You can’t miss Joel Jeske and Brent McBeth. These clowns are at the center of the Big Apple Circus’ new show, The Grand Tour. As a matter of fact, Joel created the show and together with Brent, they provide both laughs and heart to the show. Both part of the Drama Desk Award nominated physical theatre company Parallel Exit, this duo brings their years of experience into the ring every night and lead the audience on a trip they’ll never forget.
We caught up with the duo to talk about the art of clowning, their favorite moments in The Grand Tour, and why they do what they do.
How did you find your way to clowning at the Big Apple Circus?
Brent: Joel and I have been working together for many years through Parallel Exit. We’ve performed as a duo together, so when this show was pitched to the artistic director of Big Apple Circus, I was invited to join Joel and rest of circus on this crazy adventure. I am fortunate to be connected and granted a first class ticket on this wild ride.
Joel: I’ve been working with the Big Apple Circus since 2001, when I was in the Clown Care program. It’s where clown “doctors” go to oncology hospitals and child hospitals to visit patients. Big Apple Circus has been that foundation job. I’ve taught circus, hosted the show, been in Clown Care – so I’ve been associated with them for a while. That gave me the confidence to go in and pitch the concept for the show. I found in Brent an amazing comic partner. When you find someone you work really well with in comedy, you don’t let them go. We’ve performed all around the world, so when Big Apple Circus decided to go with my concept, Brent and I being clowns in the show was a no brainer.
Where do your circus characters come from?
Joel: The idea of Mr. Joel comes from a circus tradition referred to as a “white face” clown. In circus, white face is the straight man. He’s vain, arrogant and the one you topple over. This is in relation to Brent’s character, the “Auguste” clown, or the ‘funny’ clown in the circus. The idea is that this classic style duo is literally taking the audience around the world. The things that happen from the buckets of water to being lost in the desert to the first class air ticket, it’s all giving homage to the great clown material from Big Apple Circus in the past. It’s new material, but it’s in the style of classic Big Apple Circus clown performances.
Brent: I would add that both of us are inspired by old-Hollywood, black and white movie duos and trio comedians like Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, and even the Bugs Bunny cartoons. The adults understand the references to that period and they also like the intellectual undertones of the comedy, but the kids still get the slapstick and the running around the ring.
Joel: The most important aspect of the clowns in Big Apple Circus is that they’re personable because Big Apple Circus is an intimate, personal circus. All of the audience is a VIP. As much as my character is vain and arrogant and quick tempered, the audience gets where I come from and they have fun with it. You want to get the sense that these clowns are your friends. Big Apple Circus goes out of its way to be intimate and personal with the audience.
What’s your personal favorite moment of the evening?
Brent: Night after night, show after show, it’s the first time I throw a bucket of water through the window and hit Joel in the face. The audience is so genuine and shocked and enthusiastic and I live for it night after night. The reaction is so big that I live for it. Joel and I have worked hard to create those moments and spent a lot of time figuring out how to time it and react to it. That moment took a lot of preparation and trial and error, and I think we’ve nailed it.
Joel: Brent took my moment, so I guess my favorite current moment is the moment at the end of musical chairs when the child sits down and beats me. The reason is it really tells me a lot about the audience. The more they cheer for the child, the more they’ve paid attention to my character and want the kid to win. In that they can celebrate the child winning and at the same time, delight in my cheating leading up to that, it is a very satisfying finish to the entire clown journey.
Doing performances all week and doing the same bits in each performance, what keeps your act from becoming routine or feeling stale to you?
Joel: As much as we work on getting things tight and structured, to me, the secret of being a great circus clown is hanging on to the structure but being able to play inside it. We know what we’re going to do but we don’t necessarily do it the same every show. Not every audience is the same. The major difference with Big Apple Circus is that the response insanely immediate. That allows us as the clowns to temper our material and we can entertain them the best we can. We are paying attention to everything the audience is giving to us, so in that, it’s brand new every single show.
Brent: There’s a lot of play with what we do and that comes from enjoying who I’m in the ring with. We would rehearse the bits over and over, do it the next day and then be bored by it. So, we would spend time asking each other if that bit was fun because if we aren’t having fun, the audience won’t have fun. Neither of us want to settle for a good laugh. We want the best laugh. We vary things just slightly and it keeps it fresh in terms of telling the joke. We walk out to the ring and have fun together and even though it’s choreographed, we can switch it up. It’s a fun game to see what we can discover each night.
Why do you do what you do?
Brent: I can’t imagine doing anything else. My mom said that from the day I was born, I was tap dancing, moving to music, and doing puppet shows in my bedroom. Being in front of people and performing is all I’ve known and all I’ve wanted to do. It’s not been a job for me. It’s been a passion and a love. I keep doing it because I’m still having fun and loving it. When that day comes that I’m no longer enjoying it and being challenged by it, then I’ll stop doing it. Until then, I can’t think of anything else I would do. It’s me. It’s my life.
Joel: Brent said he’s always had a passion to be a performer. The only thing I would qualify for me is that my passion was specific to being a clown. I got a communications degree in college and was going to be a high school teacher, but eventually, I always seemed to find myself coming back to loving and being a clown. Ultimately, I think I succumbed to it. I went to Ringling Bros. Clown College. Until then, clowning was something I was fostering on my own in Illinois. Now, I was thrust into this place with people who were just as passionate as I was and we had this amazing playground to learn and experiment and perform at. With Big Apple Circus, I’ve known about them since the 70’s when it got started. I’d wanted to be a part of Clown Care, Circus After School, and performing in a one ring circus in a show the scale of Big Apple Circus. This is a job that’s insanely rewarding. We make people belly laugh and smile, and then after the show we get unconditional love from children in the audience who just hug us. The thanks you get in return in truly incredible.
Photos by Maike Schulz: Big Apple Circus