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What does a Bouffon do?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2016
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A bouffon is a type of performance in French theater that is focused on the use of mockery as the core element of the presentation. Performers who engage in this particular theatrical expression are sometimes known as bouffons or jesters. The term itself is actually a variant on an older term used in times past to describe the entertainment style associated with some forms of comedy.

The roots of bouffon are often traced back to the development of the opera buffa during the latter part of the 17th century and the early 18th century. As a form of musical comedy that made use of operatic settings and general performance styles, bouffon relied heavily on the use of local dialects, settings that included elements that were commonplace for the audience, and a brisk pace. A successful bouffon in this setting needed precise diction in order to deliver the fast-paced dialogue and keep the performance rolling along at its accelerated pace.

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Jacques Lecoq is credited with coining the contemporary ideal of the bouffon. During the early 1960’s, Lecoq explored a wide range of comedic strategies that included farce, satire, slapstick, and burlesque. Incorporating the elements that were common in opera buffa into these other comedic approaches led Lecoq to create a type of mockery that was highly entertaining, loaded with satire and irony, and moved along at a frenetic pace, making it ideal for the experimental mood that was present in much of the artistic efforts of that decade.

The work of a bouffon involves the use of many of the same skills and strategies used by comedic entertainers throughout recorded history. The biting comments associated with court jesters in medieval times is present in the work of the bouffon. A quick pace, such as often seen in vaudeville comedy routines, is also part of the performance. The use of everyday settings and events helps to connect this comedy approach to the audience, since the comedy arises from situations that they can easily identify with. Broad physical gestures as well as rapid-fire dialogue delivered in clear but particular dialects help to round out the basics of this approach.

There are those that consider the modern bouffon performance to be more of a derivative of many of the approaches to comedy that have appeared since the early 20th century. While acknowledging the influence of these different schools of comedy, proponents note that bouffon today makes use of those elements borrowed from other types of performance in unique ways. This, according to advocates of this comedic art form, confirms that this art form has emerged as a specific technique in its own right, and is capable of standing on its own merits.

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