The Truth About Brazil

May 29, 2012 | 5 minute read | By Kevin Read

This post is completely out of chronological order. It doesn’t contain any pictures and features only tangentially a place that I visited. But I have information that I have to share, and this is the best way I can think of to make it public knowledge: Brazilians love clowns. They might not admit that they do, they might not even realize it themselves, but, if you meet a Brazilian, the chances are that when he watches TV it’s either soap operas or Bozo. (Brazilians also love soap operas. See Appendix A)

My suspicions were first aroused in Manaus when a local I was walking with pointed at a man and told me that he was the most famous clown in the city. Given that I had to think for 10 minutes (and confirm with Wikipedia) just for as lame a reference as Bozo for my opening paragraph, I was surprised that someone would know a clown so well that they’d recognize him out of costume walking around the streets. That’s not even starting on the claim that he is the most famous clown in Manaus; that, therefore, there must be other, less successful (yet still notable), clowns in this small city in the jungle. My companion, when I enquired, claimed he had no particular love for circus entertainers, yet he could instantly name more clowns in a 10 mile radius than I could given ten minutes, the whole world to choose from, and the internet.

Next exhibit: a friendly and happy (that is, until I ruined her national identity with my insightful clown theory) Brazilian girl I met in a hostel in Uruguay. She seemed confused by my questioning on this topic and surprised that I was think colourful jesters were more popular in Brazil than in any other country. I told her the story of Manaus and a local clown being so well-known that people would point him out in the street. That was unusual, she said. She would only recognize movie stars and maybe a couple of of her favourite entertainers.

Entertainers?

It turns out that she really likes this guy on TV. He’s a kind of comedian, with an hour long show, doing what you might describe as slapstick. He’s not a clown though, because he wears normal trousers. I asked if he drove a vehicle with any recurring maintenance problems (loose doors, for example). She looked offended. Does he have a lapel pin which doubles as a water pistol? Or course not.  How about his shoes, I ask. Well, he does have kind of big shoes. And his hair? It is… colourful.

He’s a clown. Of course he’s a clown. You can put on normal trousers and call yourself an ‘entertainer’ but if you have giant shoes, a colourful wig and entertain people by throwing pies and falling over, you are a clown. My new friend looked shocked, and a little upset. “I guess he is a clown. Wow, we really do like clowns.”

I’d like to take this chance to make it clear that I am not making any of this up.

Third: Brazilian girl’s friend. He also seemed surprised at my ideas and denied that Brazil has any particular fondness for any part of the circus. Sure, there are clowns on TV occasionally, he told me, but they aren’t that big a deal and no more popular in Brazil than they would be elsewhere. I asked if he’d be able to recognize any of them, if he knew any clowns. He looked uncomfortable. “I do have a couple of friends who are doing night school. Clown studies. But it’s just for fun, it’s not like their job or anything”

Clown studies. Learning how to be a clown in night school. It’s not just how ridiculous (and slightly awesome) this is that made me even more certain of my theory, but that it seemed so normal to this Brazilian that when I first mentioned my hunch that his country might have a weakness for a man with baggy trousers and a colourful wig, he didn’t even think to bring it up. Here were two Brazilians that, when confronted with the idea that Brazilians love clowns, both acted confused and put out by the suggestion. Then it emerges that one follows a clown as her favourite entertainer and the other has two friends in part time clown school. Is this a case of nationwide denial? That brings me to Exhibit D: Fransisco Everardo Oliveira Silva.

In the 2010 Brazilian elections for the National Congress, candidate Mr Silva ran an unusual campaign. He didn’t put forward any particular policies or insist upon his suitability for the job. Instead, he ran slogans such as “Vote for me, It can’t get any worse!” and “What does a congressman do anyway? I don’t know, but vote for me and I will find out for you”. This might seem like an unusual tactic from someone running for national parliament in the 6th biggest economy in the world, but, for Mr Silva, it make sense. Because he is a professional, and well-known, clown.

And it worked. Not only did Tiririca (Mr Silva’s clown name means ‘grumpy’ in English) win a seat in the National Congress, despite a strong media campaign accusing him of being illiterate, he took it with more votes than any other winning congressman that year. In fact, he got the second most votes for any Brazilian congressman in history. His victory in the polls was analysed around the world in terms of the Brazilian people’s disillusionment with their country’s political process, and its meaning for the disconnect between government and the general population. No doubt there’s something to that, but there is a much simpler explanation: Brazilians love clowns.

Appendix A: Brazilian Soap Operas

That Brazilians love soap operas is not even a matter for debate, although the correct names for their programs are telenovelas. These are very similar to soap operas, except they run for a fixed period of time (usually around 6 months) and follow a character or story arc all the way through. They are popular all over Latin America.

Many Brazilians I met watched at least one of these shows (which is actually quite a feat, since they are on 5 or 6 times a week and an avid viewer rarely misses an episode) and it’s possible to follow several because they are shown all evening. At 6pm, the romantic or family-orientated ones begin, which are less dramatic or challenging. Then at 7pm, the comedy telenovelas come on, with light-hearted plots of romance, action and, I can only assume, at least some clowning. The ones that start later, at 8 or 9, are the heavier, more adult and more dramatic soap operas featuring the boldest plots and garnering the highest ratings.

Not only does the theme change through the evening, but so does the cast. New actors begin on the earlier shows and work their way up to the later ones as their careers progress. The TV networks compete with each other, so many different shows are produced, and which telenovelas you watch (and how religiously you follow them) can say a lot about your social standing and class. Each night, if you stare at the lights shining from the windows across the favelas in Brazil, you can be fairly sure that the ones flickering are TVs tuned to telenovelas. Or clown shows (just no-one will admit it).

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4 responses to “The Truth About Brazil”

  1. Mike A says:

    I look forward to your book where you explain the love for clowns in Brazil is related to its complex history and the daunting socio-economic challenges it faces. You can get an advance from a publisher to pay for extending your trip.

    • kevinaread says:

      There might be something in that. Maybe Brazil is industrializing so quickly that people feel they are missing out on their national childhood.

  2. Tuely says:

    Genius, pure genius. The French have a peculiar love of slapstick too…

    • Kevin Read says:

      and, strangely, panoramic photography. Not all of them but, among the photography community, a lot of the people doing panoramas are French, and they make the best software for it. I wonder what other little known national interest they are.

      New Zealanders don’t like sheep as much as we’re all led to believe, but they do love fish and chips.

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