It warmed the cockles of my heart this morning to read in BuzzFeed that Qantas CEO Alan Joyce received a pie in the face during a business breakfast. The perpetrator of this lovely clownish misdemeanor is an elderly Australian man, no name given as yet. All police are saying at the moment is that “There are unconfirmed reports it was a Lemon Meringue Pie.”
It is altogether meet and fit that a moneybags like Joyce should be pied, after being paid thirteen million dollars salary last year. A pie in the face keeps a man humble and reminds him that he is apt to slip on a banana peel sooner or later.
As a circus clown for over thirty years, I have made a study of the nature and function of slapstick actions such as pie throwing. There can be no doubt that physical comedy is born of man’s innate need to see the high and mighty brought down by violent and whimsical means. And a pie is the ideal instrument to reward hubris of all kinds.
In America, a pie cooling on the kitchen windowsill says all there is to say about homely domesticity and the basic goodness of simple things. Something that rich people, with their maids and butlers and fripperies, know nothing about. Pushing this bourgeoisie symbol into the face of a plutocrat thus brings immense satisfaction, and at the same time is a ringing denunciation of the everlasting inequality of the status quo. It is also highly subversive. In Laurel and Hardy’s epic pie fight film, ‘Battle of the Century,’ a moment arrives when the mayor of the city, top-hatted and frock-coated, steps into the fray to positively prohibit any more pastry slinging. He is immediately set upon by all parties and is soon wallowing in sugary goo. Would that all mayors and governors and senators and presidents could be bombarded by custard and fruit-filled tarts! There’s nothing like a lather of banana cream around the face to make a fat cat sit up and pay attention to the hoi polloi.
At Ringling Brothers we were more egalitarian -- our motto in clown alley was “A pie in the kisser for rich and poor alike!” This also held true for seltzer spray, buckets of water, conks on the head with foam rubber mallets, and detonations. Still and all, it was a recognized fact that any clown who could muster an air of authority in the ring would get the biggest laugh when pummeled with a shaving cream pie or have his pants set on fire.
Slapstick is both raw and cruel -- there is nothing refined or subtle about it. It is comic triage. It uses brutality and humiliation to make its point -- if it even has a point. Slapstick for slaptick’s sake is pretty much the modus operandi of all circus and screen clowns. But it is not terrorism. Or criminal. Slapstick does no harm in the long run and seeks no felonious gain. It is a manifestation of our pre-verbal frustrations and desires. When a child has a toy snatched away suddenly, it hits out or runs around howling in a circle. That is not the action of a terrorist or crook. Just a child’s reaction to something it views as arbitrary and unjust. The slapstick of clowns is the same thing -- you kick me in the pants and I’m obliged to chase you with a blunderbuss and shoot your keister off. No hard feelings -- it’s just how things are done around here.
Those who have been pied in the recent past include the Premier of Alberta, Ralph Klein; Fashion Designer Calvin Klein; Microsoft founder Bill Gates; Publisher Rupert Murdoch; King Carl Gustaf of Sweden; New York Mayor Abraham Beame; and James Allen Rhodes, the Governor of Ohio. None of them were seriously injured, except in their pride. For the most part both the media and the public expressed outrage at such boorish behavior. But a hard minority confessed to a profound relishment -- the ones who truly understand the meaning of slapstick.
In 2017 slapstick in the circus is pretty much gone. If you want to see someone get a pie in the face you’ll have to scan the news for more business breakfasts. Clowns today play pretty flutes and lead the crowd in pattycake chants. Slaps and blows and falls are frowned on by parenting experts, and a good old-fashioned explosion that sends clown bodies flying every which way is deemed politically incorrect. But at the same time violence blossoms on the silver screen and on TV as never before. And violence has never been what real slapstick is about. With real slapstick you get a pie in the face, do a double-take, wipe it off, and then go about your business. In other words -- you always recover. But nobody recovers from a bullet in the head or gruesome knifing on television.
Slapstick is, at bottom, life-affirming. It certainly involves some pain and humiliation -- but that’s part of life, isn’t it? So unless Alan Joyce has diabetes, I don’t see the harm in letting him have a taste of pie in an overzealous manner. And you’re right . . . if it was me on the receiving end of an unexpected pie I would be crying up the decay of civilized discourse and demanding my pound of flesh right now. But just so you know, back in 1999 I asked a statistician friend who taught at the University of Minnesota to help me figure out how many pies I had gotten in the face during my clown career -- we came up with the sum of 9,877. Give or take a few meringues.