad; there are, no doubt, many excellent modern clowns. However, it is the “clowns of all trades”, who often have little or no concept of how to amuse or entertain an audience, who rely on the long list of props - a list which so often contains a unicycle.

A unicycle is not actually a very useful prop for a clown. I have used a unicycle on and off (ho ho) in my Fooling performances for 15+ years. Riding it often attracts attention (good); wobbling and waving my arms and making ‘Oooooer!’ noises provokes a laugh (OK); a few little tricks (idling one footed etc.) provoke a good response (great); but anything cleverer isn’t really Fooling - or clowning.

I can’t leap up onto a picnic table, or do a 360 degree unispin. Even if I could, however, I would not do it as part of a Fooling (or clowning) performance. A Fool/clown is there to entertain and amuse, not to impress.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that whilst clowning and unicycling are both skilled activities, and are both found in traditional and street circus, they are essentially unrelated, and only overlap occasionally because the modern performer so often works on every skill except the most important one: the skill of entertaining. Unicycling is to clowns what fire eating is to knife throwing. I rest my case.

I would, however, link unicycling with juggling - they are performing skills which go naturally together (for people who are cleverer than I am!).

I’ve never actually seen a unicycling clown. I have wondered where the image comes from. It can’t be more than ca. 100 years old since that’s how old unicycling is. Clowns tend to use all sorts of props and somehow the unicycle ended up being the one associated with clowns.
I have a few theories, but I’m really just guessing here.
Some clowns unicycle, and juggle, and walk stilts and do a lot of other artistic stuf, but you don’t see a juggler and automaticly think of a clown. Maybe that’s because you are used to non-clown juggling performers.
Traditional traveling circus often isn’t suited for freestyle unicycling acts because it lacks a flat smooth floor to ride on. I’ve tried it and sometimes it was a challenge just to stay on the uni. So maybe unicycles where mostly used by clowns, who only needed to be able to ride in a circle, since they had the comedy etc. to carry their acts.
Maybe clowns where quickest to experiment with new props back when unicycling was a new phenomenon, since they didn’t have to base the whole act on it

Or maybe the unicycle was just the most noticable of the many props clowns used.

If anyone know of facts or other explainations or if you (Chuck) get some results of your research I’d like to hear them.


Dang it John, I wish you had told me this before I spent all that time purtyin’ myself up…

Re: Clowning + Unicycles

chuck, by now i guess u’ve picked up that the history of clowns and unicycles isn’t the mine of information u may have hoped for

here r a couple of links that will give u some backround in the history of some of the clowning traditions
it’s quite interesting to trace these original clown characters to their modern day (watered down) counterparts

Question for Chuck:
Are you the Chuck Harris from Ohio who makes (or used to make) cycling jewelry? And if so, are you still doing it?

Back to the clowns:
Like Borges said, I haven’t seen many clowns actually unicycle. I’m not sure where the nagging association of clowns to unicycles has come from, but it is defnitely real. Unicycling is often a part of student clown programs, as are other circus activities. Circus, as a theme, provides all sorts of learning opportunities for the classroom, and physical skills are only one part of it.

The Barton Avenue Elementary School in Patchogue, NY has a “holistic arts” circus program that they started in 1982 or so. It was on the cover of the USA’s On One Wheel in 1983. The program was run by the music and art teachers, rather than as a PE thing. Students designed and made costumes, props and sets. They wrote and performed their music (using the Orf program). They learned a variety of skills and performed them as well. A very cool program.

But I don’t reommend unicycling as a great clown activity, nor do I recommend a clown outfit as a good unicycling costume. Aside from the more obvious things; good clown shoes are terrible unicycling shoes! The better a rider you are, the more it goes to waste if you’re dressed as a clown.

As I’ve often explained to people, if you juggle five torches while idling one-foot on a 12’ unicycle, people will say “Wow, that’s amazing!” If you do the exact same skill in and are dressed as a clown, people will say “Look at the clown!”

So back to what to do with your clowns. Since your curriculum seems to be clown-based, you can approach the unicycle as a prop around which to build comedy routines. Concentrate on the comedy and not the unicycle, and you’ll come up with a winner. But the whole learning to ride part is something separate from being a clown. Not to say that your comedy act can’t be all about learning, or trying, to ride!

Re: Clowning + Unicycles

On Wed, 23 Apr 2003, johnfoss wrote:

> But I don’t reommend unicycling as a great clown activity, nor do I
> recommend a clown outfit as a good unicycling costume. Aside from the
> more obvious things; good clown shoes are terrible unicycling shoes! The
> better a rider you are, the more it goes to waste if you’re dressed as a
> clown.

At the risk of inciting violence towards myself, I’ve noticed
that there are good clowns and bad clowns (sorry if this has been
covered - I’m coming back to the groups after quite some time away).

A bad clown is someone who has a few minor talents, can juggle a
few objects, maybe ride a unicycle and ‘enhances’ their act by
putting on a silly costume and wig. They also turn the audience
against them, either by 1) abusing the audience, or 2) being so
embarransingly bad that the audience is made to feel bad for them.

A good clown has a mastery of comedy, timing, including the audience
not alienating them. Any prop is incidental as is the costume/wig.

I would have to agree with John, get a good grip on comedy, then
maybe include a unicycle as a minor prop. I was once involved in a
comedy unicycle routine which was simply not funny. (I was a unicyclist,
not the writer or director of the show). However, when I learnt to fall
really badly off my unicycle*, I believe people used to be rather
entertained by it. The first involved costumes - the second did not.

Just some ramblings,


(* Ride as fast as possible, stamp on back pedal, briefly hit the
ground with front foot, launch into roll as used in Aikido while
sliding as far as possible given the smoothness of the floor surface.
Land flat out.)

I was just wondering if the image of clowns on unicycle is product of TVs and cartoons overuse of the cliché.

So how did it become a cliché? (Nice to see someone made the effort with the accute accent.)

You could be right that TV etc. contributed. However, I really think that the ‘problem’ (if problem it is) is that many people now do Circus Skills as a hobby - picking skills from the menu and doing each one to a mediocre standard before learning the next one. Learn some skills. Exercise those skills in public. Be surprised when no one’s impressed.

Clowns and comedians (above all other performers?) need one skill more than any other: the skill of performing entertainingly.

Clowning is NOT a demonstration of technical skills like unicycling or juggling.

But these days, every Tom, Dick or Harry who learns a few motor skills can hire a costume and kid himself that he’s a clown. Some of these drift into street circus, children’s entertainment and so on, and the association with clowns and unicycles (and juggling) is made.

Hey, I resemble that remark…

just how do u get hold of the accute accent?
where do u get her phone number?

onto tom and friends…
loved the choice of ‘kid themselves…’
how r we going to get the clowns out of the kiddie party circuit?
or, if we have to accept that they are as established there as jumping castles, how do we bridge the gap that have developed between the kiddie party clown and the jester of old who now finds fame (and eventually sitcom) as a stand-up comedian, catering solely for adult audiences?
is there a market for a performer that would fit into that niche or should we assume that the very fact of their non-existance is proof of the fact that there is no such market?

and just where, dave, does unicycling fit into this rambling?

This is getting somewhat obscure, but if I’m following, I believe that gap is bridged at least in part by cartoons. In our youth it was bugs bunny which was enjoyed by children for the slapstick and silliness, but by adults as well for the cultural and historical references and commentary. Today, I think that this role is fulfilled by Spongebob Squarepants, although perhaps with a bit less subtlety.

Although perhaps we’re being unfair to truly professional clowns. Those I’ve seen in the Cirque du Soleil shows, for example, have acts that cross that bridge. Kids love them (assuming they aren’t terrified of them) simply for who they are, but the routines they do are quite entertaining to many adults (those who don’t already despise clowns, at least.)

It doesn’t. Which is why I have omitted any left leaning comments, lest one JC, order us to park it over in Just Conversation. :slight_smile: No wait, Spongebob rides a unicycle; yeah, that’s it!

Raphael Lasar
Matawan, NJ

a compliment at last!