Clowns are terrible. That may sound dismissive, maybe even a bit cynical, but it’s not a judgment made without thought. Comedy is one of the areas of human culture I find most fascinating, so the history of humor’s role in human life, going back to ancient times, and how that history has shaped what makes us laugh today holds an inherent interest for me. Still, I’ll be damned if I can ever recall actually enjoying the antics of your classic white-faced, floppy-shoed buffoon. “Clown” is such a broad concept that it’s mixed up in a variety of things I love, from cartoons to standup to the entire concept of physical comedy; I even have an old friend who’s a self-described clown (hi Izzy!), but his act is closer to vaudeville than anything you’d get from the red-nosed weirdoes at church fairs and kid’s birthday parties.
I’m certainly not alone in my distaste, though perhaps in my case it’s more accurately described as mere total disinterest, since Coulrophobia is one of the world's most common irrational fears. Even kids, who you think would be the clown’s most receptive audience, don’t particularly care for them. A 2008 study conducted by the University of Sheffield, seeking a way to make children’s hospitals more comfortable places for their patients, discovered that clown imagery only made things worse. “We found that clowns are universally disliked by children,” said Dr. Penny Curtis, one of the researchers, “Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.” That word “unknowable” is telling, since the clown is a figure that is at once human and utterly inhuman, creating a cognitive confusion that inevitably instills distrust, and in some people, sheer terror, and this unease that clowns inspire in people has naturally been reflected in our popular culture. Beyond the successful “Bozo”, portrayed by many different actors since his first television appearance in 1949, there are few clown characters on TV (or in films and comic books, for that matter) that aren’t drawn as malevolent beings, or failing that, at least shifty and unlikable.
Perhaps the most prevalent fear embodied by clown characters in our society is that their garish visages actually mask heinous killing machines that will stop at nothing to see you dead. Since their exaggerated features and strange presence already puts people on their guard, portraying clowns as a threat seems a small leap, and their disconcerting inhumanness also leads us to represent that threat as something otherworldly. The bloodthirsty, inter-dimensional being of Stephen King’s novel It, memorably played by Tim Curry in the television miniseries adaptation, haunts its victims in the guise of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The titular extraterrestrial monsters of Killer Klowns From Outer Space turn humans into cotton candy. The Insane Clown Posse horrifies music fans everywhere with terrible, terrible, truly awful rap. And those are just a few of the examples of art representing the clown as something fundamentally unlike us, an “other” that must mean us harm.
But even when clowns come sans supernatural abilities, they often still seem just as apt to slit your throat. Batman may strike fear into the hearts of Gotham City’s criminal population, but it’s the colorful, playfully psychotic Joker you really need to worry about. It would seem to be backwards that in the good vs. evil, yin and yang duality the characters represent, the bat, a symbolically frightening nocturnal creature, would be heroic while the ostensibly fun and lovable clown would turn out to be ruthlessly homicidal. Again, though, while a bat is simply an animal, a clown is something else, something altogether more unsettling: a twisted, vaguely unreal being. At least paranormal evil clowns have the comforting air of fantasy, whereas dangerous human clowns are frighteningly real; notorious rapist and serial killer John Wayne Gacy often appeared as “Pogo the Clown” at fundraisers and, horrifically, at children’s parties.
If their manifestations in popular culture are to be believed, even if a clown isn’t trying to murder you, they’re still probably not the type of person you’d like to have over for dinner. Perhaps due to the itinerant lifestyle associated with circuses, rodeos and side shows, which often attracts drifters, drunks and, in general, the seamier elements of society, non-killer clowns are still pretty likely to steal your wallet or just screw you over. Take The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown, whom series creator Matt Groening loosely based on his childhood memories of a TV clown named Rusty Nails, played by entertainer Jim Allen on a variety of Portland, Oregon area stations from the 1950s to the 1970s. Groening is quick to point out, though, that unlike Krusty, neither Allen nor his creation ever committed tax fraud, lent their name to dangerously shoddy products, ran slave labor summer camps or had substance abuse problems so severe they needed to freebase ground-up moon-rocks just to feel normal.
Krusty’s many addictions and problems also speak to the whole “tears of a clown” idea. That is, the often expressed observation that many of the people who become clowns and comedians, those whose entire livelihood is based on getting laughs, are often not the happiest people offstage. Countless TV shows and movies, including Seinfeld and the John Candy classic Uncle Buck, have featured clowns who actually hate their job, resent the kids and in many instances, turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their depression. The most extreme case of this has to be the 1992 Bobcat Goldthwait black comedy Shakes the Clown, which Martin Scorsese lauded as “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.” The film’s depiction of a clown subculture, full of drug-addled creeps locked in an endless cycle of degradation and despair has achieved a nominal cult following, but nowadays it's mostly remembered as being one of Adam Sandler’s earliest film roles.
There’s a vicious cycle that eternally damns clowns to be viewed as dangerous deviants or villains. Showbiz in general is known to attract dishonest, damaged people as much as it attracts inspired creatives who just love to perform, and when you couple those personality traits with the funhouse mirror grotesquery of the makeup and dress, real life starts to seem like a nightmare pretty quickly. Reflecting those anxieties and fears, our culture then magnifies and further distorts our discomfort with these aggressively wacky creatures, thus reinforcing our gut-level suspicions. At the end of the day, I realize intellectually that most clowns are just trying to be entertaining, if maybe a bit misguidedly. I also realize that the ones who want to bury you in a crawl space are few and far between, and that their only real crime is practicing an anachronistic type of humor that savvy modern audiences can’t really connect with (when’s the last time your friends called you up to tell you they scored tickets to see a clown?), but movies, novels and the other stories we tell have a way of revealing how we actually feel about things. And when it comes to clowns, we lean more towards frightening and flawed than funny.