Ringling Bros. and how to clown around for a living
(Credit: ringling.com)

I don’t know about you, but there was definitely a point—or perhaps many points—in my life when I daydreamed about running away to join the circus. The tricks, the magic, and the simple fact that buffoonery was not only welcomed but also expected, all coalesce to form the ultimate dream job. For many, that fantasy recedes into the background as the numbers on the age dial go up, but for some, like Dean Kelley, that dream became a wild reality.

Ever since he attended his first Ringling Bros. circus at the age of four, Kelley knew he had found his calling, to the slight bewilderment of his parents. It wasn’t the bravery of the lion tamer or the outrageous physicality of the contortionists—it was the guys who donned funny outfits, told jokes, and immersed the crowds into the circus experience that won him over.

Kelley remembers, “There was just something about the clowns. They were these grown adults dressed silly, acting silly, and making people laugh. I realized that that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. My parents were like, ‘Oh that’s cute; he’ll grow out of it. It’s just a phase.’ But it wasn’t.”

From then on, it was nothing but the pursuit of laughter, or at least prompting laughter in others, that drove Kelley’s clowning career to where it is today. And where is it exactly, you ask? Why, at Ringling Bros. of course!

Since 2002, Kelley has been clowning for the renowned circus, touring around the world and infecting countless audiences with his trained wit and character—something that has never stopped developing but has always taken root from his real life persona.

“At the Ringling Brothers, with the clown that I am, it’s more of an amplification of who I am as a person. I really don’t say I act like an old man or anything like that, but I just try to act silly and crack jokes with people, and basically just try to have a good time with a lot of energy. It’s something that I’ve been developing and honing for years now, because I’ve been a clown for over twenty years. With the clown character, it evolves and is ever-changing,” Kelley says.

Each circus tour becomes a new challenge as the clown alley, or the group of clowns that make up a particular production, takes on new tricks and acts that consistently push their limits. And this time around, Ringling Bros. are really upping the ante with their latest production, Circus XTREME. With acts like the Mongolian Marbles from the famed International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, to some jaw-dropping BMX tricksters, as well groundbreaking theatrics, Circus XTREME promises to set a new standard for the Ringling Bros. Kelley and his clown alley are especially excited for this tour, because it’s an ideal opportunity for the clowns to come together and shine as a unit.

Kelley explains, “The clowns are featured greatly in this show, and we all really have to work together as one unit. That’s the cool thing about working with other individuals who are in the same line of business—the business of being funny; everybody brings something different to the table. So it’s definitely a huge collaborative effort amongst the clowns, for every single thing we do for the show.”

What people don’t often realize is exactly how challenging that business of being funny truly is. We all know what it’s like to have bad days, but most of us don’t have to go on stage and try to make everyone around you laugh despite how terrible you may feel on the inside. Kelley, however, sees it as a duty to leave behind any negativity that may be affecting him personally, because doing anything else would be a disservice to his audience.

“When people come to the show, they don’t see me as Dean Kelley the person. They see me as Dean Kelley the clown,” Kelley explains. “So I may have something going on in my personal life that is just not that great, but I have to leave that behind the curtain…. I try to look at it from perspective of the audience. I want them to have a good time and want them to remember this. I don’t want my personal life on the floor.”

This positive attitude in itself is a remarkable feat, especially when you consider how truly grueling the life of a clown is, and it’s a wonder that the work doesn’t take a toll on Kelley and his clown alley. With contracts promising thirteen shows a week, and often performing three shows a day on the weekend, any of us non-clowns can hardly imagine what it must like to have to be funny on such a common basis. But despite any hardships or the daunting touring schedule, Kelley simply reminds himself that “circus clowning is the hardest work you’ll ever love.”

And really, what’s more sublimely extreme than that?

The Ringling Bros.’ CIRCUS XTREME comes to Los Angeles at the STAPLES Center July 9th through July 14th. Buy tickets here.

Not in Los Angeles? Not a problem! Find an XTREME show near you.