Circus Kid

The Pickle Family Circus started in the 70s. “Pickle Family” is a joke name, by the way. There was no one named “Pickle” involved in the circus, any more than Monty Python’s Flying Circus was named after an actual person named “Monty Python.” (On the other hand, at least the Pickle Family Circus was a circus, which Monty Python’s Flying Circus of course was not.)

The founder, leader, and star of the Pickle Family Circus was Larry Pisoni. The documentary Circus Kid is the story of the circus, of Pisoni, and of Pisoni’s family, told largely from the perspective of Pisoni’s son Lorenzo, who grew up with the circus and performed in it from a very young age. It is based on a one-person play that Lorenzo created about his childhood in the circus. It’s not just some fun, superficial story about a circus; it’s primarily a psychological study of these people and their relationships.

Pisoni’s vision was to retain some of what had long been the norm in circuses (Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus being the gold standard), but also to incorporate some innovations. Instead of the traditional three rings, where there were multiple shows going on at once, there was just one performance at a time. There were no animal acts, no freak show (though the latter had largely died out by then in regular circuses too). The emphasis was on humor, music, clowns, acrobatics, juggling, and tumbling.

There was an informality to it, compared to “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The audiences were smaller and up closer to the performers. Indeed, I gather there was kind of a hippie vibe to it, reflecting the times in which most of the primary performers came of age and learned their craft. They were a bunch of artsy young people from the San Francisco area coming together and kind of making it up as they went along. Some of the business aspects seem to have been handled amateurishly.

But the informality, the amateurishness, mostly wasn’t reflected in the quality of the performances themselves. Pisoni was a perfectionist, he worked and practiced at his craft incessantly, and he expected the same of everyone. In its heyday, the three clowns Pisoni, Bill Irwin, and Geoff Hoyle who were the main performers were highly talented physical comedians and acrobats. (Irwin and Hoyle, interviewed for the documentary as was seemingly almost everyone key to the story, went on to successful show business careers. Irwin was somewhat familiar to me; I had heard of him and seen him in a few things over the years. Hoyle was less familiar to me, though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him in something.)

This was actually a high level show, and consistently got very good reviews from critics. And it is given credit for indeed moving circuses in a new direction. The circuses that are successful today—most notably Cirque du Soleil—are more similar in form to the Pickle Family Circus than to the traditional style of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (which, in fact, is now defunct).

But as I say, the film is less about the circus and more about the people, especially Pisoni, and especially the relationship between Pisoni and Lorenzo. And the easy conclusion to draw is that Pisoni was an asshole, and Lorenzo’s childhood was abusive. At least I suspect that’s where most viewers will come down.

I sense that Lorenzo himself feels more ambivalence than that looking back on his childhood. He’s on a journey in this film to understand that childhood better, and to understand the main characters involved in it, most notably his father, better—to understand, not necessarily to condemn.

And I myself am probably less unfavorable in my assessments than I think most viewers would be, putting me closer to Lorenzo’s ambivalence, though if I had to guess I’d say I’m probably even slightly less unfavorable in my assessments than he would be.

There’s no doubt that Pisoni could be difficult to deal with. Like I say, he was a perfectionist. He was also charismatic, with an authoritarian streak. He was a very dynamic, larger than life, intense guy, and things were going to be done in a way consistent with his vision, with no other option.

As Lorenzo recalls all too well, no matter how good you got at some comedy routine, some trick, some acrobatic move, his father’s response was always “Do it again.” It was all about practicing, improving, further solidifying muscle memory. There was no, “That’s good enough. You can relax now.”

It was certainly not a “wouldn’t it be great to run away and join the circus?” fantasy childhood for Lorenzo. At age two he staggered into a performance uninvited, to the delight of the crowd, but soon enough he was a full time circus performer, doing clown acts with his father by age six. He wasn’t coerced into it in any literal way, but of course someone so young’s capacity to make meaningful choices is very small.

He remembers great highs when he felt closest to his father, when they were in sync on stage, when the applause and approval of the crowd further bonded and affirmed them. And there could be moments of bonding like that in the preparations, as they planned, practiced, rehearsed, and anticipated going out there and making magic together.

But day-to-day it was grueling and repetitive, and it was always a struggle to get that parental approval he craved. The closeness, the approval, came in flashes, but more often there was that sense of “I’m not good enough for him.”

Certainly his experiences got worse over time, as did everyone’s, as Pisoni deteriorated emotionally and increasingly abused alcohol. (The film seeks to explain this as in part stemming from Pisoni’s relationship with his own father. His father had been out of his life for decades, then they reconnected and it looked promising that they’d have a positive relationship, only to have the father die before that could really get off the ground.) Pisoni could no longer perform at the high level he had previously established, and he was much harder to deal with even than he had been before.

Then he split, leaving his circus and his family behind. The circus stumbled on for a while. Indeed, Lorenzo himself (still only 11 or 12 at this time, if I remember correctly) was made the face of the circus, the master of ceremonies, in the absence of his father. He and the remaining performers gave it their best, but what had been extraordinary was now at best competent, and the circus never recovered.

In the absence not only of his father but of his mother, by the way. Pisoni’s wife was an occasional performer, but mostly focused on the business and administrative side of the circus, which was, like I say, kind of a slapdash operation in some respects. She had to do plenty of juggling of her own over the years just to keep it afloat financially. Often, including during this time when Lorenzo was trying to fill his father’s (very large clown) shoes, she did not accompany the circus on its travels but remained back in San Francisco.

Asked about that arrangement by her now-grown son in the interview for the documentary, she’s kind of sheepish about it. She describes how one of the members of the band had some kind of temporary guardianship of Lorenzo, and how all the adults were sort of informally tasked with looking after him, but she acknowledges that, yeah, they probably didn’t manage to set it up in a way that would have passed legal muster back then if anyone had called them on it, and surely it would never fly today.

What you read in her tone and in her eyes is, “It would be too hard to explain, but, you know, that was just a different time.” Everything was kind of loose and free and “do your own thing” in the circle they lived in, including when it came to parenting. In hindsight you can look back on it with horror, but at the time everything was up for grabs and people were experimenting with all kinds of arrangements and lifestyles.

Like I say, the condemnation, the criticisms, are easy to come by: Lorenzo was deprived of a proper childhood. He was deprived of all those normal things that other kids get to take for granted. He was put under enormous pressure that he wasn’t ready for, forced to grow up too soon. (Pisoni had him sign a contract at age 6—legally of zero validity, but no doubt psychologically very powerful—committing him to his work as a circus performer.)

I can see that, and I don’t totally disagree, but I’m more inclined to say that Lorenzo had a different childhood from the norm rather than necessarily an inferior one. It had its own unique good points and bad points, ways in which it was better and ways in which it was worse than (what today passes for) a normal childhood.

I think there’s a significant bias in favor of the known, the conventional, such that people are a lot more conscious of the respects in which deviations from the norm are (or at least seem to them to be) worse than the norm, while downplaying or not seeing those respects in which deviations are better than the norm.

OK, Lorenzo missed out on a lot that regular kids get to experience in childhood. Well, they miss out on a lot that he got to experience, and it’s not clear to me who got the better of that deal. Certainly it’s not enough of a no-brainer to me that a conventional childhood is superior that I’m ready to condemn his unconventional childhood as being child abuse.

Probably the aspect of it that most people would point to as the most unambiguously abusive is the lack of schooling. Needless to say, when the elementary school age Lorenzo was working full time as a clown for a traveling circus, he wasn’t in school. For that matter, I get the impression that any home schooling he was supposed to be getting instead was more in theory or perfunctory than actual.

I’m radical on this issue, though, so I’ll take the unpopular position. I think that conventional schooling is so awful and so harmful to all concerned that not only would other approaches to schooling be better, but no schooling whatsoever is also better. I won’t go into the whole argument of why I think that—that would take its own essay much longer than this one—but I really do believe that; I’m not being hyperbolic.

There are other aspects of a “normal” childhood that he missed out on that probably would have been good to experience, but he’s lucky to have missed this one.

I will say, the mix of good and bad he experienced growing up the peculiar way he did doesn’t seem to have damaged him all that greatly. He seems like a pretty together person as an adult, or at least above the average of people who did get to have the normal childhood he missed out on. About the only criticizable thing that I picked up on from watching him in this film—and it’s pretty minor as a character flaw in the grand scheme of things—is a certain artificiality (“phoniness” has a little more of a derogatory connotation than I want here, so I’m going with the only mildly derogatory “artificiality”), like he’s always performing, always playing a role. It’s an extrovert or natural salesman sort of thing, where the person is always “on.” It’s not surprising that his adult career is that of acting.

And that very likely stems from his childhood. He got used to being a showman and performing in front of an audience regularly starting at an age when other kids are in first grade, and he even became a leader of sorts of a major troupe of performers decades younger than is typical for such a role. Plus, as far as his family dynamics, he even more than most kids felt that to earn parental approval he had to take a “Look at me! Look at me! Look how I’m being and doing everything you want!” approach.

I hasten to add, though, that even if I’m right that he turned out above average or better compared to all the people who had the kind of conventional childhood that he didn’t, that’s no more than weak evidence for anything. Not everyone with a terrific childhood turns out terrific and not everyone with a terrible childhood turns out terrible; childhood just gives you a certain boost or a certain hindrance. Maybe his circus childhood was indeed an abusive one and his overcoming it was unusually lucky or unusually worthy of praise. I doubt it; I’m just saying the fact, by itself, that he doesn’t seem totally fucked up doesn’t prove that his parents didn’t raise him poorly.

But even if I’m inclined to believe that Lorenzo’s being raised in the circus in and of itself didn’t give him a clearly worse childhood than if he had been raised in the most common way by the most common parents, it doesn’t follow that he received ideal parenting.

Let’s stipulate that Pisoni was being a rotten father when he was deteriorating deeper into alcoholism and bringing his circus down with him, and obviously when he abandoned his family. What about before that?

My opinion is mixed. Even before he fell apart he was clearly flawed as a human being and as a parent, but—and here again this probably won’t be all that popular a take—I’m actually more sympathetic to him, and apt to judge him less harshly than I otherwise would, based on his pursuit of excellence in his field.

It’s a commonplace sentiment that family and parenting has to come first in a person’s life, that if you let your work or anything else cause you to compromise that, then that’s always wrong.

I can go along with that as a rule of thumb for most cases, but I’m probably more inclined than most people to see exceptions, or at least close calls.

If we’re talking about spending 60 hours a week instead of 40 hours a week at your job in some corporate office so you can make even more money above and beyond what you really need, and as a consequence your personal and family relationships suffer, then, yeah, I’ll go along with the commonplace view that that’s bad. (Though, by the way, although the views people routinely espouse would entail condemning someone like that, in real life I don’t see nearly the level of disapproval of such people as one would expect.)

But what if it’s not some mundane (or in the case of most such corporate jobs, actively evil) job or pursuit like that?

If you have a gift, if you’re a potential Napoleon, Edison, Chaplin, Muhammad Ali, Bobby Fischer, what have you, and achieving the maximum level of excellence you’re capable of in your specialty requires a certain single-mindedness of purpose, extraordinary commitment of time and effort, etc. that results in compromising other areas of your life and your character, should you settle for a lesser level of excellence?

I don’t know. My values and the way I’m wired means I myself am probably more likely to opt for trying to be a nicer guy and having better relationships over being the highest achiever in whatever area I’m best at. Then again, I’ve never really been faced with that choice. I’m very good at some things, in fact I’m confident that I am (or in some cases, was) in the top 1% of the population in some (mostly intellectual) respects, but I’m pretty sure that I was never potentially so phenomenal at something that had I been willing to make major compromises in other areas of my life and pursue it with intensity and single-mindedness I would have been at or near the best in the world at it.

But aside from how I would answer it for myself, I’m pulled in both directions when it comes to judging truly exceptional people. Like I say, the obvious answer is that the people in your life, your family especially, always should come first. But then there’s also a part of me that thinks that you kind of owe it to the world as a whole to show what a human being is capable of, or to take some certain field forward in some significant way.

By being the kind of person he was—by being a control freak, by working and practicing incessantly at his art, by making his art his number one priority in his life, by being a perfectionist, by incessantly pressuring everyone involved in his enterprise, including his own young son, to always give their all and to always work at getting better—Pisoni became one of the most talented clowns and comedic acrobats of his time, and he created something that changed the history of clowning and of circuses and gave countless people in his audiences joy that they otherwise wouldn’t have had in their lives.

Maybe the tradeoff was worth it. It’s at least a close call, in my book.

It brings to mind that old saw about how when someone is on their death bed, they never think, “I wish I had spent more time at the office”; they wish instead that they had more fully appreciated and worked on their relationships and their family and such. I’ve always agreed with that, but I wonder if there are exceptions.

If you could have written the Great American Novel if you had been a bit more of a jerk or not been quite so focused on being the best spouse and parent you were capable of being, but instead you wrote a Pretty Good American Novel, or the “office” that you didn’t devote as much time to because your priority was being a better person for your family was one devoted to cancer research and you were brilliant enough to have cured cancer but didn’t, it becomes a lot less obvious, to me anyway, what you would or should think about this matter from the perspective of your death bed.

Now one possible response is to say, “If there are cases where a person is justified in making the pursuit of excellence in his field his number one priority, where doing so will adversely affect his ability to be as good a parent as he could have otherwise been, then rather than compromise one or the other he just shouldn’t have kids. Problem solved.”

I think that objection carries some weight, but ultimately comes up short. It only really works if you’re assuming some principle like: “If there’s anything that would prevent you from being an ideal parent, then you shouldn’t have kids.” But that would mean if you are poor, have a mental or physical disability, have a temper or other character issue, drink, smoke, do drugs, aren’t married, are married but cannot say with a hundred percent confidence you’ll remain married at least until your children are adults, are older than a certain age, are younger than a certain age, etc., then you shouldn’t have kids.

I suppose some people would nod along with most or all of that list, but I’m not prepared to say that anyone who has any significant failings (or anyone who is in circumstances that are less than propitious for raising kids), is obligated to remain childless. I don’t want to shut out massive numbers of people (possibly all people, when you get right down to it, because who doesn’t have at least one flaw when it comes to parenting?) from experiencing parenthood.

Another possible response is, “Come on, the dude was a clown. He wasn’t Einstein. He wasn’t Mozart. He didn’t cure cancer. None of what you’re saying about extraordinary people, whether true or not, applies here.”

I’d push back on that too, though. I think his pursuit of his art did contribute something of importance to the world. Plus there’s something about the single-minded devotion to be the best at something—that belief in oneself, that commitment to excellence—that I respect in and of itself, independent of how much it directly benefits the world.

And, correspondingly, the lack of it saddens me in a way. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see what Babe Ruth would have been capable of if he had been more fully committed to his craft? I’m not implying he was held back by a devotion to his family and being the best person he could be in his personal life—in his case it was instead incessant partying and some laziness and such that held him back—but it’s a shame that anything kept him from living up to his potential. Instead of being arguably the greatest baseball player who ever lived, he likely would have been so far out in first place in greatness as to have erased all doubt.

Could Pisoni have treated the people in his life, including his son, better without compromising his dream? Modestly better, almost certainly. Could he have treated them ideally well without compromising his dream? Very unlikely. Should he have made the latter compromise? I’m not sure.

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