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Steve Hogue did what many children dream of doing: He ran off and joined the circus. And not just any circus, but The Greatest Show on Earth. He became a clown with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

This podcast is about story telling in its many forms. And clowning is indeed a story telling medium. Steve’s a scholar of the history of clowns and the circus, and shares his story of becoming a clown, what makes something funny, and even the story told through the makeup a clown chooses to wear.

This is the video Steve submitted as his application to the famous Clown College. To the best of his knowledge, he’s the only person accepted who did not audition in person.


This is computer generated. Expect a few errors.

An Interview with Steve Hogue – S01E6

SpeakerĀ  Transcript
Rob Hello, dear friends. My name is Rob Webster, and today I’m talking with Steve Hoag, who ran off and joined the circus. That’s on episode six of the story that writes us What kid doesn’t grow up thinking? Maybe one day I’ll just run off and join the circus. Well, my friend Steve Hoag actually did that, and he didn’t pick any old circus.
  He ran off and joined the greatest show on Earth. For a year, he was a clown with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. So I had a chance to talk to him on the phone the other day. And what an engaging and fun conversation it was, just to understand the storytelling that goes in to being a circus clown at the premiere circus in the world.
  You know, I always tell people that they should go look at the show notes. So if you go to the story that writes is dot com in the show note for this episode, there’s a link to Steve’s video that he created to audition for the Clown College. It’s really well worth 9 minutes of your time. I had a blast talking with Steve as he pulled back the curtain on the big top and gave us a glimpse into his life as a clown.
  Enjoy the interview.
Steve The circus fascination for me actually began because we lived here in San Antonio and we were the one branch of the family tree that was far away from everybody else. My whole family, both mom and dad side from Pennsylvania, So those guys would love to leave the cold weather and come down to visit us. And back in those days, it was completely safe.
  And the thing to do to jump in the car from San Antonio and drive to Mexico and go by kids and bottles of vanilla and just before all the stuff that you could go in Mexico and get really cheap. And I’d love that. And there’s little trips with them, and I’d save up my money, you know, later. But we’d go down there and there was really nothing that was for a second grader to buy except I got fascinated by these little clown figurines, these little hand-painted clown figurines.
  And, you know, they were just a couple of bucks I’d get a couple we’d get and I’d just put them on my shelf on and come back. And I’d be with my little memento of our trip to Mexico. My whole family was like, Oh, Steve, like clowns. And so they were always finding that they would ship me big box of clown dolls, clown figurines, circus programs.
  And that was what kind of opened my eyes to the world of the circus, because I would pore over all these old Ringling Brothers programs, and I would just get fascinated by that world and who are these people? And how do they learn how to do all this cool stuff? And, you know, went to the circus probably just a couple of times as a kid as I got a little older and then into college, anytime it was nearby, I would go and little tent shows would come and I’d go hang out.
  I was a photography student. I would take a ton of pictures and I just really fell in love with that world. And I had been aware since I was a little kid that Ringling Brothers had a clown college. So if you wanted to join the circus as a clown for ripping brothers, you would. They had a very specific pathway to that where you would go to the show.
  And it was in town you would audition for the circus. Like during the off time between shows, they would have a kind of basically like a casting call, and they just wanted to see how you are, how you moved around if you’re funny, if you had a good sense of timing and that kind of thing. So I did I did audition one time actually early on, like about maybe my junior year of college.
  I was actually just out of college and I thought I would try again, but I was actually scheduled to be out of town that entire summer on a missionary trip, so I knew I was going to be gone. But I also didn’t want to miss my chance to apply again. So I made a movie, I made a little movie called Clown Blood Runs Deep and I actually just recently put it on YouTube so you can find it if you want to see.
Rob Can I can I make it in the show notes?
Steve Yeah, absolutely.
Rob And this was like this was shot on VHS right? Or something like that.
Steve Yeah. And edited in one of the earliest non-linear video editing is called Video Toaster.
Rob Oh, I remember Video Toaster. I’m jealous. I always wanted video toaster. Man, you were one of the lucky ones.
Steve Well, I didn’t own it, so my friend of mine bought it, so I was like, in his house. He was a newlywed, and I’m like, at his house all the time, and he was, like, staring at me, waiting for me to make so I edit this video. I had even gotten a little kid in my neighborhood to play me as a little kid, and it just kind of chronicled my love of the circus and everything.
Steve I just told you about how I started falling in love with it.
Rob And this was a talented kid. I see. I remember the video, and he’s juggling and doing all sorts of stuff. So you found a really good kid to portray.
Steve You know, I taught that kid to juggle. Oh, did you really? And yeah, yeah. And yeah, I didn’t have this video in mind at the time, but it was convenient. So anyway, yeah, I made that video it into Ringling Brothers, went on the mission trip and they loved the video and basically they track me down. I think I got a phone call from my parents and my parents are like, Ringling Brothers is trying to track you down.
Steve They want to know where you are. They want you to come to clown college.
Rob Oh, my gosh. So were you just ecstatic?
Steve Oh, yeah. Yeah. I was like, Oh, man, this is so great. And I was kind of at a point in life. I early twenties, wasn’t really sure what was next, and it just kind of gave me a path and, you know, kind of cool looking back on life where you see how it unwinds sometimes with definite decisions you make and sometimes just circumstances and providence and things that take you in a direction.
Rob Well, I remember that video and I thought it did such a great job of of everything you just said of showing that fascination and even getting that kid to play you. And didn’t he toss a ball up in the air and the camera tracks it and then when it comes back down and lands in a hand, it’s your hand.
Steve Yeah. Yeah. It was actually reminiscent of the shot in 2000. Right.
Rob With the monkey throws.
Steve The band in the air. That’s kind of what I was thinking about when I shot that. But yeah, yeah, that was it. Well, it was me and I and it’s worth noting, if anybody goes and finds this video, just please take note of my amazing lamb chop sideburns that I had back then. They’re quite impressive.
Rob They were, they were incredible. Steve, I got to say that that’s fantastic. And I remember it’s so funny that even years later, I remember things from that video. I remember seeing it back then and just the just the amount of creativity, obviously, it’s it’s low end gear. But you did so much with it to to tell a story really effectively and even even reference 2001.
Rob It’s just it’s just hilarious. And I’m not surprised at all that they saw that and would say, oh yeah, this is this guy’s got all the makings of a of a Ringling Brothers clown. Tell me about when as a as a clown in the circus what’s what’s the clowns role would you say well.
Steve You know, historically, clowns really kind of existed as a distraction when things went wrong. Like if there was some sort of incidents and animals getting out, some trapeze artist crashed his or whatever. And and you’re trying to take the audience’s eyes elsewhere and released clowns and they come out and do their stuff and pull everyone’s eyes away and then people can deal with whatever fire they going to deal with.
Steve Oh, that only that did actually happen a couple of times for the year that I was on the road. But more than more of the time, it was just going out, providing some comic relief, oftentimes a really good clown gag is there in a parody of something that, you know, really is truly awesome. I can’t tell you about one of our clown gags.
Steve We call it the Arabian Gag because right, right in front of us in the show, there were these Arabian acrobats that would come out and do amazing, amazing acrobatics. They were all, all kind of all around the wing there was a person in the middle with this huge flag, and they would swing this flag around and acrobats would run full speed, Adam and tumble and, you know, vault over the flag like do you know, springs and stuff and then flip over the flag ride and just miss it by inches.
Steve Super cool, very visual. So that would end. It was amazing. They would, you know, pose for the crowd. Everyone’s applauding and screaming, and then the clowns would come out with a flag and dressed in like sort of similar outfits. And they’d clown the middle would just start swinging that flag around and just whacking everybody and everybody’s just getting destroyed.
Rob Oh, my gosh.
Steve I love it. It was yeah, it’s very it was very fun. Action packed. But, you know, the context of it made sense because you had just seen the act immediately before, right? So that, you know, so clowns often are presenting you with this kind of funny alternate reality where they’re either failing at something or they think they know something and they really don’t.
Steve And as as an audience member, you get the joke because you’re smarter than them.
Rob Right? So oh, my gosh, that’s so clever because I can remember so much of it’s just visual comedy. Anyway, that that the clowns do. I was honestly trying to remember if the clowns were miked and spoke.
Steve No clowns can speak again. You’re right. Mimes mimes are part of that. Our art form is that they’re really quiet and that’s why they’re, you know, annoying. I’m just kidding.
Rob You can have mime in your house tonight or something.
Steve Yeah. Hey, if a mime wants to egg my house, that’s totally fine. It’s not going to leave any dashes, right?
Rob You would welcome.
Steve That. Some guys do, and ladies do choose to work more, just letting their actions kind of do the talking and certainly in the circus environment, the reason, you know, maybe you could shout, but, I mean, you might. You might be 30 feet away from the closest person, right? In a arena circus environment. Some of those buildings were so big and, you know, so, yeah, you’re trying to communicate to that person who’s in the front row, but you also got to communicate to that person way up in the rafters back there.
Steve So that’s why all the movements are large and clean and because everything you’re trying to do has to communicate, you know, it could be a hundred yards away that somebody is looking at you and they need to they need to see what’s going on. And that’s that’s many people don’t know. That’s kind of the mentality behind circus makeup, like clown makeup, because if you’re making an expression with your face, the makeup that you end up with, which is the same every day, it doesn’t change.
Steve It’s supposed to really accentuate your own face and the way your face moves so that if you know somebody was from far away, they would be able to see what you’re doing with your face.
Rob So there were 18 clowns. You said during the year that you toured in each clown. I remember you told me one time part of what you did at the Clown College was developing a distinct personality and even a back story. So tell tell me about that and tell me about about who you were as a clown.
Steve I did have for mine I had I had just kind of developed this little sort of a pearl of an idea of that my guy was sort of a frustrated, failed ringmaster because because, you know, the different clown there are different clown characters that play various roles usually that like like in classical circus, they literally align with the makeup.
Steve So I’ll go on a quick tangent. If you’re a white faced clown, a white faced Klan is a clown that is probably wearing a little bit more of a really tailored, neat outfit there’s no skin tone visible. They would wear gloves to hide their flesh down your ears, your neck everything would be white I had a great example, but probably one many people have seen is the clown from it.
Steve Right? And anyways, here is the original Pennywise and then new into you baby. That’s a white face because it’s all white. And so those are even spookier to some people because it’s more otherworldly. But in the traditional sense, that was straight man. White faced clowns are very present. You know, they would be the ones kind of run the gag.
Steve And usually they’re flanked by a couple of August and the August clown have it’s like the word August with an E on the end. It’s they have very kind of gross exaggerated features that traditional red nose wore flesh tone and their makeup and they’re just kind of a little goofier and they’re they’re like the buffoons where the you know, if the straight man is getting frustrated by all the bethune’s around him think Dr. Evil, why must I be surrounded by freaking idiots?
Steve Right. Right. It’s that, it’s that. And so the straight man is getting so frustrated. These guys are running around you know, being goofy. So that’s kind of just a snapshot of the traditional roles that the makeups would indicate. But nowadays, it doesn’t even matter. So I was sort of a white face. I was like an a goose with white faced tendencies, I guess you could say.
Steve It’s like a even though it was an eye makeup he was very kind of deadpan, often frustrated, usually had other clowns that were the ones that were doing the goofy things that would frustrate him and he would, you know, make eye contact with the crowd and like gesture at this other clown and be like, can you can you believe this idiot over here?
Steve You know, that kind of stuff. So it was a little angry, but but but it was the contrast between that and the goofball that maybe made the funny you know?
Rob Yeah. Yeah. What makes something funny?
Steve Golly, that feels like such a hard question right now. I don’t know, because humor absolutely does change, too. So a lot of it does feel like it’s cultural. I mean, in terms of I’m not a comedy expert, but certainly some of the things that I know work are where you put somebody in a spot like a lot of what’s funny about circus type.
Steve But he is grabbing that person from the audience and making them participate and all the people that watch them and just sort of laugh and cringe and that it’s the nervous laughter where they’re sociable. It’s not them.
Rob Right.
Steve Right. Oh, there’s there’s that. And then another one, I guess I could say from the circus, like we talked about it a little bit earlier. It’s where you’re taking something familiar and then just kind of making a mockery of it. So the parody type thing like we did with that acrobatic gag. So certainly those are things that work in the circus, taking something familiar and then kind of just putting a little bit of a twist on it.
Steve If somebody is, you know, getting punched in the face, everybody can identify with that. You know, the clowns play it off in a real funny, cartoony way. We used to joke that if you didn’t know how to end a clown gag, you would just do a pants drop, which is where, you know, somebody gets its hands dirty hands just fall off for some reason and then you’re wearing like funny underwear why is that funny?
Steve Well, because everybody has a fear of that. Or as a been in a situation where they’ve been embarrassed. And that’s, you know, this cultural thing. I don’t ever since I was a little kid, you don’t show your underwear to people. So I mean, that just be it’s just a funny, vulnerable thing. And everyone’s like, oh, no, you know, is it it’s kind of a universal thing.
Steve But yeah, we did have many gags that ended with a pants drop that actually was a big part of our training at clown college with all the violence. And, you know, of course, even there I mean, this was years ago, and I think people are even more sensitive to violence now. But so we went out of our way to make sure that the violence that we would do if if clowns were kind of mad at each other and somebody was going to give somebody a pop to the face, that it really didn’t look realistic.
Steve Right. Supposed to be very cartoony so that it would not be disturbing or associated with actual violence. Or someone who’s actually really experienced getting hit. It’s very much like watching a, you know, some Bugs Bunny cartoon. And actually that’s what we would do. We would at lunchtime, we would sit around watching cartoons for inspiration but, you know, but there’s something to that.
Steve I mean, you just go on YouTube. How come a video of kids coming out of school and slipping on the ice has a zillion views because it’s hilarious to watch people fall down.
Rob That’s true.
Steve That’s true. That’s true. That’s why.
Rob It.
Steve Just is that video. You kind of go watch that. It’s a great the dad is such an evil man because he just didn’t warn anybody. Right.
Rob He’s just laughing as he as he records. And so you do pharmaceutical sales now and so do you ever just fall down or drop your pants to try to sell some medicines? How has this been an application I.
Steve Would like to say I’m too proud to do that. However, now I do it does come up, you know, that I had that background and inevitably doctors will just say, oh, show me a trick. I’ll say, OK, what do you want here? I mean, let me take this serving spoon and I’ll bounce it on my neck for you.
Steve And they’re like, That’s it. That’s amazing. I’m going to write your drug now.
Rob Oh, my gosh, I love it.
Steve Well, it’s funny, if you have kids, too, that that helps shape like the comedy sort of taste of the house, because whatever’s quotable, like, my kids love Nacho Libre. Nacho Libre. I mean, like and we sing the songs and do that. I mean, everybody loves that movie.
Rob Sometimes you like to wear the stretchy pants.
Steve I have. I have I have an outfit. I have a his exact line. I got I got hired. I got hired. I do I do a couple of gigs now and then, and I got hired. Oh, my God, you’re going to love this. I got hired to be a roving entertainer. At a festival in a little Texan town called Cuero.
Steve They have a thing called Turkey Fest, which is a historical festival where they have, like, this weird rivalry with a town in Europe. And they make trips every other year back and forth where they bring a prize turkey and they race them. Oh, my God, it’s this huge festival turkey fest in Kwara. And and they hired I got hired by this little town legend, sea of variety performers to go out there and just be whatever I wanted.
Steve So I got a Lucha outfit. I got that, you know, the mask and a cape and a this awesome tight fitting shirt. That’s all muscle. So it looks like I’m not even wearing a shirt. I’m just totally ripped and and I bought, like, tiny little toy, like, wrestling ring like a WWE.
Rob Oh, my.
Steve God. Ring that you’d use with the action figures. And I went around challenging people to thumb wrestle in the ring with me. My gosh. And I had the best time.
Rob It’s so good.
Steve All down with adults. I’d really have to call them out. And like, talk a lot of trash to get them to to play, right? Yeah. It was really fun.
Rob We’ve talked about story, and this podcast is this story that writes us and kind of how our stories are always being shaped by the story of the gospel too. And I think as a clown, you were a unique kind of storyteller. You had lots of sketches that you would do and whatnot. How has that shaped your ability, I guess, as a storyteller?
Rob And, and I don’t know. Is that affected who you are today?
Steve Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’m I’m very interested in story. And just briefly, you know, after I left the circus, I went into a role as a video producer, and I still do some video stuff. I don’t I’m not in a position where I use it to make a living, but I still love to do video production projects.
Steve I, I volunteer at my church and we’ll do projects for them.
Steve And that, you know, that is a very active art form in terms of storytelling. And I think, you know, the things I learned as a circus clown when you have, when you have 3 minutes to take an audience to cram a beginning and a middle to the end of a quick little clown gag and you have to think in that type of structure to tell a quick funny story in 3 minutes or so or, or if you have less time.
Steve 90 seconds. You know, how do you how do you establish what’s happening? Have some action in the middle that leads to a conclusion. Hopefully it’s funny, but you know, that just thinking in terms of that structure really helped me as I can, honed my craft as a video producer. And even now I work in in the capacity of sales.
Steve And, you know, if you’re if you work in any kind of technical sales and you’re really trying to win your audience over with charts and graphs and basically winning an argument, I mean, you might have some level of success, but if you’re able to engage hearts and minds with true stories, that’s what’s sticky and that’s what people care about and that’s what they’re going to remember and take action on.
Steve So storytelling has been a focus. I’ve even done workshops for my company on storytelling based on, you know, different books that I’ve read when I could recommend to you and your audience is talk like Ted. Ted talks. If you haven’t been exposed to amazing. They’re highly curated. The people that get in there and share have a very clean message to share with beginning, middle and end.
Steve But that one of the keys that makes all those talks so impactful is that they use true stories. And that’s where, you know, people really kind of, you know, put down their pen and look up at the speaker to say man what is that? And that’s going to stick with me. So, you know, in terms of storytelling, I think I think it’s it’s huge if you engage hearts and minds, that’s where it’s at.
Steve And you asked me to be a part of this. I, I just, I really like the idea of a podcast where it’s and you’ve left it kind of open, ended the story that writes says because I think we do have a responsibility and some power the story of our lives. But also there’s, there’s that aspect of it where our life unfolds before or it’s like, you know, water running down a hill and, you know, we don’t always have control over which direction it’s going to take circumstances and providence and there are just things that happen that take us in a different direction.
Steve Like, I never would have foreseen that I have the job I have now or the wife that I have now or the family that I have or that I’d be living. You know, these are not things that were planned. And it’s it’s kind of funny. It’s you it’s like that talking head song, you know, is this is this my beautiful house is it’s my beautiful life break up and you’re you’re like, wow, how did you know?
Steve How did I get here? Right, right. And so but but in that is that it’s not chance that there’s a designer and a storyteller and a director behind everything. The great powerful Oz behind the scenes is pulling all the levers and making it happen and a lot of times we think it’s random. It feels random or we think we made a choice when actually, you know, there’s an aspect to it.
Steve And it’s a beautiful mystery because, yes, we can make choices and make our life and our life story move in a direction. But then there’s that other aspect where it’s out of our control and it’s that the tension between the two, which make it a very compelling story and we all have one. Everybody’s got a very compelling story.
Steve And I believe that if you sit down at Starbucks with anybody for 15 minutes, you’re going to find something super interesting to talk about, about their life.
Rob You’re absolutely right. It’s been funny since even since I started this podcast, just people coming up to me with different stories and you’d never know this about this person or whatever. But most people, you’re right, if you sit down and and talk to them, they’ve got they’ve got some sort of a great story. And people don’t see themselves as storytellers and it’s like, Oh, but, but you do and you don’t even realize it sometimes.
Rob But we’re all storytellers with the story to tell that you know, hopefully we’re telling in light of in light of God’s story, that’s that’s continuing to craft us and shape us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on that, by the way. I think you articulated it really, really well. You don’t want to go full on predestination. You know, it’s like is is everything we’re doing or maybe you do.
Rob You know, I don’t know. People come from different theological perspectives on things but but clearly, we’ve got agency in our lives. And yet ultimately, you know, our story is being written by God. And you know that tension is that tension is there. And the responsibility we have, I think, to to live our lives in light of of the author is is so important for us.
Steve I, like I said, I really like what you’re up to with this podcast. I think each believer in the power of story, I mean, we have, you know, as a Christian, so grateful that we have preserved through the Bible the story of the way God loves us. And the hope that that book gives us because there is a beginning, middle and end to that book and read the book tells us what the ending is and and you can see the way God cares about story and the way Jesus taught people is through stories.
Steve And they’re the stories that are in there, I believe are all there, not by events, but they’re instructions for us as we navigate the story of our lives. We have some guidance from those who have gone before, and the stories that are in there are really there for us to to live this life and this story in the best way that we can.
Rob What you just said that the Bible is still applicable because it’s not just a story of God, but it’s also the story of us. And human nature hasn’t changed. And the temptation that King David might have faced with pride or with Bathsheba or whatever it is those temptations were just as vulnerable to today. And so human nature just hasn’t changed.
Rob And so the stories that are there, they it still works. You know, it’s like because people haven’t changed. I think the C.S. Lewis used the term chronological arrogance, which is just the belief that a new thought is a better thought. And you know, we can go back to the things that are 3000 years old and and just find deep truths there because we’re still the same species and we still have the same God.
Rob So there’s power to old stories even.
Steve That’s that’s right. That’s an interesting quote from C.S. Lewis. And I feel like in our day and age today, where everybody really does feel like they’re so evolved and at least in our our timeline through the centuries, a lot of people probably have that kind of arrogance about where we are today versus ancient peoples. However, in terms of critical thinking and logic, and I think anybody could go back and sit on Mars Hill and just get schooled, right.
Steve Topically by what was going on back then, I don’t think anybody is any smarter today. As a matter of fact, as a culture, I think you could argue the opposite.
Rob I really I really do appreciate you, Steve, and thank you for taking some time just to just to give us some insights into your into your past and how it shaped who you are now. I think it’s fantastic stuff. So I appreciate.
Steve You. Yeah. Thanks for thinking of me and having me on the phone conversation.
Rob So again, if you want to check out Steve’s audition video, I think it’s well worth the time. You can go to and you can see that along with some photographs of him from his time being a clown with the circus. I might even pop up in one or two of those pictures because I and a group of friends got to see him.
Rob I think it was in Raleigh, North Carolina, when the circus came to town. I want to give you just a heads up about next week’s episode two. I had a chance to talk to a friend of mine named Stacey Conard, and Stacey and her husband Mark are involved in trauma healing. Mark was a Marine and a military chaplain for years, and they’ve since that time become missionaries.
Rob Oftentimes serving as chaplains to missionaries, but also working with trauma healing at places around the world. They focused a lot in South Sudan. They’ve worked with the Ukrainian military and the conversation took a surprising turn when I learned how trauma had come into their own home and into their own lives. I think it’s a really important episode and one that I think will help all of us understand the needs that people who are struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome and other kinds of trauma, what they really need and how healing can come about.
Rob I can’t wait for you to hear it next week. The story that writes us is produced at Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas. If you’re ever in the area, I hope you’ll drop in on us. Pay us a visit on a Sunday morning. You can go to That’s our church website and all the info is there.
Rob And this podcast is part of our adult discipleship ministry here at Custer Road UMC. Thanks for listening today.