Interview: David Larible

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Heinz Klutemeier/Feld Entertainment

Daredevil Crazy Wilson performs on the "wheel of death"

David Larible takes his clowning very seriously. The star of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Baily Circus, the Italian-born Larible is a veritable font of circus history and knowledge, which he surrounds with his own philosophy about clowning. As a performer, Larible not only tries to work the current trends of popular culture into his act, but also the members of the audience as well. "Working with the audience is the most important part of what I do," says Larible. "We have fun together." TIME.com talked to the seventh-generation circus performer about life in the circus, his unique approach to clowning, Coulrophobia (fear of clowns), and what he'd do if he got Osama bin Laden in the ring.



You are a seventh generation circus performer. Were all seven generations of Laribles clowns?

My father was never a clown, he was a trapeze artist and a juggler. My grandfather was a clown. My great-grandfather was an acrobat and a dancer. And before that we really don't know. The latest documentation we have is an 1859 poster where the name of my great-grandfather, Pierre Larible, is printed.

Was your father disappointed that you didn't become a trapeze artist?

At the beginning, yes. Because that's normally how it goes in the circus; it goes from generation to generation and your teacher is your father. Like a craftsman, you pass your craft on to your son. If you are a trapeze artist, chances are that your son will be a trapeze artist. But I made the decision to become a clown when I was 8. My father thought it was just a phase. In the beginning he was not very happy, not because he was against it, but because he told me, "David, what can I teach you? I am not a clown." But he was cool with it and later he told me, "If you want to be a clown, I don't want you to be only a clown, I want you to be the best clown. So you have to really work hard. A good clown has to learn everything. You have to be an all-around circus performer. And then you can be a clown." Clowning is the end of the process, it's not the beginning of the process — that's what he taught me.

What was the process like?

My dad started by teaching me juggling and acrobatics, and he sent me to dance school and music school. I wasn't very happy, I said, "Dad, why are you sending me here? I want to be a clown, I don't want to be a dancer." And he said, "You want to be a great clown? You have to be able to move nicely. And to move nicely you have to learn ballet. You have to be able to play 2-3 instruments at least, because a good clown has to be a good musician."

My father has always been my biggest fan, but also my toughest critic. One of the best moments of my life was when I went to the festival in Monte Carlo two years ago. It's a tough festival. When you win there it's like an Oscar for an actor. You have performers from all over the world, and you don't just compete against clowns, you compete against the acrobats of Cirque du Soliel, or the acrobatic dancers from China. You compete with everyone, and you are judged by your peers. I am proud, of course, of the first prize, of the golden clown, but what I'm most proud of is that I was the first performer in the history of the competition to have a 5-minute standing ovation. And to see him there, standing and looking around with tears in his eyes, for me that was the best moment of my career.

Are your children training to be circus performers?

My daughter wants to be an aerialist. So she wants to follow in my father's footsteps and go on the trapeze. I have a sister, too, who is a trapeze artist. And my son, unfortunately, wants to become an animal trainer. And I have the some problem my father had with me, I can teach him nothing, because I know nothing about animals. He's 4 years old and he knows the names of all the elephants. I can't recognize one from another, I mean, they all look the same to me [Laughs].

Would he be the first Larible animal trainer?

Well, yes, if he proceeds. He's 4 years old, maybe he will change.

Is your wife a performer too?

My wife used to be a trapeze artist. When I met her in Germany, she was the star of the show, because she was at that time the only woman in the world that could perform a triple somersault. I was a little clown at the beginning of his career. We've been married for 20 years. She doesn't fly any more, she misses it.

I guess that's one of the advantages of clowning. Your career can last a little longer than some of the other performers.

If you think about it, I am a little bit the child prodigy of clowning. Because all the famous clowns of the past, they reached their fame all when they were over 50 years old [Larible is in his mid-40s]. From Emmett Kelly to Grok, to Lou Jacobs. Everyone was over 50 when they started getting famous. So I consider myself very young for this job.

We have this romantic idea of running away and joining the circus. But you grew up in the circus. Did you ever want to run away and join, say, an accounting firm?

No. It's very difficult when you grow up in this environment to have that desire. It happens. I have friends that have just left, and now they have jobs, but it never occurred to me. I was always fascinated not only by the lifestyle or the performing, but the feeling of living in the circus and being surrounded by any variety of people. I'm not only talking about skin color or religion, but even a midget or a giant, or whatever you are. In the circus, it sounds cliché but it's true, they are equal. You take a person for who he really is inside, and not because he is 35 inches or 7 feet tall. The values are different than in normal society. There is no prejudice in the circus. You are what you are.

But it's a tough life. And we have to deal with it everyday. The show we did last night? it's not just every night at [Madison Square] Garden and that's it. This morning at 10 o'clock we were all here, and all with the same energy. Of course everyone may be bitching back stage about being tired, but once the music starts, you see them there, there is that smile. I think that is what I love most about the circus — these people that can make magic happen day after day, show after show. I have a lot of respect for them.

You like to make the audience part of your act. And when you get the people out into the ring they seem to be transformed. They lose all their inhibitions. How do you explain that?

People today are not the same as 20 years ago. Everybody's a performer, everybody's a star. And they love to be there on stage. I get letters from people saying, "Oh David, that was the greatest moment of my life, to hear all those thousands of people laughing and screaming."

I still think I'd be frozen. I wouldn't know what to do.

That is my job — to make you comfortable, and play around. You have to let them be themselves and play around that. By now most people have seen me perform and they know that I'm not going to pick on them or ridicule them. It's not about me being smart and them being stupid. It's about having fun together there in the ring, and that's very important. The people trust me, that we're going to have fun together and that's a great feeling.

Do you think it helps that you don't wear a lot of make-up? There are a lot of people that are afraid of clowns

That is a problem. It's because they have this image of the American clowns with a big green wig. I mean let's be honest, they are scary. A clown should never lose his humanity. When the clown comes out you should never have to think that he comes from another planet. You have to connect with him. You have to see him and think, oh he moves like my uncle George, or he smiles like my friend Billy. You have to have a connection. A good clown should help teach people how to make fun of themselves, and not take themselves too seriously. Every time you have someone who takes themselves too seriously, some tragedy happens. Look at Hitler, look at Stalin and look at Osama bin Laden. They are all people that take themselves very seriously. You ever see Osama bin Laden make a joke about himself when he makes a speech?

So we need to figure out how to get Osama bin Laden to the circus?

I hope so. Bring him over here. And I'll take him for the knife routine. [laughing] And I'm gonna throw real knives at him.

You do two routines in the show. The rap music act seems to appeal to kids but in the other one, the knife throwing act, the humor is more sophisticated and seems more geared to adults.

A clown should always have something for everyone. The concept that clowns are for kids is not true. If you are a real clown, a professional clown, you should be able to entertain whatever audience you have in front of you.

A clown has to look around him and try to bring something contemporary, something with which people can connect. And that's one of the reasons that I created this gag. Rap is today. Rap is probably one of the biggest types of communication that we have in today's world. And also you cannot go wrong, because if you like rap, then you're going to like the gag. If you don't like rap, then you're going to like the gag because it makes fun of rap.

You are coming off a couple of seasons with Barnum's Kaleidoscape circus, which is a one ring circus. Most European circuses are one ring circuses, while Ringling Bros, and most American circuses are three-ring shows. How does that difference affect your performance, and do you have a preference?

They are two totally different things. Kaleidoscape was what it's like for a singer to give a concert with just a piano at Carnegie Hall. Ringling bros. is like that same singer giving a concert with a 22-member band at Madison Square Garden. It's hard to say what you enjoy most. In some respects I enjoy Kaleidoscape much more because it gave me an opportunity to show an American audience another side of me that they never could have seen because in the Ringling show it always bing, bing, bing, bing, be funny, be fast, and make them scream and laugh, and Ringling gives you that. When you have 16,000 people screaming and laughing while you perform, oh my god, it's an unbelievable feeling. But I also have a one man show that I take around to theatres all over the place, and I enjoy that immensely, too.

In Kaleidascape you perform with one other clown, Pipo, but you have very different approaches to clowning.

Pipo is a white-faced clown, in the way that white faced clowns were created in Europe. In Europe the white-faced clown is the straight man for the Auguste clown, which is what I am. The Auguste and the white face clown represent society. The white face clown represents the power, and the Auguste represents the people. He is the teacher, I am the student, he is the father, I am the son. Frederico Fillini used to say, "It doesn't matter how big and important you become, you're always going to have a white-faced clown above you to tell you what to do."

In the Ringling show, you're the top clown. There is no white face clown to tell you what to do.

No, but you have the ringmaster, and sometimes he'll come and he'll throw you out. Why? Because even if you're the star of the show, a clown should never be glamorous. It's never about himself. A clown should never come out and say, "Look how beautiful I juggle, or look how great I am on the trapeze."

What kind of relationship do you have with the rest of the clowns in the show?

It's a great relationship. I hang around with them all the time. Sometime people think there is a competition, but actually no. We play practical jokes on each other all the time. It's great. Clowns are happy people. There's a misconception that clowns are laughing in the ring and sad in real life, but it's not true. [But] I don't try to be funny 24 hours a day, because I think that's pathetic. Nothing is worse than someone who tries to be funny all the time.

Do you feel you have to save it for the show?

Well, yes. You have to do it whenever you feel it. If you feel nice and light and funny, well do it. But don't feel that you have to be funny or deliver all the time.

Just how crazy is Crazy Wilson?

When he performs he looks crazy, He's not crazy at all, because to do what this guys does, you cannot be crazy. You have to be someone that is well prepared. In the circus, the crazy people, the nuts, they have very short careers. The guy knows what he's doing. He's well-prepared and he works hard.