Michael Kennard and John Turner communicate better in gibberish.
The two clowns got so good at it during their stint at New York’s Second City comedy club they became known as “the poster boys of gibberish.”
That was more than 20 years ago, before Kennard and Turner turned into Mump and Smoot – two horror clowns with a well-honed sense of innocence.
This transformation happened quickly.
One minute, Turner and Kennard were in a workshop with infamous clown trainer Richard Pochinko, the next they found themselves in an alternate universe called Ummo, worshipping a god, also called Ummo.
It all started with a simple task and a bottle of rum.
Pochinko wanted them to create two clowns and put on a play.
It took five hours and a plenty rum to come up with the names Mump and Smoot.
Their universe formed shortly thereafter.
Ummo came from the “u” and the “m” from Mump and the “m” and the “o” from Smoot, said Turner. Their unintelligible tongue is called Ummonian.
If it isn’t already obvious, Mump and Smoot are not your standard birthday party clowns.
“We have an affinity for horror movies,” said Kennard. “We like taking risks, being scary and getting scared.”
Mump and Smoot’s debut, 23 years ago, took place in a dentist’s chair.
“There was a scene were the dentist pulled a tooth and there was blood spraying everywhere and this giant tooth with the nerve snapping,” said Turner.
“We didn’t want to do anything remotely like what was being done.”
But, it turns out, clowns and tooth extraction go way back.
Turner and Kennard later came across old film footage of circus clowns attaching a tooth to a cannon ball to yank it out.
The horror element has always been there, said Turner.
In the 1950s, another clown became infamous for splitting his head open with an axe. “He always put a block of wood under his hat, then would drop an axe into it,” said Turner.
Until one night, the clown got drunk and forgot the block of wood, he said.
Horror novelists like Stephen King, who wrote It, have also played on clowning’s dark side, furthering coulrophobia, or fear of clowns.
It’s no wonder kids get scared of birthday clowns, added Kennard. “They are irresponsible with their make-up.”
Kennard is careful to differentiate fear of clowns from hatred of them.
“People hate clowns because they’ve seen bad clowning,” he said, mentioning clowns at festivals. “You see this clown walking along behind you mimicking you as you walk and in your head you’re thinking, ‘Fuck off, fuck off.’”
Clowning is an art form, just like any other, said Turner.
“But, for some reason, it’s the only art form reduced to children,” he said.
If someone says they’re a clown, people say, “Oh, you’re a children’s clown?”
But if someone says they’re a painter, you don’t hear people saying right away, “Oh, you’re a children’s painter?”
Like all good art, clowning offers a skewed mirror to reflect the human experience, said Turner.
Mump and Smoot accomplish this, but it’s not what they set out to achieve.
“It’s a play, and we want to play,” said Turner.
The blood and gore is tempered with humour and innocence.
“One of the things we wanted to explore was human fear through clowning,” said Kennard. “What fears get to us?”
In Something, the show they’re presenting at the Yukon Arts Centre, Mump and Smoot begin by tackling the simple fear of going to a fancy restaurant and not knowing how to act properly.
Then they end up at a wake. “So you have fears of dealing with a dead body and how you talk to the dead body,” said Kennard.
The final fearful encounter involves going to the doctor, “which we’re all scared of,” he said.
Kennard and Turner didn’t know where they were headed, when they gave birth to Mump and Smoot more than two decades ago.
“We just set out to do fun comedy and discovered all this in the process,” said Kennard.
Over the years, Kennard and Turner have learned to take good care of their audiences. “You want to go as far as you can, without making the audience hate you,” said Turner. “You don’t want them to think you’re in danger, or they’re in danger – and you don’t want them to leave.
“The idea is to take them with us, so the audience is transported through the experience.”
Kennard and Turner have met lots of people who hated clowns, or were scared of clowns.
“And they leave with a different perspective – because we’re good,” said Kennard with a laugh.
During the year, Turner hosts a clown school at his home on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, teaching everything from baby clown workshops to clown boot camps.
Kennard teaches clown and comedy too, at the University of Alberta.
For the last several years, the two friends took a break from Mump and Smoot, only meeting once or twice a year to perform together.
When they do meet up as Mump and Smoot, it’s like a holiday.
“Life is simple then,” said Turner.
Mump and Smoot are performing Something at the Yukon Arts Centre Thursday through Saturday, September 29, 30 and October 1. Shows start at 8 p.m.
Contact Genesee Keevil at