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Everybody loves a circus, right? So what better way to add some colour and sparkle to a series than to have the characters join, or otherwise get involved with, a circus for an episode?

This trope is when a series or franchise that is not usually about a circus suddenly focuses on a circus for an episode. In Video Games, a single circus-based level would not qualify, but a game that features a circus prominently in a series that is not usually about a circus would. This also applies to films, books, and any other form of media that doesn't follow an "episode" format.

The circus episode provides an excuse for the producers to show off lots of circus acts. If any of the regular cast have talents in these areas, expect the plot to require their character to step up and perform in the show for some reason.

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This trope mainly occurs in kid-oriented works because kids are more likely to find a circus setting appealing. When used in adult works, this is more likely to become a case of Subverted Innocence.

A common variation on police shows is for a crime (usually a murder) to occur in the circus, and for the characters have to investigate.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Astro Boy: In "Robot Circus", one of the members of a robot circus, Reno is actually a human boy disguised as a robot. When this is discovered, the authorities try to take the boy away from his robot family.
  • Chargeman Ken!: In Episode 58, "The Devil's Circus!", Ken, Caron, and Barican visit a circus. Ken doesn't have enough money for them to get in, but one of the clowns recognizes Ken and lets them in for free. Naturally, it's a trap set up by the Jurals to kill Ken.
  • The first season of Hell Girl has an episode centered on a traveling circus and the twin girls who work there. While one twin is doted on and pampered by the ringmaster, the other is horribly abused.
  • An episode of Maicchingu Machiko Sensei features the main character Machiko takes part in a circus. Tamako, the vice principal is worried. The reason for this is because Machiko is performing in front of a large audience which means that she will end up with her clothes torn off. Her warnings fall on deaf ears. Sure enough, a tiger happens to get loose and tear Machiko's costume off.
  • Michiko & Hatchin has a two-parter episode where a circus girl mistakes Hatchin for a boy and falls for her. Even after Hatchin reveals her gender they become friends and she stays with Rita. In the second episode it turns out the circus was really smuggling children and selling them as slaves. Luckily Michiko comes along and saves Hatchin. Afterwards Rita and Hatchin part ways.
  • The episode "It's Mr. Mime Time!" from Pokémon deals with the ringmaster of a traveling circus and her lazy Mr. Mime. When Ash is recruited to take the place of the Mr. Mime in the circus (in order to convince the Pokemon to come back to work) he gets mistakenly kidnapped by Team Rocket.

    Comic Books 
  • The Avengers: The origin story of the formation of the team (Avengers #1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) features the Incredible Hulk disguised as a clown and juggling animals for a circus audience. No, really.
  • Jonah joins a travelling circus as a trick shooter in #15 of the original series of Jonah Hex.
  • In an issue of Legion of Super-Heroes, members of the Legion go undercover as members of an intergalactic travelling circus to discover a murderer: using their superpowers to perform acts.
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    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In At the Circus, The Marx Brothers turn their usual brand of lunacy loose at at circus.
  • The second Peewee Herman film, Big Top Pee-wee. The Cabrini Circus is literally blown onto Pee-wee's farm by a storm. He has to help them deal with disgruntled local townspeople who do not like circus folk.
  • The Circus is this for Charlie Chaplin's films. This story has the Tramp run away to a circus.

    Literature 
  • In Doctor Dolittle's Circus, Doctor Dolittle and his animal friends join a circus to make some money, taking advantage of his ability to talk to the animals to put together impressive performing-animal acts.
  • The Madeline book and TV special Madeline and the Gypsies involve Madeline and Pepito joining a traveling circus.
  • Miss Bindergarten Plans a Circus with Kindergarten.
  • In the Phryne Fisher novel Blood and Circuses, Phryne goes undercover as a trick rider in a small travelling circus to investigate strange goings-on.
  • In the The Railway Series story, "Henry and the Elephant", the circus comes to the Island of Sodor. The engines have a wonderful time pulling the train, until it is time for the circus to leave. It is later revealed that an elephant escaped from the circus and is hiding in Henry's Tunnel, and it's up to Henry, his crew, and the elephant's keeper to get the elephant back. This story was also adapted into an episode of the fourth season of the Animated Adaptation, Thomas the Tank Engine.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Bones: In "Double Death in the Panhandle", the remains of a set of conjoined twins are found on an oil field. When they find out the twins worked at a circus, Bones and Booth go undercover to find the culprit.
  • The Bugaloos: In "Circus Time at Benita's", Benita interferes with the Bugaloos' plan to hold a circus by kidnapping Magico the Magnificent.
  • Charlie's Angels: In "Circus of Terror", a circus owned and operated by an old fashioned thinking gypsy, has been plagued by some unexplained accidents. His son turns to Charlie for help and so the girls go undercover, Kris working for the knife thrower, Kelly as a stunt motorcycle rider, and Sabrina working for a mime.
  • Cold Case: In "Metamorphosis" the team investigates the death of a teenage circus aerialist.
  • CSI: In "Freaks & Geeks", the murder of a popular sideshow performer sends the team behind the scenes at a carnival freak show.
  • CSI: NY: In "Blood, Sweat and Tears", a very small box is found on the beach with the body of a man curled nicely in it. What is amazing is that this box is only 2x2x2 feet. This leads the detectives to a circus where the man was working as a contortionist.
  • Doctor Who: In "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy", the Doctor and Ace are captured by a Circus of Fear and forced to perform. This gives Sylvester McCoy the opportunity to show off his sleight of hand skills.
  • Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: Mother/daughter issues are explored in "The Circus" when Heart and Atlantis, a rag-tag mother/daughter circus team from Ireland, comes to Colorado Springs. She involves the townspeople in her acts. Colleen and Matthew are selected for the tightrope and Dr Mike and Sully are selected for the trapeze.
  • Get Smart: In "The Greatest Spy on Earth", CONTROL sends 86 and 99 into a circus to look for a smuggling operation.
  • Gotham: In "The Blind Fortune Teller", Jim and Leslie are attending Haly's Circus when a snake dancer is murdered. The subsequent investigation reveals all kinds of tensions bubbling beneath the surface, including a pair of Feuding Families.
  • Little House on the Prairie: Season Five's "Annabelle" has Mr. Oleson's estranged sister working as the Fat Lady in a touring circus, while Laura appears in it disguised as a clown.
  • Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Phryne goes undercover as the target girl in a Knife-Throwing Act in a small travelling circus in "Blood and Circuses".
  • The Mod Squad: In "Color of Laughter, Color of Tears," a circus owned by an old friend of Greer's is repeatedly sabotaged, so the team works undercover at the circus to try to find out what's going on. Julie starts learning the trapeze act, Linc works with the big cats, and Pete assists the elephant trainer (a young Anne Archer).
  • The Monkees: In "The Monkees at the Circus" the band goes to a bankrupt circus and pretend to be a French trapeze act in order to help them drum up business.
  • Murder, She Wrote: The two-parter "Death Stalks the Big Top", where Jessica's search for her missing brother-in-law leads her to a circus that is going under, accidents are happening left and right, and the resident circus bully, Hank Sutter, turns up dead.
  • Murdoch Mysteries: In "Blood and Circuses", a murder at a circus forces the men of Station House 4 to keep most of the circus acts jailed inside the station for the duration of the investigation.
  • New Tricks: In "Big Topped", the UCOS team face the challenge of explaining the death of a circus ringmaster who burned to death in his caravan, leaving only his feet behind.
  • Oobi: In "Pretend Circus!", Oobi, Uma, and Kako are disappointed when they cannot visit the circus because it is too far away. They decide to use their imaginations to create their own pretend circus.
  • Pushing Daisies has an episode where the characters investigate the murder of the week in a circus.
  • Quantum Leap goes to the circus in "Leaping in Without a Net", which has Sam Leap into a trapeze artist. Unfortunately, Sam is afraid of heights...
  • In the Remington Steele episode "High Flying Steele", Laura and Remington go undercover as aerialist trainees at a circus to investigate an old "accident" that left another performer paralysed.
  • Sanford and Son: In "The Greatest Show in Watts," a tenant at the Sanford Arms is unable to pay his monthly rent, and offers Fred his elephant as collateral to raise money until he can pay. A zoning inspector gives Fred a citation for possessing a non-domesticated animal, but when Fred finds a loophole in the paperwork, he decides to turn his junkyard into a circus to avoid paying fines and/or having the elephant taken away - complete with him posing as the ringmaster, Bubba as a clown, Esther as a fire-eater, and Lamont as a muscleman.
  • The second episode of Sherlock involves a Chinese circus as a big part of the plot. They're really involved with a smuggling ring and end up trying to kill Sherlock.
  • She-Wolf of London: In "Big Top She-Wolf", Randi feels strangely attracted to the Caleb Wakefield, the ringmaster of a rundown circus. The attraction deepens when she discovers that she does not metamorphose into a werewolf when she spends the night of a full moon with him. Randi learns that Caleb has a steep price for this 'gift' - all she has to do to be permanently rid herself of the curse is to sell her soul to the Devil.
  • Today's Special: In the second-season episode "Circus", the characters put on their own circus in the store.
  • The Wild Wild West: In "The Night of the Circus of Death", an investigation into the source of Counterfeit Cash that threatens to undermine the US economy leads West and Gordon to a circus.
  • One of the nearest things The X-Files has to a comic-relief episode ("Humbug") has Mulder and Scully investigating a series of disappearances in a small town that relies economically on the circus industry. Just about everyone they meet is a circus performer of some kind — even the local sheriff is a former "dog-boy".

    Music 
  • Auryn: The video for "Puppeteer"; appropriately enough, the first single of the album Circus Avenue. However, given the sad tone of the song, it's much more somber than your usual Circus Episodes.
  • The Beatles: A musical version with "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, when John Lennon found an old 19th century poster for Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal, with Mr. Kite at Bishopsgate jumping over men, horses, hoops and garters, through a flaming hoop, accompanied by the Hendersons and Henry the waltzing horse. The song incorporates four different kinds of musical organs, with calliope music spliced in after John told George Martin that he wanted the song to have a carnival atmosphere, yearning to "smell the sawdust on the floor".

    Toys 

    Video Games 
  • In Guild Wars 2, human characters can opt for their biggest regret to be that they turned down a chance to perform in the circus. They get a second chance in an early story arc that involves joining and infiltrating a circus that's actually a front for criminal activities.
  • Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask takes place in the town of Monte d'Or, which is loved for its circus and amusement park. The game begins with a circus parade including jugglers, stilt-walkers, and a giant clown balloon. There are many Non-Ironic Clowns to talk to, and one minigame involves training a rabbit to perform circus tricks.
  • Putt-Putt: In Putt Putt Joins the Circus, Putt-Putt is going to attend a circus show, when he meets the ringmaster outside, who desperately tells him that he can't get any of his performers to perform because they each have some sort of problem. Putt-Putt goes around the circus grounds and helps each performer. At the end, the ringmaster lets Putt-Putt take part in the show as thanks for his help.
  • Super Mario 3D World uses circus imagery rather prominently. For example, major bosses are fought in circus tents, most of the soundtrack is comprised of big brass band music, and instead of the usual Lethal Lava Land, Bowser makes his home in an Amusement Park of Doom.

    Visual Novels 

    Web Comics 
  • Cobweb and Stripes: Chapter 18 sort of works out to be this, since Ginger is telling Lydia about how she and Jacques met and fell in love in life - they were both circus performers.
  • Schlock Mercenary: In the "Barsoom Circus Command" arc (Book 11, part 2) Schlock's squad infiltrates a circus on Mars.

    Web Original 
  • Hobo Bros: The Hobo Theatre episode "The Bowser Jr. Tragedy" has Bowser and Bowser Jr. go to an amusement park. Bowser goes off on his own to ride the Tunnel of Love ride, while Bowser Jr. starts to ride other rides when he suddenly stops to consider his relationship with Bowser, and things only get stranger from there.
  • Supermarioglitchy4s Super Mario 64 Bloopers: In "Mario joins the Circus'', Mario gets kicked out of Peach's castle because everyone is fed up with him, so he joins a circus owned by Waluigi and takes on different, menial jobs, such as cleaning up gorilla poop and taking care of the clowns, who are so hungry for affection that they need to be hugged every two minutes.

    Western Animation 
  • Alfred J. Kwak: Alfred the duck joins the circus in one of the early episodes as a young man, filling in for the circus clown while he's ill. However, when a dangerous human beast escapes during Alfred's performance and kidnaps the female star, he's forced to save the day with his improvisational skills.
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks: In "The Greatest Show-Offs on Earth," Uncle Ben's Circus is facing foreclosure due to lack of business, and Alvin decides to help Uncle Ben revitalize his circus by signing him, his brothers, and the Chipettes on as new acts; all the while, the evil banker makes attempts to sabotage the circus anyway.
  • Arthur: "Francine's Big Top Trouble" focuses on Arthur and his friends taking part in a circus camp, where Francine has trouble learning acrobatics and almost drops out, until she discovers she has a talent for clowning.
  • In the Back at the Barnyard episode, "Big Top Barnyard", after accidentally injuring an entire troupe of circus performers, Otis volunteers to take over with the help of his friends. His circus features him as the ringmaster, Duke as a sheep tamer, Freddy and Peck as clowns, Pig as a sword swallower, Pip as the world's tiniest man, and Abby as an acrobat. Abby, however, is too afraid to do her part due to an accident that happened when she performed in a circus many years ago.
  • Bad Dog has "The Flying Potanskis", which is about the Potanskis going to a circus, with Penelope intent on performing a trapeze move known as the "Quadruple Belinda".
  • In the Betty Boop short "Boop-Oop-a-Doop", Betty and her friends are working at a circus, with Betty as one of the star performers.
  • In Big Top Scooby-Doo!, Scooby-Doo and the gang investigate the mystery of a chain of jewel robberies reported as being committed by werewolves. The team decides to go undercover as circus performers in order to catch the people responsible.
  • Boo Boom! The Long Way Home: In episode 6 the heroes encounter a travelling circus in a largely abandoned town, that has been caught in a bombardment. As such, most of the staff has fled. Only the ringmaster and the animals stayed behind. They help the ringmaster locate his trained lion, that has wandered off into town to look for her lost cub. They also get a private performance from the circus animals. Episode 9, the protagonists themselves briefly form a travelling circus.
  • Camp Lakebottom: In "Big Top Terror", McGee finds a painting of a clown while snooping through Armand's old circus gear. They decide to frame it and put it in his cabin. Armand screams at the sight of it; the campers have accidentally summoned Doofus the clown. Despite Armand's protests, the campers insist on employing Doofus as their circus coach, oblivious to the fact that he is trying to kill them.
  • In one episode of Chowder, the team of Mung's Catering is tasked with baking a circus tent out of bread (a pun on the phrase "Bread and Circuses") for a group of performers called the Flying Flinger Lingons. Chowder loves the FFLs' act so much that he runs away to join them. Because Chowder is Too Dumb to Live, Mung is worried that Chowder will destroy the circus, so he, Truffles, and Schnitzel sneak in to try and get him back. Mung and Schnitzel get in by putting on FFL costumes, and as a result end up taking part in the show along with Chowder.
  • Cow and Chicken: "The Great Pantzini" has Cow and Chicken sent to the Red Guy's circus to be performers.
  • An episode of Creature Comforts is themed around circuses and features interviews with real-life circus performers.
  • The Dr. Zitbag's Transylvania Pet Shop episode "The Show Mustn't Go On" has Zitbag start a circus to entertain the Exorsisters and their nieces Listeria and Salmonella.
  • Ed, Edd n Eddy: In "Rent-a-Ed," Eddy's latest scam is forming a circus act with Ed and Double D as "The Flying Eduardo Brothers". Of course, it impresses none of the other cul-de-sac kids.
  • Foofur: Rocki hopes to become a performer after coming to the circus in "New Tricks".
  • The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy: "Circus of Fear", where Grim goes to an underworld circus with Billy and Mandy, who end up getting kidnapped by the ringmaster Doctor Fear.
  • Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling: In "Big Top Boobs", the wrestlers perform in a circus.
  • The Inspector Gadget episode "Gadget at the Circus" has Inspector Gadget infiltrating a circus which is a front for MAD to commit crimes wherever the circus stops.
  • In one episode of Johnny Bravo, Johnny goes to a circus led by the Femme Fatale ringmaster Vivian Vixen, who has captured recurring character Jungle Boy, forcing him to perform circus tricks. Johnny falls for Vivian immediately, not realizing that she's evil. She takes advantage of him, manipulating him into helping her keep Jungle Boy under control.
  • Kaeloo: The episode "Let's Play Circuses" had the gang set up their own circus.
  • King Arthur's Disasters: In "Circus Calamity", Guinevere needs a temporary chaperone and King Arthur and Merlin travel to Baden-Baden to fetch Petal's cousin, Tatiana, a trapeze artist at Countess Griselda's International Circus. This may be a good time to point out the show is one gigantic Anachronism Stew.
  • In The Little Rascals episode "Big Top Rascals", the kids are denied entry to a traveling circus because they don't have any money to buy tickets. So they put on their own circus, charging the neighborhood kids 10 cents each, but Butch and Woim take unfair advantage of their free admission.
  • The Looney Tunes short, "Big Top Bunny" has Bugs Bunny join a circus, with Bruno the Magnificent, a Russian circus bear, trying to get rid of him.
  • El Mago De Los Suenos: One of the dreams of the movie involves a story set in a circus.
  • Misi Mókus kalandjai: On the way back from the journey, Misi and his friends visit a circus where Misi challenges the climbing champion for a reward. The ringmaster wants to employ Misi as the new climbing champion, but he chooses to return home. Bumba joins the circus instead of him.
  • Oggy and the Cockroaches: "Fame & Glory", wherein Jack sets up a circus for Oggy after the latter finds he can't afford the real thing.
  • In the Pac-Man episode "The Greatest Show in Pacland", Pac-Man and his wife take Pac-Baby to the circus for his second birthday. At the same time, the Ghost Monsters take little Dinky to the same circus.
  • In one episode of the Animated Adaptation of Redwall, a travelling circus visits Redwall Abbey. The Abbeydwellers are suspicious of the circus, especially the knife thrower. However, while said knife thrower ultimately turns out to be benevolent, Big Bad Cluny the Scourge has some of his Mooks join the circus so they can infiltrate Redwall. Interestingly, this plot was made up for the cartoon, and was not present in the book.
  • Rocky and Bullwinkle: The "Bumbling Bros. Circus" arc involves Bullwinkle becoming the Bumbling Brothers' new lion tamer after he is able to soothe a savage lion with his hum-a-comb (blowing through his comb through a handkerchief), but is also able to entertain the other animals with it. At the same time, Boris was fired from being the circus' lion tamer, so he makes continual efforts to sabotage the circus as revenge.
  • Rubbadubbers has two, Sploshy's Tail, where Sploshy wants to have a tail like Winona, and Silly Sploshy, where Sploshy wants the other Rubbadubbers to clown around with her.
  • Rugrats:
    • In the episode, "Circus Angelicus", the babies are forced to leave the circus when Chuckie cries out of his fear of clowns, and Tommy cries to back him up. Angry that she has to leave when she wasn't crying like them, Angelica stages her own circus in Tommy's backyard. Her circus features Tommy as a "lion trainer" and Spike as the lion, Phil and Lil as trapeze artists, and Chuckie as the human "candyball".
    • In the episode, "Clown Around", Tommy, Chuckie, Phil, Lil, Kimi, and Angelica go to the circus. While the other babies have fun, Chuckie is afraid of clowns. Angelica tricks the babies into thinking that Chuckie is going to turn into a clown, and after having a red snow-cone, clown shoe souvenirs, and a run-in with a powder puff, Chuckie ends up looking like a clown. He even gets roped into the center ring to perform with the clowns. Meanwhile, Angelica sneaks into the center ring to be a trapeze artist, which gets her in a lot of trouble when Drew sees her.
  • In the Sonic Boom episode, "Circus of Plunders", after a fall-out with Tails from one of his inventions, Sonic, Knuckles, Amy, and Sticks get jobs at T.W. Barker's Circus of Wonders, as most of his performers were reportedly sick from eating bad sushi. Sonic is given the job of running in the "Sphere of Fear" at unparalleled speeds, Knuckles becomes a Human Cannonball, Sticks becomes an acrobat, and Amy becomes a Sad Clown (much to her dismay). It is later revealed that Barker is an extremely cunning Con Man with two bears dressed as clowns as well as some robots he ordered from Dr. Eggman as Mooks, and that his other performers actually ran away from the circus. Thus, when he holds Sonic, Knuckles, Amy, and Sticks hostage, it's up to Tails to rescue them.
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars: In "Bound for Rescue", the younglings join a circus to infiltrate Hondo's camp and rescue Ahsoka.
  • In the Super Mario World episode, "Send in the Clown", King Koopa stages the Koopaling Bros. Circus, and invites the cavepeople to see it for free. Mario, suspecting it may be a trap, travels to Koopa's neon castle to see the circus for himself. After a performance from Koopa's mooks, it is revealed that the circus is indeed a trap, and Koopa captures Mario, his friends, and the cavepeople. With help from Princess Toadstool, Mario escapes and battles Koopa's mooks, leading to a battle with Koopa himself, reminiscent of the final battle from the game the show is based on.
  • Superman Theatrical Cartoons: "Terror on the Midway", where Superman has to save spectators from a ferocious gorilla. Notably the last short made by Fleischer Studios.
  • In addition to the adaptation of "Henry and the Elephant" (see the Literature section), Thomas the Tank Engine also has the episode, "Thomas and the Circus". The circus comes to the Island of Sodor, and Thomas is chosen to pull the circus train. Due to how many freight cars there are, Thomas is told by Sir Topham Hatt to share the workload with another engine. Despite this advice, Thomas is determined to pull the heavy train all by himself, and as a result, breaks down towards the end of the episode. This breakdown leaves Thomas so sad, that not even the circus performers can cheer him up. After James and Percy arrive and bring him replacement parts and hay for the animals, Thomas apologizes to them and shares the workload with them.
  • In the Tiny Toon Adventures episode, "Sawdust and Toonsil", Silas Wonder's Wonderful Circus of Wonderment comes to Acme Acres, and he invites Buster, Babs, and Plucky to see it. Is it later revealed that Silas is a Repulsive Ringmaster who captures rare and exotic animals, horribly mistreats them (practically poaching them), and extorts them for profit. When Gogo Dodo tries to rescue them, he gets captured by Silas, who needs him to complete his collection of rare and exotic animals. Thus, it's up to Buster, Babs, and Plucky to sneak into the circus to save Gogo and his friends.
  • The Triplets: "In the Circus"
  • Wacky Races and its two spin-offs, Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop each have at least one episode covering this theme:
    • In the Wacky Races episode, "Whizzin' to Washington", the Ant Hill Mob elude a motorcycle policeman by posing as a troupe of circus acrobats. Afterward, Dick Dastardly assumes the character of a circus ringmaster and has the mob perform a dangerous high dive.
    • On Dastardly and Muttley, the Magnificent Muttley short "The Big Topper" has Muttley imagining himself and Dick Dastardly as rival circus performers.
    • In the Perils of Penelope Pitstop episode, "Big Top Trap", Penelope and the Ant Hill Mob are rehearsing for their performance in a charity circus, where she does a trapeze act and they are clowns. As usual, the Hooded Claw sets death traps for Penelope, and even impersonates her at one point.
  • Wonder Pets had a particularly odd one that was a borderline Bizarro Episode. The three pets are part time heroes and in all other episodes everyone is a normal animal implied to speak Animal Talk. The circus is different. The ringmaster was a penguin, not a human, and the audience were all wild animals wearing clothing. It showed animals were riding a normal sized train in front of a school and no humans caring. You may think that this indicates that all the "humans" in the show (who are never actually seen) are actually animals that treat smaller animals as pets but it was explicitly said in early episodes that the humans were humans. The episode was full of Furry Confusion in a series devoid of it.
  • The Young Justice episode "Performance," where the Team goes undercover at Haley's Circus as a family of acrobats.

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