Cirque du So What?

I have a friend in the circus. (Of course I have a friend in the circus.) He is the keyboard player for the live circus band, which I bet you didn’t even know they had. I certainly was not aware that circuses employed live musicians. In fact, I was only dimly aware that circuses still existed apart from Cirque du Soleil, which isn’t a true circus in that it has no lion-tamers and all its cast members are in league with the devil.

But the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is still fully operational, and it still travels from place to place the old-fashioned way, on a long stinky circus train. My friend, Ryan, the circus keyboard player, lives on the train. He sent me an e-mail from this train alerting me to its imminent arrival in Portland and offered me discount tickets to the show. And I thought: The circus? Do I want to go to the circus? OF COURSE I DO!!

My reasons were manifold, a word I just recently picked up and have been saying a lot lately. (“I don’t know what to order! The things that look good here are manifold!”) First and foremost, I had never been to a real circus before. I dimly recall attending one when I was a kid, in a big tent and everything, but I don’t think it was a name-brand circus. I think it was more of a Mom-and-Pop circus, with creaky, arthritic tigers and “acrobats” who were really just fat guys doing somersaults.

I was also curious to see the clowns. My only experience with clowns had been at parties, on street corners, in horror movies, in my nightmares, etc. They are creepy, unfunny beings. Everyone I know finds them annoying at best, genuinely terrifying at worst. I don’t understand why they continue to proliferate when NO ONE LIKES THEM. But I realized that not having been to a circus before, I had never seen clowns in their natural habitat. Maybe in the circus, they’re really, really funny. I figured I should give them a chance before I write them off altogether.

So my pal Luscious Malone and I went to the circus, which was being held in the “big top” known as the Rose Garden Arena, where the Portland Trailblazers play basketball. Ryan told me that in the old days, when the circus had an actual giant tent, they would waterproof it by covering it with a mixture of wax and gasoline. Despite that method’s apparent total flawlessness, somehow something went wrong — LIKE A GIANT CIRCUS FIRE!! — and they stopped doing it. Then they gave up on tents altogether and now perform in places like the Rose Garden Arena, which is waterproofed by being made out of brick.

Before we entered the venue, we were greeted by several representatives of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of McNuggets). And by “greeted,” of course I mean accosted. Accosting is PETA’s primary method of interacting with people. PETA’s problems with circuses are manifold, but the main thing is that circuses are fun, and PETA has a long-standing policy against fun. No one in PETA enjoys anything. If something is entertaining, amusing or delicious, PETA is against it.

The PETA activists passed along some helpful information, including the fact that we were supporting animal cruelty, and also the fact that PETA is apparently against bathing, too. (Seriously, I know being a self-righteous hippie is time-consuming, but would it kill you to take a shower and throw on some deodorant?) PETA’s major point was that the tricks circuses make animals do are “unnatural and painful.” You do not find elephants doing headstands in the wild, for example; ergo, the act must be unnatural and painful for them. Of course, I don’t do headstands either, but that doesn’t mean it’s unnatural or painful for me. It just means I don’t have any reason to do a headstand. If a nice circus man offered me a tasty chunk of food, I bet I could be persuaded.

Luscious and I found our seats, bought what amounted to a year’s supply of cotton candy that we could only eat about one-tenth of before we got sick of it, and the circus began! It’s called “The Greatest Show on Earth,” you know, and it began the way all of the Earth’s greatest shows begin: with a cheesy song! A woman whose name I didn’t catch but who looked like an amalgam of Miss America and an “American Idol” runner-up sang a tune called “Circus of Dreams” while the clowns, acrobats, and other performers trotted around the arena. I felt sorry for my friend Ryan, a talented and creative musician who has to play this wretched song on the keyboard at least seven times a week. (Forget the animals, PETA. What about the inhumane treatment of the circus humans? Am I right, folks?!)

After “Circus of Dreams” had ended and my ears had stopped bleeding, the singer said that today was a SPECIAL day because they were going to choose a family from the audience to participate in the show! “We’re going to make one family’s circus dreams come true!” she chirped. All around the arena, families raised their hands in anticipation, hoping to be selected for this magical surprise. Imagine their disillusionment when the “family” the singer chose were shills, circus performers who had been planted in the audience. Why, none of the rest of us ever stood a chance! It was a set-up. Circus of dreams? More like CIRCUS OF LIES!

We knew they were shills because a) they were already wearing microphones, b) they began to banter with the singer lady as if their dialogue had been pre-scripted, and c) the “son” was Asian. OK, he could have been adopted, but still. We weren’t buying it. The singer asked each of them what their circus dreams were. The dad said he had always wanted to be a ringmaster, a dubious-sounding goal if I’ve ever heard one. Quick as you please, they whisked him off backstage so that he could be today’s ringmaster! There was no word on what was to be done with the existing ringmaster, or whether the circus didn’t have one and just hoped an audience member would volunteer every time. Mom wanted to be a trapeze artist, so she was sent to change costumes and, if this were for real, sign one million release forms and insurance waivers. The teenage daughter had allegedly always wanted to be a dancer in the circus, which depressed me greatly. Wanting to be a dancer, sure. Wanting to be a dancer in the circus? Who wants THAT? I guarantee the women who actually ARE circus dancers would much rather dance professionally somewhere else, someplace that didn’t require them to live on a train with elephants, clowns and swarthy Mediterranean motorcycle daredevils.

The little boy, whose named turned out to be Dan, was asked for his circus dream, and he couldn’t come up with one. He didn’t know WHAT he wanted to do in the circus! So the nice singer lady told him that whatever he could imagine, it would come true. Luscious and I speculated a number of possible scenarios — “My circus dream is to be a little girl!” “My circus dream is to cut a donkey in half!” — none of which were used. We also speculated that since the opening number had revealed that the only place for Asians in the circus was in the acrobatic troupes, Dan would probably wind up having the circus dream of being an acrobat. Call it a hunch.

So the circus went on the way you’d expect, with some acts that were legitimately entertaining or impressive and some acts that were corny and stupid. Dan would observe and occasionally get involved, still trying to figure out where he belonged in the circus. When the clowns came out and had a pie fight, Dan threw some pies at them. When Madame Shamsheeva performed with her squad of dogs, cats and birds, Dan let a bird stand on his arm. It was like Take Your Fake Asian Son to Work Day at the circus.

Oh yes, the clowns. It turns out my gut-level prejudices were right: Clowns are not funny. At least the ones at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus aren’t, and if the Ringlings, Barnum and Bailey, all working together, can’t find funny clowns, I don’t know who can. The clowns’ shenanigans consisted mostly of having a food fight, an activity that would be hard to render unfunny, yet their exaggerated body language did the trick, over-emphasizing every movement and thus over-playing every gag.

How does one become a clown, anyway? What drives a man to a life of clownery? What makes you say, “I want to dedicate my life to doing something that no one will enjoy”? Although I suppose that question could be asked of a lot of people.

But I digress. Because the circus is modern and high-tech and must compete with Cirque du Soleil, there is a video screen involved. Sometimes between acts there would be brief pre-taped bits shown up on the big screen. One of the recurring elements had three elephants who had been (badly) animated to appear as if they were talking. Their voices were an old Jewish woman, a sassy black woman, and a plucky little boy, and they would comment on the action like the wall-mounted heads at Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree. In one segment, the elephants talked about how they love performing in the circus, and how they’ve trained the humans pretty well. “We just do what comes natural!” one of the elephants said. So there you go, PETA, proof that elephants enjoy doing tricks, straight from an elephant’s mouth. SO SHUT UP WITH YOUR STUPID PROTESTING!

The Circus of Lies finally ended when Dan saw an acrobatic display and decided, sure enough, that he wanted to be an acrobat. And he was really good at it, too! As if he’d already been an acrobat for many years! The circus had worked its magic again.

Here is a list of…


– A man putting his head in a lion’s mouth and/or whipping a lion while holding a chair to keep it at bay.
– A lion.
– Three rings.
– A tightrope walker.
– A tiny clown car from which a dozen clowns emerge.
– Seals honking horns while perched on brightly painted little pedestals.
– A bearded lady.
– The Elephant Man, locked in a cage and billed as “Nature’s Hideous Mistake!”
– Peanuts for sale.
– A calliope playing circus music. You know, CIRCUS MUSIC! Doot doot do-do-do-do doot doot do do, doot doot do-do-do-do doot doot do do, DOOT do-do-do-do, DOOT do-do-do-do — you know? (OK, this music.)
– An overpowering scent of hay, animal droppings, and sadness.

Alt text
The Greatest Hat on Earth, perched atop the Dorkiest Head on Earth.

This is approximately the 1,000th time I've made fun of PETA in "Snide Remarks," though it's the first time in a few years. In fact, one of the reasons I was keen on going to the circus was that I knew PETA would be on hand to be a bunch of Debbie Downers.

This column also contains, curiously enough, the second "Snide Remarks" reference to fat guys doing somersaults.

The cotton candy cost $10. That's too much, of course, but it came with a hat! The Greatest Hat on Earth, as Luscious Malone and I took to calling it. Here is a picture of me wearing it. You will note the tag is still on it, which caused Luscious to call me "Minnie Pearl." Even though she is under 30, all of Luscious' cultural references and musical tastes would make you swear she was 60. (P.S.: I put the hat on to take the picture, and then I forgot I had it on and continued to wear it for another couple hours. It's quite comfortable!)