Sometimes clown societies have a sacred role, to represent a trickster character in religious ceremonies. Other times the purpose served by members of a clown society is only to parody excessive seriousness, or to deflate pomposity.
In the sense of how clowns serve their culture:
- A clown shows what is wrong with the ordinary way of doing things.
- A clown shows how to do ordinary things the wrong way.
Members of a clown society may dress in a special costume reserved for clowns, which is often a ridiculously extreme or improper form of normal dress.]
While in their costume, clowns have special permission from their society to parody or criticize defective aspects of their own culture. They are always required to be funny. Other persons living within the same culture may recognize a clown when they see one, but seldom consciously understand what the clowns do for their society. The typical explanation is "He's just a funny man."
In the case of the jester at the English Royal Court with his cap of bells and pig's bladder stick he was allowed to make fun of, be indelicate and sometimes downright rude to members of the royal family and their entourage without fear of reprisal.
Clown societies usually train new members to become clowns. The training normally takes place by an apprentice system, although there may be some rote schooling as well. Sometimes the training is improvisational comedy, but usually a clown society trains members in well known forms of costume, pantomime, song, dance, and common visual gags. Occasionally these include a scripted performance, or skit, which is part of a standard repertoire that "never gets old," and is expected by members of the culture that the clown society is part of.
In Native North America. humor assumes "a sacred position within ceremonials"; examples are found in Trickster traditions, Pueblo clown societies,Cherokee "Booger" dances, and aspects of the Northwest Coast Potlatch. Humor is a fundamental aspect of Native American life, and has many purposes related to sacred rituals and social cohesion.