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Clown Without Borders 

Why would a former S.F. stockbroker travel to war-torn countries and refugee camps just to make people laugh?

Wednesday, Dec 4 2002
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Despite a ready wit, Cohen showed few signs of clownishness growing up. He was born in Los Angeles to a somewhat observant Jewish family, then moved when he was 9 to Europe when his father, who designed satellites, accepted a job in France. Cohen spent much of his childhood and teens all over the continent, moving with his family from France to Germany to Belgium. From this transience, Cohen developed an international worldview and an interest in politics.

"There was never-ending talk [within the family] about war and peace and corporate responsibility and hunger," says Cohen's oldest brother, Ranan, a clinical nutritionist at a holistic center in New Hampshire. "I think Moshe's political side came out partially through arguments with my folks. There's a lot of passion in my family, and they would have passionate discussions."

Humor, however, took a more understated role. "Humor was a part of the family dynamic in an odd way," Ranan says. "It was not a situation where we would sit around and tell jokes. It was more the way we would talk or move. It was not jokes, or anything overt or literal."

Cohen, who describes himself as an "academically minded" kid, didn't take his first step toward clownhood until age 20, when Ranan introduced juggling to him and his younger brother (who writes for sitcoms in Los Angeles). Once he got the knack of it, Cohen began juggling everywhere. He tossed balls around campus at UC Davis -- when he wasn't studying to earn a degree in Agricultural Economics. After college, Cohen became even more serious about juggling, and when he moved to San Francisco he joined a group of jugglers that convened every Sunday at Golden Gate Park during the '70s and early '80s.

To pay off his college loans, Cohen took a job as a "market quote terminal operator" (updating the price of stock quotes on a computer) at the Financial District's Pacific Stock Exchange in 1979. During lulls in the action, he juggled staplers, receipt booklets, and other office products. During his 10-minute breaks, co-workers could almost always find him standing on the front steps of the Stock Exchange building, keeping five balls in the air between the grand concrete columns.

In the summer of 1981, Cohen visited some friends in a French town in the Alps known, because of its small canals, as "Little Venice." When his friends learned of his juggling talent, they encouraged him to put on a demonstration right there on the street.

He stood near a canal and began juggling, tossing out witty comments as he threw balls, clubs, torches, and hats in the air. Soon he'd attracted a small crowd of people, who chuckled and guffawed throughout the show. At the end of the performance, audience members willingly put money into Cohen's hat.

Cohen couldn't believe his success.

"I was immediately attracted to performing," he says. "I was surprised by the laughter. I had no clue I was funny."


Lured by the laughter, Cohen made a sudden transformation from Stock Exchange lackey to professional clown. The switch caught some friends and family off-guard, but Cohen had become irreversibly smitten by humor's charm and power.

With the entire summer before him, Cohen decided to perform all over Europe, entrenching himself in the culture of street routines and enjoying the bohemian lifestyle. "Street performances were about independence," he says. "It was not about artistic vision then. It was just that I liked being funny, and I was good at being funny, and OK, I can earn a living at it by just getting gigs doing this."

After a season of juggling and passing the hat, Cohen returned to a job in San Francisco's Financial District at a private stockbrokerage. But the moment he paid off his school loans in 1983, he quit his corporate job to perform on the streets of Canada and Europe full time.

"One day he was a stockbroker, the next day he was a clown," says Roger Neiboer, who worked with Cohen at the Pacific Stock Exchange. "It was a drastic life decision. It was not surprising to me that he ended up doing [clowning], but it did surprise me the way he went about it."

For Cohen, clowning opened up a deep and powerful pathway to wit and delight. "Once I performed, I became interested in what was funny, because the laughter attracted me the most," he says. "I was asking myself, "What was the center of the humor?' And I'm afraid to say something that sounds pompous, but there is a certain release of the oppression of your ancestors through joy. It seems like a stretch for me to say that I have the energy of my ancestors, of the Holocaust, in me, and I'm releasing their energy through my joy. It seems like a far stretch, but I feel a large well of joy inside of me that I discovered, that I recognize through performing that I can now tap into."

Cohen traveled from town to town, seeking areas where street performers convened, playing two or three shows a night and setting out a hat for donations at the end of each gig. He made enough to survive, and even saved money for the winter, when it was too cold to work. He was also offered regular gigs at children's festivals and folk events.

Though mostly a juggler at the time, Cohen decided to follow in the footsteps of a fellow street performer and take mime and clowning classes in 1984. He soon began intensive training with Russian clown Pochinko in Montreal, and quickly realized how much more he could grow as a performer. "There was a moment in the middle of a show, and I had -- it wasn't a hallucination, but all I could feel were my hands and my mouth moving. I realized I was juggling and talking the show. I wanted to start exploring movement with my body and crafting nonverbal expressions."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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