Whenever Alex Lee mentions Clown Cardio, he is met with some confusion.
“People will say, ‘What is that? People dressed like clowns chasing after you?’” Mr. Lee, a 42-year-old technical writer who lives in Los Angeles, said after a recent class. No one’s wearing face paint or red noses — nor are they necessarily chasing anyone (more on that later) — but this hourlong session, which costs $20, incorporated a bicycle horn, mini circus tents from Ikea and carnival-style popcorn boxes.
Jaymie Parkkinen, who founded the class at Pieter Performance Space in Los Angeles, compiles theater games usually reserved for improv warm-ups and turns them into aerobic exercises with clown-themed props: a game similar to blob tag, wherein the tagged link arms and chase everyone; a more chaotic version of musical chairs; a circus tent version of Capture the Flag; disorderly dance competitions.
When Mr. Parkkinen wants to expand the class’s repertoire, he visits Los Angeles’s Central Library and peruses the performance section; recently he was inspired by exercises found in a 1920s book for vaudevillians.
In this class, attendees of all genders and ages are encouraged to let it all out. “I want to emphasize play, not winning,” Mr. Parkkinen announced before Clown Dodge Ball. The disco tune “Turn the Beat Around” blasted while half the class competed to turn popcorn boxes strewed across the room upright while the other aimed to have more of them face down by the time the song ended.
“I can kind of unzip the human suit and be a gross little goblin and it’s accepted because clowns are accessing their inner child,” said Sarah Thompson, 29, a marketing copywriter based in North Hollywood who has attended four classes.
Los Angeles is already home to a vibrant clown community, with clown workshops and shows like Clown Church, Clown Zoo, a psychedelic clown workshop, The Idiot Workshop and a clown award show, but Clown Cardio is uniquely focused on exercise.
Clown Cardio was conceived and launched in September 2023, shortly after Mr. Parkkinen’s mother was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. Mr. Parkkinen, who had been working part-time as a lawyer at an entertainment firm, was inspired to focus more specifically on what brought him joy, and that was the improv warm-ups, where goofiness and physicality are fully activated.
With play as the goal, laughter and sound are one of the metrics Mr. Parkkinen uses to gauge the success of each class, “It’s the auditory element for me. It’s hard to decipher the level of joy visually.”
Can silliness enhance a workout? According to Prof. Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist who specializes in laughter at University College London, laughter doesn’t burn many calories on its own. But similar to exercise, laughing causes a significant endorphin boost. Over time, laughing leads to a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, she said.
Prof. Michelle Liu Carriger, chair of the theater department at U.C.L.A., thinks the recent popularity of clowning could be people realizing that seriousness doesn’t get us where we need to go. “The things that got us through difficult pandemic times were not just washing our hands and listening to health professionals, but finding ways to detach, unwind and let off steam.”
Many class goers said what they loved about Clown Cardio, which meets in three Los Angeles neighborhoods, is connecting with others. Matthew Moore, a 55-year-old actor, producer and artistic director of Improv for the People, is 6 feet 4 inches tall and is careful to not plow into who he referred to as “smaller people” during class.
Throughout the hour, participants were tender toward another, making sure no one got hurt during a heated pile up. Safety is a crucial part of maintaining the humor of the class, “It’s not funny if a clown gets hit in the face with a frying pan and then doesn’t get up,” said Sam Sullivan, 25, a scenic carpenter living in El Sereno who took a clown class during college and now attends Clown Cardio. In fact, “that’s sad.”
Several students said taking the class helped them confront coulrophobia, or clown phobia. Mx. Sullivan used to be afraid of clowns but has come to the conclusion that “clowning is not so much about the face paint and scaring people, but defying failure.”