The State of the clown
I am a clown. I’ve shared the same trailer, the same dressing room, the same midway, with all
manner of people who enhance the idiocy and paradox of their own bumbling humanity by
turning themselves inside out and presenting themselves to an audience. I have performed with
everyone from Carol Channing to “Freckles.” I have been on the bill with every type of
performer from opera singers, stand-ups, storytellers, jazz singers, “bubbleologists”, psychics
and eccentric dancers. I’ve also played Shakespeare’s clowns and stood in a circus ring and
brought an audience of 10,000 to screams of laughter by doing nearly nothing. Hell, I’ve made
people laugh on the damn A Train on the way to a gig in full clown geish. You learn early on
with a career in show business that there’s a whole lot of education and empathy that grow as
much from a junkyard as from Lincoln Center. Be versatile. Be ready for any kind of job,
anywhere, anytime, with all manner of misfit entertainers. All are welcome. Except magicians:
they take up too much space in the dressing room and smell like Aqua Velva. Joking. But
Historically, most clowns have been men. As a woman I have had to work very, very hard to be
seen as a funny being while also not being a particularly “pretty” woman, which seems to be
the golden combination as defined by men: she’s funny AND a real looker! I never wanted to be
pretty. Being genderqueer I’ve always been happy with my cute factor, riding the misfit
streetcar of desire between the genders. Even though I’m confident that I’m funny, insightful,
and dare I say innovative, when I approached The Big Apple Circus, I was told flat-out that they
would never hire a woman clown. That I didn’t even make the first cut because, y’know, I
simply wasn’t man enough. Truth is, they had hired women clowns in the past – just coupled
with men who were their husbands and partners. But this is what I was emphatically told: no
And now, ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages: the newest addition to the #MeToo bunker
is, heartbreakingly, a beloved Big Apple Circus clown. It is devastating and utterly unsurprising.
These guys are absolutely everywhere, beneath and on top of every rock in every culture: toxic
masculinity. Only this time, Don Draper is wearing a freaking clown nose and a bad frock. Insert
multiple expletives! And just when I was really amping up about clowns not being scary…
For a long time, I haven’t known quite what to say about the fear of, and continuing sarcastic
commentary about, and horror-movie imagery of clowns. Perhaps, I thought, it’s the word itself
that no one likes since it’s so fully associated with Ronald McDonald and all manner of overly
painted, mask-ish creatures that made little Emily cry her eyes out at the county fair. Maybe it’s
the bad singing – or dinosaurs themselves – but I remember flinching when I first saw Barney. I
also flinched and was repelled by all manner of costumed characters as a child.
But now I’m wondering if perhaps, just maybe, the very male-ness of clowning has been one of
the main reasons why images of scary clowns have had such power in our culture.
Today, finally, we are at the birth of a new era. There is a vital new American Clowning
emerging from the demise of Ringling Bros. and this historically mega-male art form, and it is
fiercely female and based on the concept of the poet-in-action: more Lucy than Bozo. More
Annie Fratellini, Diane Wasnak, Mooky Cornish. Don’t recognize these names? Google them.
Fine, funny women all, and all cousins to Mr. Bean, Lee Evans, George Carl. Keep Googling! In
many ways, the Clown transcends gender and bounces right into the realm of wonder and
magical realism personified, a powerhouse prankster embodying all the mischief, mayhem and
freedom of a human cartoon.
So, maybe now that our industry, like so many others, is facing its demons and becoming more
inclusive and equitable, the image of clowns in the broader culture will change, too. I for one
am working to help everyone see and absorb this new vision of what clowning is and can be:
humanity exposed for all of our collective foolishness. It’s the fearless exposure and
performance of being really human, in all its paradoxes. We are all beautiful, we are all ugly. We
are all clumsy, we are all graceful. In many types of tribes throughout history, clowns are part of
the healing community. When despair is crushing, kindness and humor become as vital as air.
We bring medicine through laughter, joviality, silliness, and pure play. Yes, I’m just high-falutin
enough to believe that clowns are part of the world’s solution, not its problem.
In this mixed-up culture, where every other person is considered a “reality star,” where gun
orthodoxy outshines arts advocacy, and where even our most beloved cultural icons fall hard
from grace, it is a miracle to find refuge in any kind of innocence. But a great clown can get us
there, with the highest language of humor and pathos. Who better than the clown to bring us
all together with what we already have, who can render the “everything all at once” of being
human in high relief?
Send in the clowns? Don’t bother. They are in us all.
clown in the time of covid
It’s not funny. Nothing is. Which is hard for a clown to say, but there it is.
The many Covid deaths and illnesses, the never-ending quarantine, the smashing of our American democracy and the constant Orwellian presence of Herr Tweetler has made daily life nauseatingly anxious and depressing. Now THAT’S comedy, right? Mel Brooks famously said “Tragedy is VERY funny. World War 2? Hilarious!” That kind of paradox is the root of being human. It’s our base. Funny-Not Funny, Love-Hate, Real-Fake, I-you, Dead-Alive. The dialectical nature of humanity is where our greatest comedies and tragedies, our greatest stories, are born.
It may not be funny but our current reality has “clown” written all over it, adorned with out-of-tune bells and harsh whistles. And as someone who’s proudly identified as a working stage and ring clown my whole life I’ve had to wonder: are people are right to use the word as an insult, especially in relation to individuals with such amplified, entertainment-level cruelty? I mean, we are living inside a clown act right now, even an entire sideshow. Everyone is part of a massive multicultural pie fight with real consequences. No banana cream here but rather bricks and bullets and bombs and hate and sneak attacks and ugly reveals and nasty magic tricks and bait-n-switch tactics.
My first impulse has always been to defend my chosen art form and profession by screaming “We’re here to bring jooooy!” But this is only partially true. The truth is that all clowns aren’t happy, cheery, red-nosed candy stripers. We are also here to stoke awareness, to invoke danger in order to avoid or overcome it, to tell stories of grace and survival - and also to take a crap on the bed of the self-righteous and run away screeching. Funny stuff, not always comfortably so. There is a certain benign cruelty in a lot of comedy, as amply employed by the likes of Sasha Baron Cohen as the bold Borat, a crystalline Bad Clown character. He’s one example of a brilliant setting-up and punching-out of hapless ignoramuses and man, he does it SO well. The greatest clown acts or characters have some measure of malevolent mischief in them, soaked in bludgeoning silliness and rocketed by love, real love. A longing to expose, face it all, smack down and then check a mirror on the way out. The greatest clowns & comics will make you laugh like hell at us making fun of you but you’ll sure as hell know we’re mocking ourselves while we do it! Outside of Cohen, I’ve definitely seen some very mean Bouffons and watched with queasy glee the machinations of clowns dragging folks onstage for “audience participation.” Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s wildly uncomfortable, just like life.
I myself am not a goody-two-shoes clown. To use a Beatles analogy: while many of my beloved colleagues are fully in the realm of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” I am “The White Album.” The meta-punk rock clown world is where I’m most at home. To be clear, I love what the sweet clowns do and I admire any artist who can fully enchant children of all ages with an authentically goofball, kind-hearted persona. But there is a very dark side and I don’t mean a genre like horror clowns. I’m talking about a systemic, amplified, childlike darkness inherent in all human beings. I’m remembering the Q train in the evening rush hour, packed with grown humans looking like exhausted, scolded children, sitting pigeon-toed, clutching newspapers, everyone unique, dorky, adorable, grotesque, gorgeous in the twilight of a packed subway train. Or hovering outside a liquor store and gaping at the fantastic parade of postures, walks, gestures, tics, the whole incredible array of human foibling on florid display, each of us with our shrieking individuality lurching in to buy some liquid idiocy.
How many of those people could I easily refer to as “clowns” whether it was my weirdo chemistry teacher in 10th grade who smashed chalk on his desk and reeked of vodka or a recent President of the U.S. who really does remind me of a few predatory guys I did shows with in casino entertainment - oh wait, that was actually him. I can’t honestly imagine him in higher relief than he already is, with his mane of wig-like faux-blondiness and his orange foundation oozing sweat and his barking litanies and repertoire of broad gestures. Were he a professional clown he’d most likely be on some hideous cruise ship show, stomping about the lower decks ogling showgirls who quietly detest him and for whom he’s bought abortions and boob jobs because, well, charm and testosterone work just as well with greasepaint as with briefcases. There’s no denying a certain charisma that’s irresistible with old fools, whether Uncle Alfred at the seder table or the owner of a major league sports team: bigliness & super confidence always seem to get the Koolaid drunk by folks eager to be led and dazzled, not to mention being mother’s milk to those who grew up abused by assholes just like them. There is a clownishness that erupts as much from pomposity, self-aggrandizement and the telling of bold lies as from squirting flowers, big shoes or tiny, packed cars.
We are everywhere, in every guise, we human cartoons.
I guess I’m finally coming to this: if all the world is a stage then each one of us is some kind of clown. I think we all first become clowns in darkest childhood. As kids we are at our most real. Kids are part monster, part imagination machine, part silly fool and I think most of us never really travel that far from our childhood to become the odd hodgepodge of scars and longings we are as adults.
We never fully grow out of ourselves, do we?
Some of us decide to put a string of lights and a loud horn on all that and travel the land as professionals on stages and screens, but that doesn’t mean we can deny there are others who channel their own civilian foolishness into ignorance and cruelty, parading their boorishness to grab power. Or on the flip side to amplify all that is joyful, kind and eccentric to create buoyancy and laughter. But cruelty. Real cruelty. Can the truly cruel also be called clowns? Or is the moniker reserved for only the theatrically cruel? What other cruel leaders besides Herr Tweetler could we slap the clown moniker on? Hitler with his ridiculous screaming and dramatics? How about Idi Amin? Mussolini? Napoléon? The mad King George! Boris Johnson doesn’t seem wily enough to be cruel but definitely falls into the arena of the unwittingly cruel by idiot default. He’s a downright Dickensian clown if there ever was one!
As professional clowns the realness of everyday humanity’s clowns is truly a treasure trove, a stockpiled casting office of “types” to study and take on. Let’s face it, the profession of clowning depends on the humanity of clowning to fuel and provide the characters and stories we take on, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator being a deliberate and crystalline example of this transfer. Or more recently Taika Waititi as the inane imaginary Hitler friend in JoJo Rabbit.
Real life’s clowns are a lot more dangerous.
A moron with power is hysterically funny onstage, in pretend-land.
But in the real world there are real stakes and they are terrifying.
I’ll rage against them and vote them out whenever I can.
But it’s not funny. Not yet.