Clowns don’t get a lot of respect. Mockery? You bet. Parody? Sure. But respect is in short supply, even for Michael Kennard and John Turner, aka Mump & Smoot, Canada’s “clowns of horror” who specialize in the discomfiting, creepy, and hilarious.
For 25 years, the best friends have been touring and terrorizing the world with their uniquely twisted brand of theatre. But just because they’re award-winning experts in the art of clowning (they have multiple touring Mump & Smoot shows, including Something, which they will remount at the Cultch next week, 19 years after it was last performed in Vancouver), they’re not exempt from raised eyebrows and dismissive attitudes. But, Kennard says, the contempt has never been a deterrent; rather it has driven them to work even harder.
“We couldn’t get booked in a theatre, because people didn’t know what to do with clowns when we started, the kind of clown we were doing,” Kennard tells the Straight, during a conference call with Turner.
“We said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do this, let’s go all the way,’ ” Turner says. “ ‘Full makeup, gibberish, bizarre costumes. Let’s go to town and not hedge around with it.’ As it turned out, that very quickly carved a place for us. We were a huge hit in the Fringe festivals. We had a stage, and once we proved ourselves in that venue, then we moved on to theatres. But even then, we only ever got booked by people who had seen us—for, like, the first 20 years, except for one gig. If we hadn’t been seen by the artistic director or the general manager or whoever was making the decisions, we didn’t get the gig.”
But almost everyone who saw a Mump & Smoot show was hooked. It wasn’t just that the clowns were doing weird things like accidental amputations and blood-tasting or having bizarre adventures or validating adults’ childhood nightmares of clown life. Kennard and Turner rooted their friendship at the foundation of Mump & Smoot, and used that safe, creative place to examine something that was seemingly very simple.
“All the horror stuff came from John and I wanting to examine fear and the fear that exists in human nature and the world,” Kennard says.
In this way, Turner says, Something is the perfect reintroduction for Vancouverites to Mump & Smoot’s layered, sinister world.
“We start with a relatively gentle fear—by going to a café—around the issues of etiquette and manners, making a fool of yourself in public and being looked down upon by those who have a different set of decorum,” Turner says. “So we start kind of gently.” Both men laugh.
The show then moves Mump & Smoot to a wake, rooting the fear in the loss of a loved one and the sorrow that accompanies death, before spinning out of control with a visit to a doctor.
“Everyone’s afraid of going to the doctor,” Kennard says.
“And we justify that!” Turner laughs. “The thing about clown theatre is that it’s sort of dream-state logic. In clown, it’s not an exaggeration of truth, it’s an amplification. Exaggeration takes you further from the truth, and amplification takes you deeper into it. That’s what we do.”
Which is probably why Mump & Smoot have endured: multiple generations can lose themselves in a piece of theatre that justifies its audience’s deepest hang-ups, and that also allows people the release of laughing at the horror that surrounds them.
“The chaos of the nightmarish world, we’re barely scratching the surface!” Turner says with a laugh. “I mean, c’mon, look at the world. We grew up in the ’60s, hiding under our desks because of the fear of nuclear holocaust, and it’s 20 times worse now.”
And that sounds like the making of another Mump & Smoot show.