Many years ago, when I was an intern at an accelerator facility, the other interns and I all lived in a campus residence that was a bit like a dormitory, only with a higher average age. One evening, as all the interns were gathered in the common area after dinner and were
drinking studiously discussing academic topics and exchanging tall tales, a friend recounted to me this story. Here, I reproduce it to the best of of my memory for you to enjoy.
A young boy and his father live in a small town in the Midwest. One brisk October day, while walking down the main street, they see a poster advertising a circus coming to town the following week. Prominently featured among the images of lion tamers and strongmen on the poster is the name and likeness of a clown.
“Come and laugh with Pagliacci, the famous Italian clown, funniest in all the world!”, the poster exclaimed.
The boy begs his father to take them both to see the circus, and especially to see Pagliacci, as the boy loves clowns. The father is not a rich man by any means, but he dotes on his son and has a little money saved, so he says yes. The whole week following, the boy can hardly sleep for his excitement; he cannot wait to see the circus, and most especially, his hero, Pagliacci.
Finally the day of the circus, a Saturday, comes around. Early in the morning, the boy leaps out of bed and runs to wake his father.
“Today is the day, today we see Pagliacci!” Exclaims the boy as he scarfs down his breakfast in record time. Soon enough the father is ready as well, and the pair set out to town. They arrive at the Big Top, and the father quickly buys two tickets from the man in the ticket booth. The man sees the boy’s excitement and is charmed, for he is a kindly chap. With a sly wink, slides over two tickets to the front row, ringside; far more expensive seats than the father had paid for.
The boy and his dad make their way to the ringside and find their seats right as the music comes up and the lights go down. First into the ring are a pair of amazing dancing ponies! They do their routine, prancing and jumping around the large ring, and the crowd goes wild. Next, the strongman struts out, climbing onto a pedestal. He waits for the crowd to quiet, before bending a huge iron bar all the way in half. The crowd goes crazy again – they love it! Lion tamers, trapeze artists, and magicians all come out to the center ring and perform for the crowd, each earning more applause than the last. Finally, the ringmaster calls for quiet, and a low drumroll begins.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. I present to you, Pagliacci the clown!” Shouts the mustachioed ringmaster to thunderous applause. Pagliacci bounds out from behind the curtain, decked out in gaudy white silk and greasepaint, doing pratfalls and pulling scarves out of his sleeves all the way to the ring center, all to uproarious laughter. He reaches the center puts his hands up for silence, and as he does, his eye catches the little boy and his father. He bounces over to their seats on his oversized shoes and asks,
“Say little boy, Halloween is coming soon. Do you have a costume?”
The little boy is ecstatic, because he does have a costume, one and his father made together.
“Yes I do,” replies the little boy excitedly, “my father and I made a horse costume, and it needs two people! He’s taller than me, so he wears the front half of the costume…”
Before the boy finishes his response, Pagliacci interjects sharply.
“Does that make you a horse’s ass?” and honks his nose.
The crowd loses it, laughing and applauding harder than ever before. The boy, however, is mortified; he turns bright red and slumps down in his seat. He is so embarrassed that he can’t pay attention to the rest of the circus. Eventually it ends, and he heads home with his father.
The next day, the boy decides that he’ll never be embarrassed like that again, and heads to the library, where he finds a book on witty retorts and snappy comebacks. Over the next weeks and months he reads every humor book in his library and all the libraries in the county, studying the art of the snappy comeback.
Still feeling like this is not enough, he gets his father to drive him to the Big City, where he goes through all the humor and joke books in it’s massive library. This pattern continues in other cities as the boy grows up, and when he graduates highschool, he decides to attend a performing arts college. He focuses on comedy, specifically the art of snappy comebacks. He distinguishes himself during this time as the quickest wit ever to grace the stage at this college, and when he graduates, the faculty ask him to teach a class of his own, on the topic of witty retorts. However, the boy (now a man) feels he is still inadequate, so he heads to Las Vegas, where he works the nightclub circuit, becoming famous for his quick and biting comebacks to hecklers.
Finally, one day after a particularly successful show, the boy (now man), feels that he is as good a comedian and retort artist as anyone alive, and that he is ready. He heads to the airport, and hops on a plane back to his boyhood home state. In the taxi, on the way back to his small town, he sees an advertisement for a circus, featuring the world-famous “Pagliacci the clown, funniest in the world, 50 years of comedy!” The boy (now man) smiles to himself as the taxi comes to a halt. That same evening, before even seeing his father, the boy (now man) heads to town and finds the circus. He buys a ringside ticket from the now grey-bearded lady, and makes his way to the seats.
He smiles and claps appropriately through the acrobats and strongman (now bending two iron bars), before the ringmaster comes out and bids the crowd be silent. After a short, pregnant moment, he calls out:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Pagliacci!”
The now infamous clown bounds out to more thunderous applause takes a deep bow, which turns into a somersault. He pops back to his feet and scans the crowd. His eye once again catches on the boy (now man) and he struts over, oversized shoes honking the whole way.
“Excuse me sir,” Pagliacci addresses the boy (now man), “being that it is October, Halloween is just around the corner. Do you have a costume?”
The boy (now man) smiles at the clown and says:
“Why yes I do, it is a horse costume I made with my father, and it takes two people. Being older and less flexible than myself, my father usually wears the front half of the costume…”
Once again, just before he can finish his sentence, Pagliacci interjects:
“So does that make you a horse’s ass?”
The crowd goes nuts, everyone in the big top is laughing, Pagliacci is grinning ear to ear, but the boy (now man) is still only smiling calmly. Once the laughter dies a bit, the boy (now man) stands up, points at Pagliacci, and in a booming voice says:
“Fuck you, clown!”