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The Vestigial Clown

June 23, 2014 | by

1948_Hans_Breinlinger_-_Clown_mit_Spiegel

Detail from Hans Breinlinger’s The Clown, 1948.

Yesterday, a friend and I entered into a great debate. It started with my question:

“Does the clown exist who could make you laugh?”

He said yes; he thought that clown who does the act with snow off Union Square would make him laugh. (The show is lauded for its masterful clown-craft and its evocation of childlike wonder.)

“Okay,” I said, “has a clown ever made you laugh?”

“Of course not,” he said.

Does anyone expect to be amused by clowns in this day and age? We all know that clowns are creepy, clowns are scary, clowns are lame—but that understanding has always been predicated on the understanding that, like dolls, clowns are supposed to be happy, fun, innocent. Thus, when a clown goes psychotic, it is doubly terrifying. Or it was thirty years ago, at least. Now, in a world of John Wayne Gacy and It and Insane Clown Posse and Diddy’s coulrophobia-driven “no clowns” rider, we expect clowns to be sinister.

Take this recent survey of kids in children’s hospitals, a historical clown stronghold:

More than 250 children aged between four and sixteen were asked for their opinions—and every single one said they disliked clowns as part of hospital decor.

Even some of the older children said they found clowns scary, Nursing Standard magazine reported.

The youngsters were questioned by the University of Sheffield for the Space to Care study aimed at improving hospital design for children.

“As adults we make assumptions about what works for children,” said Penny Curtis, a senior lecturer in research at the university.

“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable.” 

We are clearly witnessing the last gasp of the clown as a phenomenon, as opposed to the clown as a signifier. Clowns, in other words, seem doomed to become the new mimes. When was the last time you saw a real-life, earnest mime in the wild—as a performer as opposed to a punch line? And yet, presumably, any small child can identify a mime.

The scary clown isn’t a new idea—in 1892’s Pagliacci, after all, the title character murders his wife in full commedia dell’arte regalia. The historian Andrew McConnell Stott, who wrote a biography of the pioneering whiteface clown Joseph Grimaldi, actually credits Charles Dickens with creating the trope. According to an article last year in Smithsonian,

Grimaldi’s real life was anything but comedy—he’d grown up with a tyrant of a stage father; he was prone to bouts of depression; his first wife died during childbirth; his son was an alcoholic clown who’d drank himself to death by age 31; and Grimaldi’s physical gyrations, the leaps and tumbles and violent slapstick that had made him famous, left him in constant pain and prematurely disabled. As Grimaldi himself joked, “I am GRIM ALL DAY, but I make you laugh at night.” That Grimaldi could make a joke about it highlights how well known his tragic real life was to his audiences.

Enter the young Charles Dickens. After Grimaldi died penniless and an alcoholic in 1837 (the coroner’s verdict: “Died by the visitation of God”), Dickens was charged with editing Grimaldi’s memoirs. Dickens had already hit upon the dissipated, drunken clown theme in his 1836 The Pickwick Papers. In the serialized novel, he describes an off-duty clown—reportedly inspired by Grimaldi’s son—whose inebriation and ghastly, wasted body contrasted with his white face paint and clown costume. Unsurprisingly, Dickens’s version of Grimaldi’s life was, well, Dickensian, and, Stott says, imposed a “strict economy”: For every laugh he wrought from his audiences, Grimaldi suffered commensurate pain. 

Stott credits Dickens with watering the seeds in popular imagination of the scary clown—he’d even go so far as to say Dickens invented the scary clown—by creating a figure who is literally destroying himself to make his audiences laugh. What Dickens did was to make it difficult to look at a clown without wondering what was going on underneath the makeup: says Stott, “It becomes impossible to disassociate the character from the actor.” That Dickens’s version of Grimaldi’s memoirs was massively popular meant that this perception, of something dark and troubled masked by humor, would stick.

The truly jolly clown, in fact, was a more modern figure. Certainly, he had no heyday like the early days of TV, when the clown-hosted children’s show was ubiquitous. A figure both fun and authoritative, the clown—in what now feels like a historical anomaly—surely served as a needed liaison to the grownup world. Now—as in most ages past—children view strange, saturnalian grownups with suspicion. It’s amazing that Ronald McDonald has held on, a friendly emissary from a different world.

It makes sense that the clown’s star should wane somewhat. After all, many of the societal roles of the clown—those of emotional outlet, societal commentary, transference—are now enacted by any number of other media. We have movies, we have TV, we have standup; comedy is so integrated into the fabric of modern life that the idea of a dedicated clown feels as anachronistic as that of a sin-eater.

I’m not qualified to get into the historical implications of clowning, but I do know this: it’s fascinating to live in a time when everything is shifting before our eyes. These shifts aren’t novel anymore, as life-changing technology must have been for our great-grandparents. They’re not scary, as the upheaval of the sixties would have been to an older generation, or indeed so exciting as that same period was for my parents. But we’re now hyperaware of every shift: we may be inured to the pace of change, but we monitor it closely.

Over the weekend, my dad mentioned that in the clown-mad 1950s, his parents came back from a trip to Venice with a bunch of glass clowns. Now, such a souvenir would seem not just creepy, but tacky, too. Mine is probably one of the last generations to have much to do with jolly clowns; I remember a short-lived cartoon called Little Clowns of Happy Town in the 1980s. I’m dating myself; writing in the Guardian in 2012, Stuart Kelly referred to the scary-clown trope as “almost nostalgically fearful”—a delicious contradiction.

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