The Clown Hierarchy

The Clown Hierarchy

by Craig Gustafson


My first exposure to clowns was watching the Chicago version of Bozo’s Circus as a child.

The original crew was comprised of the classic clown setup: Whiteface (Bozo), Auguste (Oliver O. Oliver), Tramp (Sandy) and Ringmaster (Ringmaster Ned).  Since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that ALL successful comedians or comic actors can be stashed into one of these four classifications.  And you can determine why some clowns are unsuccessful by studying the classifications.


For instance, with the Marx Brothers, you have Groucho (Whiteface), Chico (Auguste), Harpo (Tramp) and Margaret Dumont (Ringmaster).  There simply was no niche left for Zeppo to fill.


Dean Martin stated that he might have been with Jerry Lewis forever if it hadn’t meant making those crappy movies.  Why?  On screen, Jerry was a Tramp and Dean was compelled to be a Ringmaster.  If you see their TV shows, which were ten times funnier than any movie they ever made, it’s a revelation.  With no one to hold Dean back, Jerry was still a Tramp, but Dean was a Whiteface.  He was allowed to be just as funny as Jerry.


Last example: The first Black Adder was “sort of” successful.  Just enough to bring it back, but retooled.  In the first series, Edmund, Baldrick & Percy were three hapless Augustes.  There wasn’t that much difference between them, except Edmund was a little smarter.  For the succeeding series, Edmund was sharpened into a W.C. Fields Whiteface – sharp, misanthropic and mean; but smarter than everyone else around him and in constant danger of being capriciously killed.  Baldrick was dumbed down to a Tramp and Percy (& later George) became a bumbling Auguste.

This theory is a reworking of one posed by Eric Idle in his unfortunate book The Road to Mars. He categorized comedians according to the European clown designations of Whiteface and Rednose. This is too limiting and led him to place several comics in the wrong category. He claims Phil Silvers as a sad sack Rednose, when Silvers is about the most aggressive Whiteface in history. Idle states that Stan Laurel is a Whiteface when Laurel is the epitome of the childlike Tramp.

To the typical Three Clown hierarchy of the American circus, I've added the fourth element -- the Ringmaster. Lou Costello needs Bud Abbott to keep him in line. Gracie Allen's space cadet needs the grounding of George Burns.



The Whiteface is just what the name implies – white makeup, crazy colorful hair, red ball nose and a bright, fanciful costume, many times with an Elizabethan ruff.  He’s the wiseguy, the ringleader. Whitefaces cause trouble, it doesn’t befall them.  The Whiteface is a take-charge kind of clown.  Non Circus Whitefaces include Groucho Marx, Bobby Clark, Bugs Bunny.  A variation is Moe Howard, leader of the Three Stooges, but deferring the comedic spotlight to Curly.  Whitefaces throw pies, they don’t take the hit. If there were Circus Tarot Cards, the Whiteface is the symbol of the Wiseguy.



The Auguste has a bright orange, nearly fleshtone makeup, with highlighting of the eyes & mouth, and usually a human-looking but distorted nose.  Usually a bumpkin character, with strawlike hair.  Costuming tends to be bright and more like normal clothing, but highly exaggerated.  Big pants, oversized ties, undersized hats.  Augustes are the ones who have pianos fall on their heads.  They have hot soup spilled on them (Schlimazels).  They attempt to cope with life, and it’s not a fair fight.  Non Circus Augustes include Oliver Hardy (an Auguste who thinks he’s a Whiteface), Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball, Cheech Marin, Inspector Dreyfuss in the Pink Panther movies.  There is a side category of the Buddy Auguste, who is just there to be a partner for whoever needs one in the Comic Scheme.  Like Chico Marx, who could verbally joust with Groucho, then team up with Harpo.  Or Larry Fine, who would side with either Moe or Curly, depending on the situation.  For the most part though, Augustes get the pie in the face. Circus Tarot Symbol: The Auguste is the Poor Schnook.



The Tramp is the Eternal Innocent, not quite connected to reality.  Similar makeup to the Auguste, but with a burnt cork five o’clock shadow and ragged, patchwork clothes.   If the Tramp is on his own, things usually turn out badly (Charlie Chaplin; Jackie Gleason’s Poor Soul), but when teamed with the others, he wins out over the Auguste and occasionally even the Whiteface.  He has innocence and occasional magic ability (Stan Laurel lighting his thumb; Curly Howard producing a bigger pencil every time Moe takes one away). Frequently works in silence (Teller; Gromit).  If he’s with an Auguste, the Auguste is in for a sad time (every Laurel & Hardy movie).  If the Auguste is the Schlimazel, the Tramp is the Schlemiel – the one who spills the hot soup on the Auguste.  Non Circus Tramps in addition to those named above: Gracie Allen, Lou Costello, Buster Keaton, Inspector Clouseau.  Tramps duck the pie aimed at them so it hits the Auguste. Circus Tarot Symbol: The Tramp is the Smiling Child.



Dapper, with red tailcoat and top hat, the Ringmaster is the straight man.  The boss.  The authority the clowns are rebelling against.  Ned Locke was the perfect Ringmaster for Bozo’s Circus, because he had this Irish Cop fury that would have been perfect in a Three Stooges short.  The show jumped the shark when he retired and was replaced by the kinder, gentler Frazier Thomas.  Non Circus Ringmasters – Bud Abbott, George Burns, Audrey Meadows, Paul Ford.  The Ringmaster interrupts the pie fight and gets hit with seven or eight pies, resulting in the phrase, “Why, I oughta… !!!” Circus Tarot Card: The Ringmaster is the Frowning Parent.


There are two more side categories:


Renaissance Men

These are the guys who can do it all, and there are only three of them.


Jackie Gleason was a Whiteface as Reggie Van Gleason III, an Auguste as Ralph Kramden, a Tramp as the Poor Soul and a Ringmaster as Joe the Bartender.


W.C. Fields could play an ingenious con man (Whiteface), a henpecked husband (Auguste) or silent juggler (Tramp).


Rowan Atkinson has Edmund Blackadder (Whiteface), Inspector Fowler (Auguste) and Mr. Bean (Tramp).



In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are often referred to as tramps, because of their clothing.  They’re not Tramps in the comedic sense, they’re Augustes, bearing everything life tosses at them in a Laurel & Hardylike way while waiting for Godot to come and save them.


So is Godot a Ringmaster?


Nope – Pozzo’s a Ringmaster.  He’s an authority figure who ends up blind and kicked around in Act Two.


The Boy?  He’s an Auguste; he’ll grow up to be like Vladimir & Estragon.


Lucky is a Tramp.  Downtrodden, seemingly the lowest of the low, but resourceful (kicking Estragon) and once he gets going (his speech), magically unstoppable.


Did you see the cartoon Duck Amuck, where an unseen cartoonist makes Daffy Duck’s life on the screen a living hell by changing the scenery & the sound effects on him?  The cartoonist is never seen by Daffy, but we pull back at the end to see Bugs Bunny at the drawing board chuckling evilly and saying, “Ain’t I a stinker?”

That’s Godot.  The ultimate Whiteface.



This theory can be applied to any comedian or comic movie.  Let me know what you think (at  Come up with your own categorizing or let me know if you think I’ve mislabeled someone.  For instance, I placed Lucille Ball as an Auguste, while many of you would put her as a Tramp (for her pantomime) or a Whiteface (for her constant schemes).  But she copes with life with more difficulty than a Tramp (Buster Keaton is magically agile; Gracie Allen is on another planet).  And Whitefaces are basically assertive winners.  Augustes have to keep begging Ricky for a chance to perform at the Copa.


Agree?  Disagree?  Don’t give a shit?  Let me know.







Bozo’s Circus


Oliver O. Oliver


Ringmaster Ned

Abbott & Costello



Lou Costello

Bud Abbott

Bert Lahr


Bert Lahr



Black Adder


Prince Edmund,




King Richard IV

Blackadder II

Lord Blackadder



Queen Elizabeth

Blackadder the 3rd

Mr. Blackadder

Prince George



Blackadder Goes Fourth

Capt. Blackadder

Lt. George

Pvt. Baldrick

Col. Melchett,

Capt. Darling

Bowery Boys

Leo Gorcey

Huntz Hall


Bernard Gorcey

Burns & Allen Show

George Burns

(double category)

Harry Von Zell

Bea Benedaret

Gracie Allen

George Burns


Buster Keaton



Buster Keaton

Joe Roberts

Charlie Chaplin


Eric Campbell

Charlie Chaplin


Cheech & Chong


Cheech Marin

Tommy Chong


Clark & McCullough

Bobby Clark

Paul McCullough



Cook & Moore

Peter Cook

Dudley Moore



Daffy Duck

Daffy Duck

(original loony character)

Daffy Duck

(50’s Chuck Jones version)



Rabbit Fire

Bugs Bunny

Daffy Duck


Elmer Fudd

Duffy’s Tavern




Miss Duffy



Jackie Gleason

Art Carney

Audrey Meadows

I Love Lucy


Lucille Ball


Desi Arnaz


Peter Falk

Alan Arkin



Jack Benny Program

Eddie Anderson

Phil Harris

Jack Benny

Dennis Day

Don Wilson

Jay & Silent Bob


Jason Mewes

Kevin Smith


Laurel & Hardy

The World

Oliver Hardy

Stan Laurel

James Finlayson, Edgar Kennedy,

Mae Busch,

Anita Garvin, etc.

Mae West

Mae West




Martin & Lewis




Jerry Lewis

Dean Martin

Martin & Lewis


Dean Martin


Jerry Lewis


Marx Brothers

Groucho Marx

Chico Marx

Harpo Marx

Margaret Dumont

Monty Python

John Cleese,

Graham Chapman,

Eric Idle

Michael Palin,

Terry Jones

Terry Gilliam

Carol Cleveland, Connie Booth

Mr. Bean



Mr. Bean


Nichols & May

Mike Nichols,

Elaine May




Penn & Teller

Penn Jillette




Phil Silvers Show

Phil Silvers

(Sgt. Bilko)

Joe E. Ross (Ritzik),

Jimmy Little (Grover)

Maurice Gosfield (Doberman)

Paul Ford

(Col. Hall)

Pink Panther movies





Reiner & Brooks

Mel Brooks



Carl Reiner

Ritz Brothers

Harry Ritz,

Jimmy Ritz,

Al Ritz




Road Movies

Bing Crosby

Bob Hope


Dorothy Lamour

Rowan & Martin



Dick Martin

Dan Rowan


William Holden

Robert Webber

Robert Preston

Richard Mulligan

South Park





Three Stooges

Moe Howard

Larry Fine

Curly Howard

Vernon Dent,

Bud Jamison, etc.

W.C. Fields

W C. Fields

(con-man mode)

W C. Fields

(husband mode)

W C. Fields

(juggler mode)


Waiting for Godot







Wallace & Gromit





Wheeler & Woolsey

Robert Woolsey

Bert Wheeler



What’s Up, Doc?

Barbra Streisand

Ryan O’Neal


Madeline Kahn

Woody Allen


Woody Allen



Your Show of Shows


Sid Caesar

Imogene Coca,

Howard Morris

Carl Reiner

Bert Williams



Bert Williams


Smothers Brothers



Tom Smothers

Dick Smothers

For more information on Clowns & Clown History:
The International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center
Clown College
Clown Supplies
And of course...


© 2006 by Craig Gustafson