THE DIFFERENCE between Emmett Kelly's act and the others is that you didn't worry about the others. The "human bullet" shot from guns was definitely going to make it into that net, without doubt. The mile-high unicyclist would never topple; the bareback rider would kepep her balance. Even the most daring ones on the flying trapeze-you didn't really believe they could crash. But when a clown named Weary Willie entered unceremoniously with his broom, and began to try to sweep away a huge pool of light, then the audience did grow anxious; and the smaller the light pool became, the more anxious, until Willie had finally swept away all the light into a dustpan, whereupon the audience grew more anxious still, anticipating the inevitable: The light would suddenly reappear behind Willie, enlarged to its originial size.
That wonderful act was the heart of Mr.Kelly's genius. He created a comic character who was essentially serious and dignified, who had serious and dignified pursuits, and who, in spite of the two-part shoes and bombed-out suit, did dress formally in a suit shoes, after all, and a hat and tie. His mission with the light was to tidy up the place. And the sincerity with which he undertook his mission was far more interesting than the fact that the mission was objectively purposeless.Had theaudience fixed only on the mission, rather than the sincerity, Mr.Kelly would have been just one more clown.
Of course, Mr.Kelly saw to it skillfully that we concentrated on the essentials. Flopping around in his bum suit, and perpetually needing a shave, he was the audience, at heart, each of whom could see in Willie's act the bedraggled spectacle of his own best laid schemes. Willie used to blow up balloons that would explode in his face, and then he would bury them in small, make-believe cemeteries. It was the perfect statement of disappointment, just as the laughter such acts generated was in part the laughter of disappointment, of the turned-down mouth, like Willie's.
Mainly, however, it was the laughter of perserverance, for nothing ever really discouraged Wille. While the bareback rider and aerialist were accomplishing their death-defying feats, it was Willie's lot to tramp about the arena, from light pool to ballon, accomplishing nothing. Yet you never lost sight of him, and the "big" acts never objected. They knew the truly dangerous work was left to Willie.