Sunday, January 1, 2017

The American Clown's Fall From Grace

The modern circus clown character was created in the 19th century. These performers used broad physical comedy, often in mime (without voice). Circus clowns were known for their distinctive makeup, outlandish wigs, colorful oversized costumes, and exaggerated footwear. They provided diversion for circus crowds while roustabouts set up for the next act which might involve animals or featured performers. Clowns would weave in and out of the spotlight to create an atmosphere of safe fun for their audience.

Circus clowns perform strictly for laughs and to entertain their audience--heavily loaded with children. Their ridiculous antics deal with the absurdities of everyday life and speak to the human condition. Traditionally, clowns are archetypal figures that appear in many of the world's cultures performing a vital social function--a comical diversion from the stress and strain of everyday life.

Emmett Kelly
The village idiot character lost popularity in America in the early 20th century. The North American circus began to develop new comic characters like the hobo and the tramp. Charlie Chaplin made a career out of the tramp character in the silent film industry. Emmett Kelly's clown character Weary Willie was developed in the 1930s based on Depression era hobos. In early television, Red Skelton portrayed Freddy the Freeloader, a smart-mouthed bum with a heart of gold who could find humor and humanity in any situation.

Most Baby Boomers remember Clarabell from the Howdy Doody Show and Bozo the Clown who premiered in 1960 with his own cartoon show. The Bozo character was franchised and Bozos starting appearing in large media markets across America. These signature clowns hosted local shows with a live studio audience of screaming kids interspersed between cartoons.

In 1963, weatherman Willard Scott portrayed the first Ronald McDonald, which quickly became the company's trademark mascot. Because of changing times and different sensibilities, McDonald's recently retired Ronald after 45 years of faithful service.

Pogo/John Wayne Gacy
The trend of birthday clowns began in the 1960s and was popular throughout the 1970s. By the end of the 1978, a registered clown in the Chicago area entertained at kid parties and community events under the name of Pogo the Clown. When he was arrested at his home, John Wayne Gacy had sexually assaulted and killed 35 young men. Coast-to-coast newspaper accounts called Gacy the "Killer Clown." What scared parents most... Gacy was given easy access to children under the guise of an innocuous clown. This fueled American's growing fears of "stranger danger" and clowns became the objects of real suspicion.

Professor Andrew McConnell Stott of the University of Buffalo believes Charles Dickens invented the scary clown in The Pickwick Papers (1836). Dickens describes an off-duty clown who is a alcoholic that destroys himself to make audiences laugh. Dickens made it difficult for his readers to look at clowns without wondering what was going on beneath the makeup.

In Batman comics #1 in 1940, supervillain The Joker debuted as a psychopathic clown with a warped sense of humor. Joker was the archenemy of The Caped Crusader. The 1980s gave rise to the "evil clown" character popularized by Stephen King's novel It (1986). Television clowns like "Homey the Clown" on In Living Color and "Crusty the Clown" on The Simpsons forever changed the way Americans view clowns. In recent years, psychologists have coined the term coulorphobia for the fear of clowns. Movies like Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), Clownhouse (1989), and the Saw movie franchise (2004) only aggravate the condition.

The great clown scare of 2016 started in August in Green Bay, Wisconsin. With the help of social media and YouTube, Crazy Clowns and Killer Klowns started pranking kids across America causing hysteria among parents and their children. Many schools banned clown costumes at Halloween functions this year.

With this kind of media exposure, today's kids do not have the safe-fun context once associated with clowns. Whether clowning as a profession can survive this recent trend of bad publicity lies with the prevailing public perception. These are complicated times we live in, and Americans are more fearful and cautious of strangers in any guise. Clowns have fallen on hard times.

"What Do the Scary Clowns Want?" New York Times article: