Ask Me Another
2:39 pm
Wed January 16, 2013

The Acrobuffos: Clowning Around

Originally published on Fri April 26, 2013 10:05 am

Have you ever wanted to run away with the circus? This week's Ask Me Another V.I.P.s literally did. The Acrobuffos, a.k.a. Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone, met while performing in Afghanistan, formed bonds both in comedy and in love, and now co-headline the premiere clown gig in America: The Big Apple Circus.

Sporting complementary blue and purple coifs, the pair joins host Ophira Eisenberg to explain how they found their unlikely professional calling as practitioners of Commedia dell'Arte, or masked comedy — Seth attended three different clown colleges, Christina only one (Princeton). Their act, which you can watch in the video below, is largely non-verbal (so as to play internationally) and extremely physical, taking advantage of audience interaction as well as one of Christina's attributes that's, well, exaggerated.

From the interview, it's clear this duo shares more than just the ring at the Big Top. Which is exactly why we mess with that camaraderie by pitting them against one another for an Ask Me Another Challenge that's all about clowns and circuses. There's singing and laughter, plus a whole lot you didn't know about the life of a circus performer.

About The Acrobuffos, Seth Bloom & Christina Gelsone

Seth and Christina met at a circus in Afghanistan, were engaged while street performing in Scotland, and married in China where Christina wore a dress made of little white balloons. Since becoming clown partners in 2006, they have created five shows together, competed in international circus festivals, performed in over 18 countries, juggled on the Late Show with David Letterman, and were featured in The New York Times. Seth is a former professional juggler who makes each clown mask by hand, and Christina was a professional ballerina before becoming a clown. Her character, Madame, is based on an actual 19th-century clown painted by Toulouse-Lautrec. You can follow Seth and Christina's clowning adventures, including with the Big Apple Circus, by visiting their Tumblr page.


Watch Seth and Christina in full regalia, performing as The Acrobuffos.

This segment originally aired on January 18, 2013.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm your host, Ophira Eisenberg. And joining me is Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Seth and Christina, welcome.

CHRISTINA GELSONE: Thanks.

SETH BLOOM: Thanks for having us.

EISENBERG: Thank you. Now, did you always want to be a clown, Seth, your whole life?

BLOOM: No, I never thought about being a clown until I saw an audition for clown college. And I thought it'd be more fun to go throw pies and put on makeup and put on big shoes than, you know, four more years of calculus and biology.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOOM: And it was true. I actually went to three clown colleges.

GELSONE: Yeah, and...

EISENBERG: What, you kept failing out? Like, how did that work?

(LAUGHTER)

BLOOM: You could say it that way, but she...

GELSONE: And I went to Princeton.

EISENBERG: Oh.

(APPLAUSE)

GELSONE: So...

EISENBERG: So you went to the premier clown college.

GELSONE: Yes. Sideshow Bob actually tells Cecil that he went to a clown college.

EISENBERG: Oh yeah.

GELSONE: Princeton.

EISENBERG: Princeton.

GELSONE: So I'm in good company there.

EISENBERG: What you're doing in the Big Apple Circus as the headliner, that is a real marker of success, right? That's a big deal, like...

BLOOM: It's awesome.

GELSONE: Yeah, it's a big deal.

BLOOM: It's the best circus gig you can get in the states as a clown.

GELSONE: Yes.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

BLOOM: And it's the only - it's actually really the only clown gig we're going to get in the states doing what we do. Mostly, we work in Europe. We work for 10, 15...

GELSONE: And Asia.

BLOOM: ...20 different countries.

GELSONE: Twenty-eight, something like that.

EISENBERG: So when you say "doing what we do," what do you mean by that?

GELSONE: Non-verbal comedy.

EISENBERG: Yeah, just non-verbal. So basically there's...

GELSONE: No words, yeah.

EISENBERG: There's not a lot of opportunities otherwise to...

BLOOM: No, but we want to travel and eat at all the McDonald's that you mentioned earlier in the show.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOOM: We got all those questions right, by the way.

EISENBERG: Well done.

BLOOM: Because we've been in all those countries performing. But if we speak, then we can't work anywhere outside of English language countries.

EISENBERG: Of course, right.

BLOOM: So all our shows are mostly silent or mildly verbal.

EISENBERG: I as a comedian, when I do standup, if stuff doesn't work out, which happens in my act constantly...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I have the ability to like talk to the crowd or admit that that didn't work out, or I can do a lot of things at least to make it know that I get it. Like how does that work for you when you do a bit, physical or nonverbal or...

BLOOM: If it doesn't work, usually we just go try to kiss someone in the audience.

EISENBERG: Really?

BLOOM: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOOM: We're equal opportunity kissers, so if Christina kisses a guy, I go for him and see if he'll kiss me. We actually start our act like that at Big Apple.

EISENBERG: I went to the show. I loved it.

BLOOM: Awesome.

EISENBERG: I did not get kissed, but there's still time.

GELSONE: Seth, grab her now.

EISENBERG: There's still time. Hey, relax.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOOM: They can't see it on air, but we can do the sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF KISSING)

GELSONE: He licked her.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: And this right there, that was a great example. You guys work together. Is there a lot of clown duos out there? How did you find each other?

BLOOM: We met in Afghanistan. Actually, I met Christina - seriously, I met Christina at a blown out building where she was performing for 10,000 boys, surrounded by military. Serious.

GELSONE: There was just four ISOF people sitting there with guns.

BLOOM: With guns, that's true.

GELSONE: To protect us.

BLOOM: Yeah.

GELSONE: It was just four.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOOM: This is true.

EISENBERG: You were just doing a little entertaining.

BLOOM: Well, I had gone to Afghanistan to start a circus project for kids, and then I'd heard that this woman who'd gone to one of the many clown colleges I went to.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOOM: See, I failed out of all of them, because I did too much calculus. And I heard she was there, and then she heard that I was there, and so we emailed each other and actually met up, in Kabul, in 2003.

EISENBERG: And then you started performing soon after? How did that start?

GELSONE: No, we saw each other in Afghanistan more than we saw each other in the States.

BLOOM: Yeah.

GELSONE: Kept going back and then became clown partners a couple of years later.

BLOOM: Yeah, and started working - and once you find a good person to work with, you don't ever want to give it up, because if it's funny and it's working, you want to keep that together.

EISENBERG: And what is that characteristic of finding your right clown duo partner?

GELSONE: Someone who makes you funny.

EISENBERG: Just someone else that makes you funny.

GELSONE: And you make them funny.

EISENBERG: Right, okay.

BLOOM: We're much funnier together than we are apart.

GELSONE: Oh yeah.

BLOOM: At least when we're working, you know, either onstage or on the street.

EISENBERG: And when did it turn from duo, clown duo to clown duo with benefits?

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

BLOOM: Well, not soon enough for me.

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Wow.

BLOOM: A bell went off in my head and I said that's the woman I should be with the rest of my life. It went like that. No holding hands, no flirting, no kissing. I said I want to be the rest of my life with you.

EISENBERG: Did you have clowns at your wedding?

GELSONE: Oh, my gosh. Did we have like 20 or 40 or something?

EISENBERG: Oh, I was kidding.

BLOOM: Eighty, eighty clowns.

EISENBERG: I was kidding.

BLOOM: No, I'm serious. You can tell the story.

GELSONE: Actually, we got married in China, in Hangzhou at a clown festival. Yes.

BLOOM: So Christina wore a dress made of white balloons that were tied into very little small balls all the way around her body.

GELSONE: Really thin gorgeous balloons.

EISENBERG: That sounds amazing.

GELSONE: When I saw the dress, I was just gobsmacked.

BLOOM: Yeah, it took them like 16 hours to twist the dress into its shape.

GELSONE: It's a big...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: This sounds like - well, it sounds just like a normal wedding, actually. It took them 16 hours to twist the gown. But it was balloons.

BLOOM: It was made of balloons. I didn't get to pop her out of the dress though.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: We talked about Grandma Clown in the little bit of trivia we did about you. And Grandma Clown, obviously huge...

GELSONE: The Grand Poobah of Clowns.

EISENBERG: The Grand Poobah of Clowns, right.

GELSONE: Yes.

EISENBERG: PBS special, New York Times profiled.

GELSONE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: So those were big clown shoes to step into, basically.

(LAUGHTER)

GELSONE: Yeah.

BLOOM: Unfortunately, we don't use any clown shoes in our show.

EISENBERG: Yeah. So what was that like?

GELSONE: Oh, we're the sacrificial clowns, we know.

EISENBERG: Really?

GELSONE: Oh yeah. We know that people are going to be like "Where's Grandma?" and we're like, "he moved to Sweden for better healthcare."

EISENBERG: Is that the truth?

GELSONE: That's actually true.

BLOOM: That's the truth.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: That sounds like a joke.

GELSONE: He retired in Europe. Goodbye.

EISENBERG: Everyone's like, oh, all right. All right, speaking of clowning around, I will ask you this very important question right now.

GELSONE: Is this the quiz?

EISENBERG: Not yet. I just need to know right now, are you both, Seth and Christina, ready to do an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge? Are you up to it?

GELSONE: It is the quiz.

BLOOM: For sure, yeah.

EISENBERG: All right.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: One more round of applause for our VIPs.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: And let's welcome back our puzzle guru Will Hines.

WILL HINES: Hi, hi.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: And our musician extraordinaire, Julian Velard.

JULIAN VELARD: Hello.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Now, Seth and Christina, we are pitting you against each other...

GELSONE: Yes.

EISENBERG: ...because you both have - don't get too excited. You have impressive credits, each of you, but we need to find out who is boss clown.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So we've come up with a little game about what else, circuses and clowns. Are you ready?

GELSONE: I hope so.

BLOOM: Oh yeah, sure.

EISENBERG: P. T. Barnum famously bought an African bush elephant for $10,000 and brought him into the United States in 1882. What was the name of this legendary elephant, whose name became a synonym for extremely large?

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

BLOOM: Jumbo.

EISENBERG: Seth...

GELSONE: How do you know it was you?

EISENBERG: Seth, you got it right.

BLOOM: I got it right.

EISENBERG: You got it right, Seth. You got it right.

(APPLAUSE)

HINES: They survived a war on the circus, but one question into this and the marriage is destroyed.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOOM: Am I allowed to tickle her?

EISENBERG: No, you're not allowed. Stop that. The two of you, stop that.

VELARD: Okay, Seth and Christina, I have a musical question for you. Name this song, made famous by the one and only Melissa Manchester.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

VELARD: Baby cried the day the circus came to town, 'cause she didn't want parades just passing by her. So she painted on a smile and took up with some clown, while she danced without a net upon the wire. I know a lot about her, 'cause you see, baby is an awful lot like me.

(LAUGHTER)

VELARD: It's very dramatic.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

GELSONE: "Tears of Clown."

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Good guess. That was a good guess, Christina. Good guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

VELARD: Don't cry out loud.

GELSONE: Oh, I have heard that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

VELARD: Keep it inside. Learn how to hide your feelings.

GELSONE: Wow.

EISENBERG: Yeah, "Learn How to Hide Your Feelings." What, you didn't just sit at home with a glass of merlot and a journal?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: A rookie circus performer is given what nickname, which was typically the date he started working that year?

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

EISENBERG: Christina?

GELSONE: First of May.

EISENBERG: First of May.

(APPLAUSE)

HINES: One for one.

EISENBERG: So, on the first day of headlining, were you guys called that, the First of May.

BLOOM: No, actually not.

EISENBERG: No, because you...

GELSONE: No, no one called us that.

EISENBERG: Really?

GELSONE: We deserve a pie or something.

BLOOM: Yeah, that's right.

EISENBERG: Oh, okay. Sorry, I brought up a little sore spot.

VELARD: Okay, you need to name this song, and I don't want to let the register of my voice deceive you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

VELARD: Circus life, under the big top world. We all need the clowns to make us smile. Through space and time, always another show, wondering where I am, lost without you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Christina?

GELSONE: Is it the band or the song? I think it's Journey.

VELARD: It is a Journey song.

GELSONE: I missed the '80s, so I'm very proud of that.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: You just skipped over the '80s? You just missed them?

GELSONE: I was in ballet, so I was just listening to Tchaikovsky all the time.

EISENBERG: Oh, okay, I understand.

HINES: If you've been in a bar after midnight, anywhere in America, you might know this song.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

VELARD: I'm forever yours.

GELSONE: Faithfully.

(APPLAUSE)

VELARD: That was good.

EISENBERG: All right, well it turns out, Christina you won that round.

(APPLAUSE)

GELSONE: What? I never win.

EISENBERG: You just did it.

GELSONE: I can't believe it.

EISENBERG: I will award you with the thing that has been missing from your life, an NPR ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

GELSONE: Sweet.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: And because we love you, we're giving you one too, Seth. Here you go.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Thank you so much, Seth and Christina for playing.

(APPLAUSE)

BLOOM: Thanks for having us.

EISENBERG: Those were our VIPs from the Big Apple Circus, Christina Gelsone and Seth Bloom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.