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Clowns are comic performers stereotypically characterized by the grotesque image of the circus clown's colored wigs, stylistic makeup, outlandish costumes, unusually large footwear, and red nose, which evolved to project their actions to large audiences. Other less grotesque styles have also developed, including theatre, television, and film clowns. Peter Berger writes that "It seems plausible that folly and fools, like religion and magic, meet some deeply rooted needs in human society". For this reason, clowning is often considered an important part of training as a physical performance discipline, partly because tricky subject matter can be dealt with, but also because it requires a high level of risk and play in the performer.
The humor in clowning comes from the self deprecating actions of the performer, rather than the audience laughing with the performer as is common with other forms of comedy.
The term coulrophobia has been coined to describe those individuals who report a fear of clowns.
The most ancient clowns have been found in the Fifth dynasty of Egypt, around 2400 BCE. Contrary to court jests, clown have traditionally served a socio-religious and psychological role, and traditionally the role of priest and clown have been held by the same persons.
Clowning was developed from a broad tradition of historical performances, and it is difficult to point out a singular tradition or even a few different ones as being the primary precursors to clowns. However there are a few past prominent forms of entertainment contemporarily linked to clowning as its possible antecedents.
Examples of historical, clown-like comedic performers have been the pantomimus in ancient Greece, the Lazzi of Commedia dell'Arte, bouffons, court jesters, as well as the French mime tradition. On top of this there are many non-European clowning traditions (including clown-like figures in Japanese Kabuki theatre), North American native shaman traditions to consider which may or may not have influenced what we now think of as a clown in the Western world.
The term coulrophobia has been proposed to denote an abnormal, exaggerated, or irrational fear of clowns. The term is of recent use but is not commonly used in psychology, and according to one analyst, "has been coined more on the Internet than in printed form because it does not appear in any previously published, psychiatric, unabridged, or abridged dictionary". It is common for children to be afraid of disguised, exaggerated, or costumed figures—even Santa Claus. Ute myths feature a cannibalistic clown monster called the Siats. Clown costumes tend to exaggerate the facial features and some body parts, such as hands and feet and noses. This can be read as monstrous or deformed as easily as it can be read as comical. Some have suggested, however, that a fear of clowns may stem from early childhood experience, when infants begin to process and make sense of facial features. The significant aberrations in a clown's face may frighten a child so much that they carry this phobia throughout their adult life.
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