A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants. — Chuckles the clown (George Bowerchuck), explaining his philosophy of life.
A little comic relief has always been one of our human needs. The clown, fool, or jester goes back to ancient times. Pigmy clowns entertained Egyptian pharaohs as early as 2500 B.C. Ancient Rome’s clown was called the stupidus, the origin of our words stupid and stupefy. Tracing the word clown to its sources, we have the Latin colonus, “colonist or farmer,” related to the Old Norse klunni, “clumsy or boorish fellow.” That’s why the gravediggers in Act III of Hamlet are referred to as clowns; they were unskilled labor, low-born, oafish. Well not the one clown. He gets into some clever word games with Hamlet. How long will a man lie in the earth ere he rot, asks Hamlet. “Oh, if he be not rotten already . . .”
In the Middle Ages clowns were part of the country faires, which evolved into the circus. The popular Punch-and-Judy shows were kind of a spinoff. Royal courts had their jesters, who were more than mere fools. They may have dressed and acted strangely, but they were the only ones who could make jokes at the King’s expense, and still keep their heads.
Clown culture as we know it has some familiar elements; the garish costume and hair, painted face — always that painted face. Their behavior is ridiculous and silly, actually somewhat subversive and anti-social. Like other countries, America has its iconic clowns like Bozo (which became franchised), and the sad clown, Emmet Kelly. I should also mention Ronald McDonald, who promotes unhealthy nutritional choices for children by way of the Happy Meal, with a toy as a bribe. Jack-in-the-Box followed, with that ubiquitous giant clown head atop its restaurants, until people across the country began shooting them. Jack himself is one of our more articulate of clowns, thanks to an imaginative ad campaign. In the Seattle area, we were treated to decades of J P Patches, who unfortunately left us last year.
When it comes to clowns, there seems to be no middle ground. We either love them or hate them. They either make us laugh, or creep us out. There’s even an entry in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for “fear of clowns.” That brings us to the dark side of clowning around.
I suppose it started with Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera, Pagliacci, a cuckolded husband who murders his cheating wife onstage during a performance. This theme was carried over into the film “Blue Angel,” and its remake, both chilling. The “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy performed as Pogo at children’s birthday parties, when he wasn’t murdering people and burying them in his back yard. In Stephen Spielberg’s film “Poltergeist,” a clown toy tries to drag a kid under the bed. Stephen King’s book It and the film version had Pennywise the clown wonderfully played by Tim Curry (spoiler alert: he turned out to be a giant spider). And we mustn’t forget Krusty, the cynical, broken-down alcoholic in TV’s “The Simpsons.” Maybe he was the inspiration for Bobcat Goldthwait’s film “Shakes the Clown.” I suppose we could also include the Joker from the Batman mythology, and Insane Clown Posse, who may look dark, but they’re a good band. And in case you’ve never seen it, the B-movie classic “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” is an inventive and thoughtful treatment of the genre, and very entertaining. As this goes to press, a clown in Northampton, England, dressed as Pennywise, and holding colored balloons, has been making the locals uneasy. He just comes up and stands next to people, doing and saying nothing.
There are all kinds of clowns, not all of them intentional. Most women, among their many mystical gifts, have the magical ability to transform any man into a clown. It has even happened to me, as well as several of my friends. Fortunately, once the relationship has ended, the effect usually wears off.
Sadly in the United States, enrollment at clown colleges and academies has dropped off in recent years. Yes, Virginia, there are clown colleges, except that when you graduate, rather than receiving a diploma you get a pie in the face. To increase their numbers, clowns use face painting to recruit young children. Still, there is no shortage of clowns; they’ve just gone into politics. Michele Bachmann provides a prime example. She’s got the caked on makeup, wild eyes, fright wig, and is easily as bizarre as anything I’ve seen at the circus. Then there are others, all on the far Right — Steve King, Louie Gohmert, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Jack Kingston, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and on and on. The list is long, but the main Bozo these days is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Can you imagine a clown President? Oh, that’s right, there was George W. Bush. But even Americans weren’t stupid enough to elect a clown to the White House, so the Supreme Court had to do it.
I liked Ron Reagan’s metaphor when he described the Republican presidential candidates in 2011, as reminding him of all those circus clowns that come tumbling out of that little car. The Left doesn’t seem to produce a lot of clowns, although Anthony Weiner and former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojovic certainly come to mind. Fox (alleged) News is jammed to the rafters with clowns, from Roger Ailes down to the fact checkers. Oh, I’m just being told they don’t use fact checkers. Glenn too crazy even for Fox Beck has finally admitted that he’s a rodeo clown, something the rest of us have known for a long time. As TV preachers go, I doubt anyone can out-Bozo Pat Robertson.
A healthy society needs its clowns. Through their anarchy and unpredictable behavior we vicariously express our rebellious and anarchistic subconscious desires. They’re like an outlet for social tension. They just don’t belong in politics, so please, let’s all help to get them back to the circus. And watch yourself when you’re out driving — there are a lot of clowns on the road.
Two cannibals are eating this clown, and one looks up and asks, “Does this taste funny to you?”