It seems that every clown representation I see depicts them as hellspawn or some drunk who likes it a little too much when little girls sit on their laps. One need only to look at popular culture for examples of this: whether it is foul-mouthed Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons, or Shakes the Drunkard played by Bobcat Goldthwait, and certainly snowboarders are familiar with the evil clown represented on an older Shaun Palmer board. Where did a profession that was meant to bring so much joy go so terribly wrong? Having met the man who wrote the bible on how to be a clown (Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey's How to be a Clown by Chuck Meyers) and having at one point thought about donning the white makeup for a living myself, I can tell you that it is a profession that requires as much, and often more training than the other jobs under The Big Top. Folks may believe that just as all The Great Santinis do is perform on the trapeze, all a clown does is act silly. However, a clown trains in several other areas of the circus before attending Clown College. The diversity of their training allows them to perform on the high wire, play with the big cats and get shot out of a cannon. At Clown College they learn the less subtle arts of slapstick, juggling and piling into a small car as well as applying their makeup. To those of you with closed minds, all clowns may look alike, but every professional clown has to register their face. It is singular as yours or mine.
At my monthly sojourn to The Mall for pomade and summer sausage I was startled at the sight of a clown in the kids department of JC Pennys. It was then that it struck me! The clown is one of the few professions that anyone can pass themselves off as. All one has to have available to them is some oversized pants and lipstick (of course a rainbow wig, big red nose and balloons help the image). How many other professions is this true of? And if it was true, do we make broad sweeping statements about an entire profession based on the behavior of a few hacks. Do we judge rock music by the band playing at the local watering hole, or David Hasselhoffs performance at the State Fair? Do we judge porn stars by the amateur couple who wish to share with us their most intimate moments?
It is clear that there is a delineation between the professional clown who entertains at a circus and the local lackey who tools around town in their beat up K-Car tying balloons into silly shapes at childrens parties. I cannot lie to you though and claim that there are not those children frightened by clowns. A mother once told Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, that her child was frightened by the book and what should she do. Sendak simply replied "Dont read it to them." Surely to some children a white faced creature with a permanent expression on their face, perhaps a tear streaming from one eye is truly a demon from their worst nightmare. I have seen children who were scared of Big Bird or some other giant muppet when they appeared at The Mall. Is that it? Are all these clown haters children, now grown up, who read only Family Circus and watched Davey and Goliath on the television? What about Barney? Universally accepted to be hated by anyone over the age of four, this lovable purple giant is worshipped by children everywhere. Are these clown haters and Barney bashers so out of touch with their inner child that they are unable to remember their own youth? We may look back fondly at the foolish antics of Bert and Ernie, but how many of us at age three knew that they were a gay couple? Barney may indeed be white-washed entertainment for children, but is that so wrong? Is an entity that promotes love and foolishness among children so worthy of hatred? Should we instead be exposing children to The Feebles and the jaded views of Eric Bogosian?
I am aware of the argument that clowns should be hated because they are adults who like to entertain children. Well fuck, man. Lets get us a posse together and go kill all those fuckers that like to entertain children. We could have started with Jim Henson, but Our Lord Jesus Christ did that for us and now that bastard is rotting in hell where he should be. Lets go get those god damned evil clowns. No one has a right to entertain children, The Bible says so.
What is a clown? Websters Dictionary defines clown as "one who entertains, as at a circus." Surely though the term clown has come to mean more than that: a clown is an entertainer who dresses up in silly clothes and wears excessive makeup that gives them an unreal appearance; clowns carry themselves in an exaggerated way, whether it be the way they navigate the tight rope or just the way they move walking around, a clown is always in character.
On a side note, my guess is that many of these clown haters that are the same hipsters who wear the in-style baggy pants, dye their hair garish colors, and when going out to listen to the newest rock and roll band adorn themselves with nail polish, eyeliner and lipstick. One could make the argument that they are clowns themselves.
Many of you may remember Crispin Hellion Glover as the father, George McFly, in Back to the Future. These days Crispin still acts, but he has become a renaissance man of sorts, recording albums, creating books, giving spoken word tours. As editor of the unofficial Crispin fanzine I was able to attend this show for free, saving myself $20 that I could put towards some clean underwear. At "The Big Slide Show" Crispin reads from his books and shows accompanying slides. The theater was small, but packed, most of the attendees were outfitted according the "clown" guidelines in the previous paragraph.
Like many great character actors, Crispin is best known for one or two roles in which he was outstanding. For Crispin, these defining moments were in his two breakout films, Back to the Future and River's Edge, both filmed almost ten years ago. His peculiarities and idiosyncrasies endeared him to many movie-goers who are still waiting for him to recapture the raw energy he let loose with a kick towards David Lettermans head many years ago. These fans attend his Big Slide Shows for a chance to see what he has been up to and after the show to have a two minute chat while he signs a copy of one of his books for them. They are paying money not just for the chance to see him perform onstage, but for the chance to see him perform up close as well. Having received many reports from around the country about his Big Slide Show, I became aware that the show always remains the same, right down to the outfit he always wears(vintage clothes he has presumably borrowed from his father). If fans expect Crispin to always be in character (how disappointing would it be if in person, he chomped away on an Arch Deluxe while listening to Trixter?) and entertaining, could it be said, by examining the clown criteria, that Crispin is a clown? Surely not a white-faced harbinger of joy, but a more morose version catered to a specific audience.
Beloved by millions of children and adults alike, Pee Wee Herman won numerous Emmys for his childrens show that deftly mixed childish entertainment with adult innuendo. How many fans remember that he started as a racy comic, assuming the persona of the man-child satirically? Take a look at Pee Wee: he dons outlandish makeup (rosy cheeks, bright red lips, jet black hair), always wears the same ill fitting suit, performs foolish antics... Is Pee Wee not a clown?
The clown hatred generally accepted today has more to do with the second-rate John Wayne Gacys of the world then it has to do with the professionals at a world class circus. And if it is of just the white makeup and the perception that a clown is someone so ensconced in what they do for a living that the line between clown and man is no longer clearly defined, then it is the hater who has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Many Hollywood entertainers are clowns, by using this definition that they entertain with the same shtick all the time (see not only Crispin and Pee Wee but Jack Nicholson, Christopher Walken [a skilled song and dance man], Jim Carrey, Marilyn Manson, Ozzy Osbourne, Andy Warhol...). Robin Williams started as a mime (another hated profession) in New York City. Do we hold that against him? Steve Martin is perhaps the most gifted physical comedian alive today. Clowns come in many shapes and sizes, and certainly most of the time will be associated with pancake makeup and a bright red nose, but clowns are everywhere. How often do we have a chance to meet a clown of professional caliber, whether it be at a circus or at a book signing by Crispin Hellion Glover? Most often our perception of clowns comes from the backyard bozos, whose motives and talent are questionable at best. They are creatures worthy of fear and hatred. In fact, we should be happy that these people have chosen to be clowns, it makes them such easier targets from atop the water tower.
Take me home.
Take me home (I am a clown).