Friday, June 30, 2017

send in the clowns

The circus is in town.

Well, the rump circus is in town.

Mexico was once well-known for its circuses. Acrobats. Wild animals. Clowns. They would regularly roll into town with loudspeakers blaring followed by the inevitable parade of zebras and llamas through the streets.

It was not even remarkable to see an elephant on your walk to church. Circuses were as much a part of the Mexican culture as tortillas.

No more. Almost two years ago, Mexico outlawed exotic animals in circuses. For the animals, it meant a mass slaughter of hundreds of lions and tigers in a valley just outside of Mexico City. For the circuses, it meant adapt or die.

A lot of the small shows have died. Others have adapted. This winter one of the "new circuses" showed up in Barra de Navidad. It was essentially a variety show under a big top. Think of Ed Sullivan meets Oral Roberts.

This week another incarnation has shown up -- on the highway in Jaluco. I call it the rump circus -- because it is just a remainder of an old circus. The animals are gone. As are the acrobats.

All that is left are three clowns. I remember seeing their act a couple of years ago when they were with a small family circus that stopped in Villa Obregon.

Mexicans love their clowns. And so do I -- to a degree. Physical clowning is universal. And funny.

Where I get lost is in the dialogue. And it is just not my lack of Spanish vocabulary that defeats me.

Clowns create three language difficulties for me. 1) They talk too fast. 2) They speak in clown voices that are designed to be more hilarious than communicative. 3) And this is the greatest problem: their jokes are steeped in Mexican slang and culture.

Even if I were fluent in the Spanish clown tongue, that third difficulty would continue to defeat me. Humor and wit find their roots in national cultures. If you do not know the culture, you will not get the humor. Or, as Johnny Carson would have it: "If you buy the premise, you buy the bit."

There is a canard that Germans do not have a sense of humor. They do. But if you are not German, you might find it difficult, while everyone around you in the Munich beer hall are roaring, to understand what is so funny about: "This man was walking down the street and fell down ripping his pants. And they were new trousers."

Nor can everyone understand the wit of the English with their subtle twists: "True friends stab you in the front." Or any of the Monte Python pieces.

My friend Julio and I were discussing The Simpsons this morning. Even though he is a Mexican citizen, he has a very good grasp of American culture; he spent a good portion of his youth in Utah.

The Simpsons is quintessentially American humor. There are very few programs that have found the soft underbelly of the American dream, and then disemboweled it so methodically. I have often wondered how such an ethnocentric program could be translated into another language and still maintain the humor.

According to Julio, it can't be done. Or, at least, in the case of The Simpsons, it hasn't been done. The funniest parts seem to drift off.

In high school, I used what I had learned in my Latin vocabulary to write what is still one of my favorite English puns: "Have you heard about the left-handed gambler who was known for his sinister dexterity?" It is one of those jokes you immediately get (accompanied by riotous laughter) or you don't.

So, I will probably give the clowns a miss while they are in town. Did you hear the one about three clowns who walk into an empty tent --- ?

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