Roar of the Greasepaint

How did Joel Jeske go from blood-spattered fringe theater to the Greatest Show on Earth?

By Jack Helbig

Four years ago Joel Jeske and a handful of other improvisers staged a scripted one-act called Klown: Prick Us and We’ll Burst. In full clown regalia–whiteface, tattered clothing, painted noses–they performed hypercruel versions of classic bits: at the climax of one routine, the most childish clown humped a pumpkin he’d been admiring until he was interrupted by one of his jealous cohorts, who castrated him with a pair of pinking shears. The childish clown howled in pain while pints and pints of stage blood spurted from his truncated member.

These days Jeske, 30, works as a clown in the most family oriented of the traveling circuses (now in town), Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The costume he designed for it resembles the one he wore in Klown–black formal pants and jacket, the first version of which he ruined in his first week as a professional by falling in a pile of elephant dung. But his material now is considerably less risque than anything he cooked up for Klown.

Such sudden reversals are nothing new for Jeske. As a little boy he was so terrified of clowns his father had to wrap him in his windbreaker to get him to his seat at the circus. “Then suddenly, when I was eight years old, my feelings flipped. My dad took us to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Chicago Stadium, and there was a clown who did this very simple trick–he took a vest and hat and put them on a cane and balanced the cane on his head. He put his arms up, knocked the cane out, and the vest landed on his shoulders, his hat landed on his head, and the cane in his hand.”

This trick blew Jeske away. Whenever he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered, “I want to be a clown.” Jeske says his middle-class parents–a mechanical engineer and a schoolteacher–never directly discouraged his plans. “They just did their best to channel my interest into acceptable situations. Why not take a Park District mime class, take a gymnastics class, take up a musical instrument?”

Jeske continued to read everything he could on clowns and clowning, but his interests broadened in high school and college to include other aspects of theater, especially comedy. Studying abroad his junior year at Cambridge University, Jeske was the “token American” in the Cambridge Footlights, a college troupe that boasts among its alums Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and half the members of Monty Python.

After college, in 1991, Jeske moved back to Chicago to study at Second City and the ImprovOlympic. Like a lot of improvisers, he hoped to climb the Second City ladder, from the touring company to E.T.C. to the main stage and beyond–a sitcom, a spot on SNL, maybe a movie.

Within two years Jeske did get a spot in the touring company, as an understudy, but soon found the work frustrating. “I wasn’t prepared to do what they had hired me to do”–perform material created by other improvisers. It didn’t help that as an understudy he was on the absolute lowest rung of the ladder, never knowing from one week to the next if and when he’d be called. And unless he was, he was as good as invisible.

One day he started brainstorming with his brother Jim about what it would take to create a successful new comedy troupe. Noting how much publicity the International Theatre Festival of Chicago got every year, they decided that “the only way to get people through the door was to be not from Chicago.” That would be no easy trick for a man born and raised in Glen Ellyn, trained at Second City, and now living in a New Town apartment. But the more Jeske and his brother talked about it, the more they wanted to give it a try.

Together they conceived of a fictional German clown troupe, Die Hanswurste, to be led by an equally fictitious clown master, Josef Veidt. Jeske brought in a group of his ImprovOlympic friends, and they came up with a detailed back story about who Veidt and Die Hanswurste were, what they’d done in the war (they were all supposedly old enough to have performed during the Weimar Republic), and what they were doing now. “We had political connections with the Greens. We had our own philosophy. Our story was that we had come to America and had a completely miserable time in New York.” They were hoping to do a little better in Chicago.

Jeske would play the company’s representative, Elig Kemper, sent ahead to prepare the way for Veidt and his band of septuagenarian clowns. To help with his accent Jeske picked up a tape and practiced every chance he got. When the phone rang, Jeske would answer as Kemper, remaining in character as he took reservations or gave show times.

At rehearsals everyone spoke with a German accent–they didn’t even drop their act when they negotiated with Chicago Actors Ensemble to rent their space. Jeske went so far as to dress his brother–who was not in the show–as Kemper, then explained to the Chicago Actors Ensemble folks that Kemper’s English wasn’t very good and that he himself would conduct the negotiations in English.

Jeske’s greatest challenge came when Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss called to interview Kemper. Answering the phone, Jeske pretended to be Kemper’s personal secretary. “I’ll see if he’s in,” he said politely, put down the phone, adjusted his voice, and picked up again a moment later as Kemper. Jeske was terrified he would be found out, but Weiss never caught on during the interview or at the show, which she reviewed as if Die Hanswurste had just stepped off the plane.

Jeske will never know whether he and his three fellow klowns would have received the same attention had they admitted in the first place they were just a bunch of recent Second City grads. What is certain is that Weiss’s enthusiastic review and subsequent retraction did much to publicize the show. Klown sold out its two-week run at Chicago Actors Ensemble, then reopened at the Organic Theater and at the Theatre Building, where it ran through July of 1995.

Jeske hoped that the show’s success and notoriety would help him step up from understudy to full-time member of the Second City touring company. “By then, however,” he sighs, “Second City had already hired several other understudies.” But Klown did rekindle Jeske’s interest in clowning, and soon after the show closed, he started work on Hats on Fire/Shoes on Fire, one of the few bright lights of the otherwise dim 1996 Chicago Fringe and Buskers Festival.

During Klown’s run Jeske also tried out for Ringling Brothers’ Clown College, a major feeder school for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After three grueling auditions–spread over five months–he was accepted into the program. “Literally the day after we closed Hats on Fire/Shoes on Fire,” Jeske says, “I was on a plane to Clown College. The first thing they did was break me down. Whatever you did in the past, forget it. This is how it’s done at Ringling Brothers. It was like clown boot camp–60, 70 hours a week, starting at seven in the morning and not getting finished until midnight most nights.” After graduating, Jeske was hired by Ringling; he’s been touring for two years.

Looking back on his days in Die Hanswurste, Jeske admits that much of what he did makes him wonder, “What was I thinking?” Mostly he’s critical of his technique. “I wish I’d known then how to fall off a ladder. Or how to make the right kind of fireproof shoes and hats for Hats on Fire/Shoes on Fire. It’s a wonder we didn’t burn the theater down. And I would have made the shows more seamless, less like a collection of clown bits one after the other.” How about the hoax? Does he regret any of that? “Not at all. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.