Performer Analysis: Bill Irwin

It’s strange how a world opens up to you when you start exploring.

In the 1990’s my emerging obsession with visual comedy led me down some bizarre avenues. One of these was buying a book called Modern and Post Modern Mime by Thomas Leahbart. It was such a strange title that I couldn’t resist!

That book was one of those gateway experiences. I could hardly believe the story that mime emerged as a political genre. I thought it was brilliant, but hilarious, that Etienne Decroux suggested that there should be a twenty year ban on speaking in theatre. And I was galvanised by the discovery that there was a collection of performers known as “New Vaudevillians”.

And then, of course, there were the photos. I’ve always been a push-over for a great visual and here were some great publicity shots of performers doing exactly what I thought I wanted to do.


One of the most striking images was that of Bill Irwin. Superficially, it was just a photo of a clown – a red nose, white face, a crazy wig, baggy trousers and big shoes, and yet, unlike all clowns that I had seen up until then, it had absolute class.

And that is the crux of why Bill Irwin is so extraordinary.

Despite having all the appendages of “creepy” clowns, Irwin’s clown was “done properly”. His make up was faultless, his clothing was made of superior material and somehow the proportions of his costume were spot on.

This attention to detail allowed me to see his clown in a new context. The usual prejudices that I have about circus clowns evaporated. Instead I saw the character itself: authentic, fun – and wild. The possibilities for this clown’s antics thrilled me. What would this character do in a show? What chaos would he leave in his wake? The traditional clown suddenly had meaning for me.


Irwin emerged in America in the 1970s and 80s when circus skills, mime and clowning were enjoying a renaissance. Also emerging at this time was the post-modernist movement. The traditional, familiar structure of circus was good fuel for the post modernists, allowing them a clear, recognisable format to deconstruct.

In 1982, Irwin had a huge theatre hit. It was a bizarre deconstruction of a vaudeville show, “The Regard of Flight”. It includes eccentric dancing, mime, slapstick and ukelele songs. It is esoteric, but it is replete with Irwin’s technical skill.

In fact, it is Irwin’s incredible physical skill that is the core of the show. Again, this was not just a performer who could do the usual tricks. It was a performer who could do these tricks better than anyone else you have ever seen!


Bizarrely, Irwin is probably most famous as Mr Noodles in Sesame Street – possibly as far from arthouse post-modernism as you could get!

As Mr Noodles, he does a lot of the schtick that made him famous: climbing down the stairs in a trunk and getting dragged off stage by an invisible force. But, again, whereas I had seen many children’s performers do similar things, Irwin was absolute class.

This time, it was the final part of the Bill Irwin package that reveals itself: it is his warmth of personality that wins over the Sesame Street kids.


As a performer, Irwin is pretty unique. He is a great physical illusionist because because his skills are so exceptional. He is a great clown because of his wonderful personality. And his attention to detail gives him an alchemistic ability to make the ordinary extraordinary.

This clip shows Irwin’s skill in all its forms. It is from the 2011 dance event Voix de Ville organised by Cori Orlinghouse. Now in his sixties, Irwin puts most younger performers to shame.

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:


Slapstick & Street Dance – Not So Distant Cousins

I’ve got an idea… it could be huge, so keep it secret…

Let’s combine street dance and slapstick in a new artform called slapdancing.


Anyway… here are 3 areas where slapstick and street dance professionals can learn a lot from each other.

NUMBER ONE: The Extremities

Big shoes, wigs and white gloves?

As Gok Wan might say, it’s all about the extremities.

In big arenas like circuses or dance-off pits it is difficult for audiences to see. Clowns use white gloves and big shoes. Street dance crews can use a similar trick.

In the following clip (start watching at 40 secs) the stripey tights and accurate foot position help the audience pick up the visual gag.

On the other hand, in this clip of a street dance crew, the movement is lost against the dark background.

Start watching at 2.20min

BUT remember, simply being seen is for cyclists, not performers.

Performers must concentrate on the extremities.

In this next clip, an all-white costume causes problems – we don’t get a sense of how sharp the movement is – because we can’t see the hands and feet.

Watch from 1.57

NUMBER TWO: Body Isolations.

Try swirling your neck around with out moving your head.

Try swirling your hips, without moving your torso.

The result could be sexy – or hilarious. (It’s a fine line!)

Here is eccentric dancer Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker showing off his extrordinary body control. Sexy or hilarious – you decide:

Bill Irwin moves his body parts around to great comic effect – watch his wiggling from about 6 mins 45.

All these performers have great body control and it is a great tool for a visual performer to have up their sleeve. Or up their baggy trouser leg!

NUMBER THREE: A Sense of Humour!

Using the body to “mess around” is a great way to get laughs – and to create variation in street dance.

This street dancer has combined great skill with fun to create a fantastic (though sometimes rude!) performance.

So, maybe all you trendy young dance dudes can learn something from old slapstick clowns – and maybe you trendy young slapstickers can learn something from those old dance pros.

Maybe we could have slapdancing clubs all over the country.



We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here: