Big shoes, white face paint and a round red nose just don’t cut it anymore.
Clowns at a festival in Denmark are turning to elaborate tricks, like losing their shorts while being sucked into a giant orange balloon or using a baby carriage as a trapeze.
But their mission hasn’t changed: making people laugh.
"It’s about spreading a little bit of poetry, making people happy," Benny Schumann said after twirling plates at the International Clown Festival he founded 11 years ago.
The grandson of circus clown Charlie Rivel, Schumann, 61, relies on traditional slapstick to amuse crowds at the Bakken amusement park north of the Danish capital.
"Some clowns still use acts from 100 years ago, but some clowns today have simplified the concept, hardly dressing up. The main point is creating a character who is funny," the soft-spoken Dane said.
Many clowns at the 10-day festival said being funny was especially important at a time when the news is dominated by terror alerts, war and natural disasters.
"Being a clown is my way of giving a present to the world," said Marta Sanchez Sevilla, 40, of Spain. She’s traveled the world with comic relief group Clowns Without Borders, including to Sri Lanka after the December 2004 tsunami.
"Sometimes I perform in hospitals, sometimes old people’s homes, sometimes refugee camps," said Sanchez Sevilla, who plays a trouble-prone opera singer who finds all sorts of peculiar objects in her bra.
Not everyone thought she was funny, though.
"She was a bit like a zombie," 5-year-old Thomas said of the clown, who at one point morphed from an opera diva to a pantomime werewolf, howling at the moon.
Clowns of today face stiff competition from video games and other gadgets, and are struggling with negative images in books and movies.
From the ultra-violent hooligans in the Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange to The Joker in Batman, clown characters are often villains, not a child’s best friend.
"It’s a fine balance between fun and fright," said Olivier Rubin, 33, as he watched Sanchez Sevilla’s show.
Lynn Karlsson, 23, of Sweden said her image of a clown was the claw-fingered creature in Stephen King’s horror novel and movie It.
Perhaps because of the evil clown factor, few of the artists at the International Clown Festival donned the traditional clown ensemble: white face paint, red nose and oversized clothes.
Some of the crowd favorites, at least among the children, were the more innovative acts, like Danish clown Lars Lottrup. He gets himself sucked into a balloon wearing tight orange shorts that he manages to lose once inside the bubble.
Six-year-old Asta Petersen said she liked "the guy in the balloon, because he lost his shorts."
Another hit was Russian mother-son duo Pilula — Galina Emeliyanovs and Yuri Emeliyanovs — whose trapeze acts revolve around a giant baby carriage. Their show has a serious message about family conflicts, they said.
"If you put all our acts together, they are a story about our life," said 22-year-old Yuri Emeliyanovs.
Other participants included the Jashgawronsky Brothers, who made music with garden tools, and the Acrobatic duo Okidok2.
Two honorary awards will be handed out: "The World Artist and Clown Award" and "The Golden Nose." Neither carry a cash award, perhaps a sign that clowns want to preserve a little bubble of the world where money doesn’t matter.
"When I was a kid, I thought the circus was the world; that people could get along even if they came from different countries," Schumann said. "Then I grew up and realized that wasn’t the case."