When you think of clowns, a specific image might come to mind. Bozo. Ronald McDonald. That nightmare from IT.
Lorenzo Pisoni isn't that type of clown. (Phew.) With little more than a striped shirt and a red ball nose, he proves every night at the Mark Taper Forum that the circus is more about blood and sweat than white greasepaint.
To audiences, Pisoni might seem like a born showman. He has an easy rapport with the crowd and a clown-like knack for falling down stairs. He provokes the audience into what he calls a “galloping laughter” as he pratfalls across the stage, even falling through the floor like a latter-day Rumplestiltskin.
And yet the man insists he isn't funny.
“I can create funny,” he clarifies. “I think I've learned how to do that because I'm good at observation and because I've been doing it since I was a toddler. I've learned comic timing, and I know how to manage an audience, but that's just from experience.”
Pisoni, 36, has performed on Broadway in Equus and Henry IV, and he's been featured on such television shows as Law and Order: Criminal Intent and The Good Wife. But he first took the stage at the age of two in his parents' show The Pickle Family Circus. In real life, the Pickles were husband and wife team Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider, who founded the traveling show in 1975 and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of humor. Patriarch Larry would rarely break character, even when he was at the dinner table or spending quality time with his kids. The circus was his life.
As for their son Lorenzo, he spent his childhood dressed in a gorilla suit, impersonating a puppet, or locked onstage for hours in a 3'-by-2' steamer trunk, waiting to pop out with a bunch of balloons. Anecdotes like these give name to his long-running show, Humor Abuse.
Despite being the rare child who once ran away from the circus, young Lorenzo took to the performing life. He became the straight man — the foil to his father's comic prankster. He was contracted at age six, partnered at 12 and took over his father's position as ringmaster as just a preteen. His father taught him the history of Italian commedia dell'arte, from which modern clowning grew, as well as basic tricks, like “how to balance your hat on your nose.”
It took hours of practice, and some gruff reinforcement, to learn how to reproduce his father's tricks. But in later life he would master these classic conventions onstage, flicking between characters including a silent clown, a clumsy bellhop and an extravagantly masked Pantalone. He does death-defying acts, too, dodging heavy sandbags that fall just inches from his head.
Humor Abuse is Lorenzo's most personal project to date, one that he has returned to many times since its New York opening in 2009. As much as it serves as Pisoni's one-man showcase, each performance is also a tool for the actor to explore his childhood, and his complicated relationship with his father. Larry Pisoni's presence and the comic masterpieces he created haunt the show — masterpieces that, in a strange way, include Lorenzo himself. The actor talks about this with a mix of wonder and resentment, describing for the audience a talented, ambitious man whose passions led him to neglect his loved ones.
Larry Pisoni has seen his son's show many times and he reportedly loves it, even the darker parts. That doesn't mean it was easy for Lorenzo to share his family's secrets so publicly.
“It's definitely weird every time he's in the audience, even now,” he says. “The first time he saw it was opening night in New York and that was particularly odd. There were so many things in the show that I hadn't ever said to him privately. And so once he saw the first show, that was like tearing the Band-aid off.” But, he adds, “Not only did our relationship start to evolve, it got easier.”
For someone so exhibitionist on the stage, Lorenzo Pisoni can be surprisingly guarded in his personal life. As a freshman in college, he even attempted to hide his colorful background from his roommates, but an intercepted phone call from a Japanese circus blew his cover.
That need for privacy is one of the reasons he says he could never do stand-up like comedians Will Ferrell or Louis C.K.
“I would die a horrible death if I tried to do standup comedy,” he says. “Just no. I can imagine these people walking out onto the stage and doing seemingly nothing and just being funny. If I were to walk onto a stage and do nothing, it's not funny.”
Pisoni cites Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success as an inspiration. Gladwell's “10,000-Hour Rule,” which posits that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly master any skill, was the key to learning how to balance his hat on his nose — and later, how to gracefully fall off a 10-foot ladder.
For all the bizarre quirks he had to endure as a child, Pisoni considers himself lucky to have had such a tremendous head start.
“When you see a juggler do just one of his tricks, that flash — that millisecond –represents thousands of hours,” he says. “And to me that is an amazing thing to behold, and a lesson to be learned. Because nothing is easy that you see in the circus, whether it looks easy or not. And I love that. That's the magic.”
Pisoni's next project will be a documentary about his parents and their landmark circus, featuring '70s footage and interviews with the performers who followed the Pisoni family across the country. Supported by friends like Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt, the film's Kickstarter campaign will last through October 21st.
Humor Abuse runs through November 3rd at the Mark Taper Forum.
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