We Are Clown

Mooky and Claudio reinvent

Verily it is said that few things in life are as horrible—Russian land war? Genital warts?—as trying to explain why someone is funny. And yet, here we are, you guarding your flank, me telling you the funniest people in Orange County right now are Canadian and Brazilian old-schoolers Mooky and Claudio.

So perhaps I should start by telling you what the pair is not, which is worth the price of admission to Cirque du Soleil's Varekai at the Orange County Fairgrounds. That's only because the cheapest adult seat for the show—playing through Feb. 29—is 60 bucks, and if you're going to spend that kind of money, you should also get high-flyers, jugglers, contortionists, freakishly strong little dudes and ethereal wonderment up the, hopefully, protuberance-free ying-yang.

You will. And amid that—about halfway through the first act—will come the ephemeral Mooky Cornish and Claudio Carneiro—he in greasy hair and the light blue tux every guy of a certain age wore to his prom, and she, Mooky, in a froofy Love, American Style negligee exposing grandma drawers and robust thighs. He is the world's worst magician, she the inept assistant.

If it all sounds very, you know, done, it has been. While what passes for funny these days usually does so under the standard of outrageous or cutting-edge, Mooky and Claudio's two main bits in Varekai—the magician and guy chasing a spotlight—are acts that probably had a good run by the time Red Skelton got to them, the stuff that made vaudeville great. The pair's talent is to take something so familiar and breathe life into it, making it at once recognizable and new; Glenn Gould playing Bach, only funnier. Though relatively young—she's 30, he's 28—they're great lovers of traditional circus and especially that form of comedy that dares not speak its name on these shores.

"Clown," Mooky said. "We are clown and believe in clown. I know, in America, clown is bad word because people think of birthday clown or half-ass artist. But we believe in it. When I was coming across the border and had to give my occupation, I wrote down 'Clown,' and the guard, who had seen the show, looked at me and said, 'Oh, you don't have to say that about yourself.' To him, it was an insult. Not to us."

What makes their clowning so fresh is that unlike those tired, red-nosed, flower-squirting, ritual-hacking death clowns or recent movie incarnations–Robin Williams, Jim Carrey–they choose small over big, their best moments punctuated with nuance. There is a moment during the spotlight bit when Claudio is mouthing the words to a Nina Simone recording and running about the stage, trying to catch the light. After one sprint, the light finds him singing into the wrong end of a cordless microphone. He continues mouthing the words and then, never looking at the mic, takes his other hand and slowly rotates it right side up. The crowd roars either because he thinks he's putting one over on them or because he knows he's not and is daring anyone to call attention.

"Smaller," Claudio said when asked about the bit. "Always smaller."

There are moments like that throughout the act. Mooky's little slips atop high heels, little glances and nonplussed expressions while hanging from poles—it's the kind of comedy that depends on and respects the intelligence of its audience.

"I guess you could call it almost minimalist," Claudio said. "People are smart. They get it. Especially in California. Back East, they want it a little bigger."

It's the kind of comedy they've been able to hone doing 10 shows a week for more than a year. Still, they knew they'd found a kindred performer almost immediately. Mooky had been originally cast for the show with a different partner, "more of a 'poetic' clown," she said, and the two struggled to agree on an act. She was paired with Claudio just a month before Varekai opened, and the results were immediate, owing to the fact that they both "just wanted to be funny," Claudio said. That may sound simple, but the fact is the only people who may hate clowns more than Americans are that most dangerous of show-biz creatures: the self-aggrandizing clown.

"There's a lot of theory in clowning," Mooky said.

"Workshops ruin clowning," Claudio said.

"They make it very serious, and you start to feel bad if you just want to make people laugh," Mooky said. "I remember I used to panic because I couldn't find my 'personal clown.' I'd say, 'My God, I don't have a personal clown! What am I going to do?' It's too serious. Clowning means taking the piss out of yourself."

Now that's what I call some dry humor.

Hey, hey! Cirque Du Soleil presents Varekai, Orange County Fair & Exposition Center, 88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, (800) 450-1480; www.cirquedusoleil.com. Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 5 p.m. Through Feb. 29. $60-$80; students/seniors, $54-$72; children 2-12, $42-$56.
 
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