Serious clowning around in ACT’s Humor Abuse

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Lorenzo Pisoni recalls growing up as the youngest member of the Pickle Family Circus in his one-man show Humor Abuse at American Conservatory Theater. The photo behind him (by Terry Lorant) shows young Pisoni, his father, Larry Pisoni, and his paternal grandfather. Below: Pisoni describes how as a child clown he was stuffed into a trunk before making his big entrance in his father’s act. Photos by Chris Bennion

Now, apparently, it’s time to hear from Bay Area sons.

At Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Jonathan Moscone (with an assist from Tony Taccone) is grappling with the loss and legacy of his father, slain San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, in Ghost Light. Now at American Conservatory Theater, Lorenzo Pisoni is recounting his childhood as the son of a clown, Pickle Family Circus’ Larry Pisoni, in Humor Abuse.

Right at the top of this captivating 80-minue show, the younger Pisoni tells us flat out that he was raised to be his father’s straight man. “I’m not funny,” he says. This is a solo autobiographical show (which premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2009 and played Seattle Repertory Theatre last fall), but in many ways, it’s a two-man show. We only see and hear from Pisoni, now in his mid-30s, but the presence of his father is so strong he’s practically a co-star.

Unlike a lot of solo shows, Pisoni’s comes with some great shtick built in. He made his unofficial debut in the Pickle Family Circus at age 2 during an impromptu act during intermission. From age 6 to 10 he was a contracted clown doing a double act with his dad, and at age 11, when his parents had left the circus, he continued touring with the troupe on his own.

So what we get is sort of a Pisoni Family greatest hits package, which is a delightful way to spend an evening. Clowning is serious business, and Pisoni makes that point strongly has he discusses the ways his dad “trained” him, which is to say made him do things over and over again without really offering to help. It comes across as a sort of tough-love approach to learning the clown ropes.

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Pisoni re-creates some of his dad’s great bits (including an interaction with a lovely lady in the audience and a series of rogue red balloons) and shows off some of what he learned at the feet of a master (who also happened to be his dad, which leads to some tricky emotional territory that Pisoni does not shy away from exploring). The two best bits involve suitcases and a staircase and diving flippers and a ladder. The latter is especially interesting because it’s the first act that the young Pisoni created without his dad, and it includes a fairly high level of (pretend and alarmingly funny) pain.

Working with director Erica Schmidt (his co-creator), Pisoni melds his life story with deft and often delightful clowning. His leading man good looks are almost distracting – are truly funny clowns ever this handsome? But as Pisoni reminds us, he’s not funny. That self-effacement is not really necessary, though, because he’s funny. He even gets a laugh when he says he’s not funny. He’s got charm and is at ease on stage. His clowning skills don’t make you forget the likes of Bill Irwin or David Shiner, but he’s masterful in his own hard-working way.

What’s also interesting about this show is what Pisoni isn’t saying. He is clearly not going to discuss his mother or his sister (a successful circus artist in her own right, Gypsy Snider of the extraordinary Canadian troupe Les Sept Doigts de la Main), who must have had a major impact on his life growing up. But this is primarily the story of a father and a son, their bond and their difficulties. During his teen years, Pisoni and his dad didn’t talk a lot, and it’s hard to get a bead on what their relationship is like now.

Though filled with respect, admiration and even awe, Humor Abuse – perhaps the title is telling – doesn’t brim with filial affection. This isn’t a love letter to Larry Pisoni, but it does turn out to be a tribute to Lorenzo Pickle, the clown character created by Larry Pisoni. Larry, the father, remains an enigma in Humor Abuse, but his creations, Lorenzo Pickle and Lorenzo Pisoni, emerge as genuine stars.

[bonus video]
From last fall’s Seattle Repertory Theatre run of Humor Abuse:

[bonus bonus video]
Lorenzo Pisoni tours his hometown, San Francisco.

HUMOR ABUSE VLOG 7: San Francisco from Lo Pisoni on Vimeo.


Lorenzo Pisoni’s Humor Abuse continues through Feb. 5 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

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