In ‘Humor Abuse,’ clowning is serious business

Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Did you dream of running away with the circus? Circus life must be fun and funny, but from Lorenzo Pisoni’s point of view, it can amount to “Humor Abuse.” This one-man show is 90-minutes of don’t-try-this-at-home physical comedy about Pisoni’s relationship with his father.

Early on Pisoni explains the title, saying, “My father’s a clown and I have suffered from years of humor abuse.”  Pisoni warns us, “This is a show about clowning and I am the straight man.” That may sound ominous, but this 90-minute show packs in many laugh-worthy moments along with the pathos of a father-son relationship.

Created by Pisoni and Erica Schmidt and performed by Pisoni, the show is about how Pisoni became a contracted member of his parents’ Pickle Family Circus.  His mother, Peggy Snider, and his father, Larry Pisoni, met in San Francisco in the early 1970s. They were already performers, working at the San Francisco Mime Troupe. From there, they became buskers, performing at Union Square as jugglers. Eventually, they gathered together various performers and became the Pickle Family Circus in 1975.

The Pickle Family Circus was small–they had a single ring and no circus animals. That would have made PETA happy, but before Cirque du Soleil, didn’t most of us associate circus with elephants and horses and even lions and tigers? Yet while PETA might have been happy, perhaps social services was not.  Imagine going to work every day with your father and your father being your teacher, colleague, boss and mentor.

Pisoni was one of several children who grew up as part of a circus. He eventually took over his father’s routines when his father left the circus in 1987–Pisoni was only 11 but he had been performing almost since the moment he would walk.

Pisoni is a tall, fit young man. He’s not a sad sack and without the red nose, he’s quite handsome. This one-man show isn’t a vanity project. He’s been acting on and off Broadway. He even enjoyed a stint with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas as a ringmaster.

This show predates Broadway and Vegas, and began as a two-person show with a fellow former Pickle child while Pisoni was attending Vassar and with the help of fellow Vassar alum Schmidt the show evolved into a one-man show. You’ll see photos projected on a screen of Pisoni as a child with his father.  You’ll even see his dummy brother, a doll made up to look like his clown self.

From time to time, Pisoni will duck behind a backdrop and come in and out of a trunk. He’ll handle balloons and be both his father and himself.  He’ll juggle and do things we expect of clowns. We learn little about his mother, who was also a part of the circus. That might be a different show. Here, the focus is on how funny is serious business.

One of the definitely “do-not-try-at-home” segments is about falling. There is a way to fall and be funny. On stage left, there is a disembodied staircase that travels up a tad too high without rails to guide one. Many a normal Joe might suffer vertigo and tackle those stairs with trepidation. These stairs aren’t used until near the show’s end.

The best testament to the show as both family-friendly and funny is the peels of laughter from the little white blonde girl who sat behind us with her family. She was so adorable that the audience laughed with her and Pisoni was adept enough to take advantage of her cues.

Yet there is plenty for the adults to ponder, about family and just what is education.  Would you have wanted to spend so much time with your father/mother, day after day? That might change your childhood dream of circus life.

One caveat, however. After the show, your children or even you might begin practicing the double, triple or quadruple take at the dinner table. You might end up spitting out your food with laughter or at the chiropractor for whiplash treatment.

Wish they had been selling that red hat, though!

“Humor Abuse” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until November 3.

Tickets for “Humor Abuse” are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at, or in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets range from $20 – $70 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Taper is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.

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