Being a clown might look easy, but making people laugh isn’t always so simple. And it’s one of the most important jobs out there, so we were lucky to speak with Adam Gertascov, who’s been running his own clown company for years, and using plenty of math along the way!
I wouldn’t say I was 100% sure, but I was always interested in theater. I went to “normal” acting school and also attended the Ringling Brothers Clown College, which actually accepts a smaller percentage of its applicants than Harvard, so I was pretty excited about that!
Sure, I joined a circus, but I actually wanted to start my own show, or at least be more center stage. So I kept learning clowning techniques and tricks, and then started performing my own shows. I did my first flea circus in 1992, and a more experienced clown told me I should focus on that, so for the next four years I worked on my flea-training skills!
Well, it’s pretty much what it sounds like! The stars of the show are fleas named Midge and Madge, who perform amazing feats of strength and skill. They pull off stunts like pulling chariots and flying out of a cannon into their dressing rooms.
That’s sort of my secret, but I can tell you that fleas are pretty quick learners and that they do what I ask them to do about 85% of the time. People probably underestimate bugs because they’re so small, especially fleas – for example, you could add 5,000 fleas to your pocket and still not gain an ounce of weight from giving them a ride around town! But fleas can move up to 131,000 times their own weight, which you can see happen during their chariot race.
It takes the fleas about 90 seconds to run 13 inches, or the same length of time as the Kentucky Derby. But those 13 inches are over 200 times the flea’s body length, so it’s pretty impressive. To put it on a human scale, that’s like a 6-foot tall, 150-pound person running 1/4 mile while pulling 245 fully loaded tractor-trailer trucks – which would be impressive at any speed, much less in only 90 seconds. Another human comparison: if a flea was the size of a person, he’d be able to leap over the Great Pyramid.
I do a lot of miniscule math, since my stars are so tiny and the total stage is only 4 feet long. I obviously had to do some careful calculations with the flea cannon, using test dummies to figure out the perfect angle of launch and amount of air pressure to send Midge and Madge flying 2 ½ feet through the 2-inch diameter “Hoop of Flaming Death” and still land softly and safely in their dressing room trailer on the other side. Knowing what my fleas are capable of also allows me to dream up new tricks, create correctly-sized props for them, and estimate how long it will take Midge and Madge to perform each act of the show. Lastly, my audience really enjoys hearing the amazing facts about fleas in numeric terms and making comparisons to their own jumping and lifting abilities.
Timing is very important in any kind of comedy, and clowns follow the Rule of Three: the same punch line can be funny twice, but something needs to change on the third time. For example, if a clown walks down the street and slips on a banana peel two times, then the clown should notice the banana peel the third time, but bump into a light pole instead of simply walking around the banana peel. Timing is also obviously important for juggling with regular and irregular patterns – I know 3 or 4 jugglers who are also mathematicians, which I don’t think is coincidence. And of course, if you want to run your own circus, there’s all the budget and planning math that comes with any other business!
Does all of this talk of fleas leave you itching for more math? Don’t miss our Ringmaster-ed Math printable activity guide!
Image licensed by Ingram Publishing