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In 2270 B.C., an Egyptian pharaoh mentioned a "divine spirit…to rejoice and delight the heart." Through the years, clowns have been called pranksters, mirthmakers, jesters, comics, jokers, buffoons, harlequins, fools, merry-andrews, mimes, and joeys.

Egyptian, Greek, and Roman rulers kept fools for entertainment. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, court jesters were hired for their musical and juggling skills and verbal wit. They wore colorful and bizarre clothing with exaggerated collars and bells, pointed caps, and unusual shoes. Many were traveling minstrels, or street performers, skilled in storytelling, juggling, singing, magic, tightrope walking, and acrobatics.

After the Renaissance, clowns became stage characters, such as country bumpkins or dim-witted servants. Harlequins, wearing black-and-white clothes, and Pierrots, made up in whiteface makeup, emerged simultaneously.

The word clown was first used in 16th-century England to describe a clumsy, country oaf. Small traveling street theaters used them to attract audiences to their plays. In the 1700s, laws were passed to restrict street performances, but the art of pantomime flourished and is still used today.

The "King of Clowns" was Joseph Grimaldi, an Englishman whose career lasted from 1781 until 1828. When Philip Astley created the first circus in 1768, he played "Billie Button," the first circus clown, later recreated by others. Early clowns bantered with the audience and sang songs. As the circuses and audiences grew, clowns developed routines based more heavily on physical comedy, providing comic relief to their co-performers' death-defying feats. Famous clowns, such as "Yankee Dan" Rice, Tom Belling, Lou Jacobs, and Emmett Kelly, Sr., became major circus attractions.

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