Clown society is a term used in anthropology and sociology for an organization of comedic entertainers (Heyoka or "clowns") who have a formalized role in a culture or society.

Description and function

Sometimes clown societies have a sacred role, to represent a trickster character in religious ceremonies. Other times the purpose served by members of a clown society is only to parody excessive seriousness, or to deflate pomposity.

In the sense of how clowns function in their culture:

  • A clown shows what is wrong with the ordinary way of doing things.
  • A clown shows how to do ordinary things the wrong way.

Members of a clown society may dress in a special costume reserved for clowns, which is often a ridiculously extreme or improper form of normal dress. Some members paint their body with horizontal black and white stripes, which represent a skeleton.

In the case of the Zuni clown society of the Pueblo Indians, "one is initiated into the Ne'wekwe order by a ritual of filth-eating" where "mud are smeared on the body for the clown performance, and parts of the performance may consist of sporting with mud, smearing and daubing it, or drinking and pouring it onto one another". The sacred clown and his apparently antisocial behavior is condoned in Indian ceremonies.

While in their costume, clowns have special permission from their society to parody or criticize defective aspects of their own culture. They are always required to be funny. Other persons living within the same culture may recognize a clown when they see one, but seldom consciously understand what the clowns do for their society. The typical explanation is "He's just a funny man."

In the case of the jester at the English Royal Court with his cap of bells and pig's bladder stick he was allowed to make fun of, be indelicate and sometimes downright rude to members of the royal family and their entourage without fear of reprisal.

Clown societies usually train new members to become clowns. The training normally takes place by an apprentice system, although there may be some rote schooling as well. Sometimes the training is improvisational comedy, but usually a clown society trains members in well known forms of costume, pantomime, song, dance, and common visual gags. Occasionally these include a scripted performance, or skit, which is part of a standard repertoire that "never gets old," and is expected by members of the culture that the clown society is part of.

In Native North America. humor assumes "a sacred position within ceremonials"; examples are found in Trickster traditions, Pueblo clown societies, Cherokee "Booger" dances, and aspects of the Northwest Coast Potlatch. Humor is a fundamental aspect of Native American life, and has many purposes related to sacred rituals and social cohesion.


  • Circus clowns function as a clown society, in occidental culture.
  • Sacred clowns are called heyoka in Lakota Sioux Native American culture.
  • Circus clowns were the only persons allowed to criticize the government of the former Soviet Union.
  • Members of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army combine the ancient arts of clowning and fooling with the relatively recent skills of non-violent direct action.
  • The Oxford Imps

Difference from School for Comedians

A clown society is different from, but closely related to a school for comedians. Comedians serve many of the same social functions of parody and social criticism, and also embody the role of the trickster, but a comedian usually only uses slightly exaggerated mannerisms to show that he/she is joking. Comedians who are not also clowns do not wear a blatantly outrageous or formalized costume. Also, a comedian has to take personal responsibility for his/her humour and its consequences, whereas a person in clown-costume has some protection from reprisal.

As a general rule, a comedian says funny things, a comic does funny things, and a clown does things funny.

See also