Pickle Family Circus: Lorenzo Pisoni in the foreground, Larry Pisoni in background Photo: TERRY LORANT

Circus Kid

in by

“Comedy has to be based on truth. You take the truth, and you add
a little curlicue at the end.” 
~ Sid Caesar

So begins Circus Kid, Lorenzo Pisoni’s poignant documentary about his dad, Larry, and the Pickle Family Circus. The film includes lots of “little curlicues,” and they’re not all at the end.

The Pickle Family Circus was founded by Larry Pisoni and Lorenzo’s mother, Peggy Snider, in 1974. The family – including Snider’s daughter, Gypsy – lived at Carolina and 22nd streets; the circus rehearsed at The Church, at Missouri and 19th. The troupe was at the forefront of the New American Circus Movement, integrating theater into circus arts, paving the way for Cirque Du Soleil and other groundbreaking companies. The innovative company had a progressive political ideology, participating in farmworker activism and second wave feminism events.

Lorenzo Pisoni. Photo: TERRY LORANT
Lorenzo Pisoni. Photo: TERRY LORANT

A few years ago, Lorenzo toured with Humor Abuse, a one-man play created with Erica Schmidt. Presented by the American Conservatory Theater in 2012, the dramedy tells the story of an unconventional father-son relationship.  After Lorenzo, at age two, marched into the circus ring during intermission with a fully realized silent clown act, his life in the family business began. At age six, Lorenzo was asked to sign a contract, rendering Larry not only Lorenzo’s father but also his coach, director, and clown partner.

Circus Kid, originally sporting the title Humor Abuse, expands and deepens that complicated story. The 69-minute film, which was largely financed through a Kickstarter campaign, documents the “spirit, the lunacy, the daring, the danger and the dynamics of growing up in a circus family.” As Lorenzo as voice-over narrator explains, “Most kids dream about running away from home to join the circus, but for me the circus was my home. I had to join.”

Lorenzo’s given name is that of his father’s clown character. When Lorenzo rehearsed, Larry continually admonished him to “do it again!” Hence the name of the film’s production company, “Do It Again Productions”. The film doesn’t shy away from the dark side of the circus family’s dynamics, and its ultimate demise, including a passing reference to an intervention into Larry’s drinking at Bloom’s Bar.

Sarah Devorkin has expertly edited a wealth of archival material, including amazing vintage footage, color and black-and-white stills, and a 1987 audio interview with Larry. Interspersed are humorous and heartfelt reminiscences by Pickle Family participants.  Interviews with Larry, Peggy, and Gypsy are corroborated by or conflict with memories from original Pickle Family actor/clowns Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, and Cecil MacKinnon; musician Harvey Robb; and photographer Terry Lorant.

The film boasts impressive show business credits, starting with executive producer, actor Daniel Radcliffe, and local singer/songwriter, Karen Lehner. Sarah Dusseault, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Westfeldt, Eden Wormfeld, William Rexer II, and Lorenzo are listed as producers. As the film’s promotional website explains, Westfeldt met Pisoni in 2013 when the two played opposite each other in The Explorers Club at Manhattan Theater Club. She was instantly captivated by his life story. “It was completely incongruous to me that this straight-laced, terrific actor who looks like Clark Kent grew up juggling, flying through the air, and tap-dancing in a gorilla suit! I couldn’t stop asking questions,” said Westfeldt.

Hamm and William Rexer were similarly taken with Pisoni’s family history. “Every kid wants to please his father.  Not every kid had to learn how to fall down a flight of stairs to do that,” Hamm said.  

Circus Kid will premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival this month; www.humorabusemovie.com