Friday, May 8, 2009

Frightening or Funny?

When most Americans today hear the word “clown,” if they’re lucky they think of Ronald McDonald or Bozo. If not, images of demented and horrifically disturbing clown characterizations such as those in the movie It come to mind. Many people claim to be terrified by clowns, even though they don’t even know the official name for their irrational fear. There’s also the connotation created by local party clowns who may be untrained and unwanted at a children’s birthday party.

What has twisted the image of a clown into commercialism and fright?

Clowning has a long history and tradition, but in recent decades the image of a clown has morphed and been warped. Clowns such as Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs are a bygone breed. They were clowns of the great tent-circuses known as “mud shows.” However, these are not the clowns that today’s public recognizes.

Modern clowns wear less make up that does not hide their faces, but simply accentuates and exaggerates their features. They engage their audience in a way that pokes fun, but are not seeking to be threatening or humiliating to the spectators.
In my view, truly good clowning uplifts people. The clown is the butt of the joke and makes their audience triumphant through the clown’s bumbling failures and successes. A clown pokes fun at humanity and general and rather than claiming victims who become the object of laugher, invites the spectators to laugh at themselves.

Good clowning can certainly be an art, though a vastly underrated one. Circus giants such as Ringling Bros. and Cirque du Soleil are continuing the clown tradition, but adapting it to the needs of their productions. Small outfits such as Vermont youth circus, Circus Smirkus are bringing young people into the artform.

The public paradigm about clowns may be a difficult one to change, but if shows such as the Greatest Show on Earth continue to monitor and craft the interaction the clown performers have with the public, ideas may change, even if it’s only one person at a time.


  1. I always enjoyed clowns when I was young and so have no particular fear of them. I often suspect that many of my friends who report being afraid of clowns - really aren't. I suspect it is hip to be afraid of clowns. Sort of a counter-clown-cultural-revolution.

  2. I didn't think about that, but it's a great point. People certainly like to be cool, and enjoying clown comedy may seem childish or dorky. It is probably much more hip to feign fear instead.