The story of the great clown George Carl (1916-2000) is a lesson in hangin’ in there. Born in Ohio, Carl joined the circus as a teenager. By the early 1950s he had established himself in an acrobatic family act with the Kelly-Miller Circus, consisting of himself, his wife, and his two children. In addition to circuses, this act also played luxurious resort hotels.
By the early ’60s he was working solo as a pantomime and getting national exposure on television variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, Kraft Music Hall, and The Hollywood Palace. There are several clips of this early work on Youtube. You might call what he did “silent slapstick stand-up”, mixing the movements of an eccentric dancer with an onslaught of rapid-fire physical gags. Basically, everything tripped him up and gave him trouble, preventing him from starting anything, including the very act he was ostensibly there to present. In the earlier days there was much more variety to his antics. By the mid 1980s, when he made a series of highly successful appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (at around the age of 70, I might add) he had narrowed the act to one very specific routine which he had wrought to a pitch of perfection. Ostensibly there to play the harmonica (which he could actually play, by the way) he would get epically distracted by endless problems with the microphone and stand, adjusting it, fighting with it, getting tangled in it, hitting himself with it, etc etc. This was the sort of act which had been the meat and potatoes of vaudeville and early variety television, but by the time of these Carson dates, Carl was sort of like the last dodo bird. Carson cherished the experience so much he booked Carl a half dozen times, almost as though he were afraid to let go of this remaining link with the sort of show business which had been a part of everyone’s lives a few decades earlier.
In addition to the high profile TV spots, Carl remained a popular live act throughout the years, in places like Paris, London and Las Vegas. He performed with the Royal Circus in Stockholm, and received a prestigious Golden Clown award in Monte Carlo, bestowed on him by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace.
In 1995, nearing the age of 80, Carl made his film debut and show biz swan song in the movie Funny Bones, in a memorable and moving turn. His son, George Carl Jr remains in show business — as a doo wop singer!
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on clowning, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube