Thursday, September 01, 2011

Admitted clownist.

We used to just have to worry about whether we were racists, sexists, classists, looksists, etc. Well, navigating the temperamental shoals of the 21st century just got even harder. Clowns are calling out clownists.

Well, pardon my non-floppy shoes, but I feel compelled to step forward and confess that I am a bona fide, first class, grade A clownist.

Always been, always will be.

Call me a misanthropic spoil-sport, but I don’t like clowns. Most of the ones I’ve seen are off-putting, creepy, and just plain unfunny.

Pretty much the only clown that didn’t bother me was Clarabell on Howdy Doody. And I suspect that I gave old Clarabell a pass because, next to the ultra-creepy factor of Buffalo Bob Smith and Howdy himself, Clarabell seemed approachable and normal. Maybe I liked him because, like my father, he was bald.

As for Buffalo Bob: Even if bribed with a front row seat in the Peanut Gallery, I wouldn’t have sat on Buffalo Bob’s lap in a million years. Or let one of Howdy’s creepy puppet hands anywhere near me. But Clarabell and his seltzer bottle. Bring it on!

There is one other clown that I admire, and that’s Bello, whom I saw perform a couple of times with the Big Apple Circus. But Bello’s more of a stunt guy, an aerialist, a “comic daredevil” (which is what he calls himself). He’s completely brilliant, and, if you haven’t seen him, he’s worth the price of admission for whatever circus he performs in. (By the way, while Bello has a pretty distinctive, i.e., odd, hair-do, he doesn’t wear clown-face makeup.)

Other than that, clowns are distinctly non-me.

And I’m apparently not alone. (Actually, I knew I wasn’t alone. I can’t think of anyone I know who likes clowns. Torture for pretty much everyone I know would be having to watch 5 minutes of Patch Adams.)

An article I saw on the Huffington Post last week claims that the notion that clowns are less funny than a barrel of monkeys is recent:

The "clowns are creepy" meme is a new, and according to one clown, if anyone is to blame for making life sad for people who try to make us laugh, it's Stephen King.

Paul Kleinberger -- who performs as Fuddi Duddy the Clown around Albany, N.Y. -- says King's 1986 novel, "It," with its evil clown character Pennywise, is blamed by most contemporary clowns for hurting their image.

Others blame the notorious John Wayne Gacy who, when he wasn’t murdering teen-aged boys and stuffing them in the crawl space under his house, performed at parties as Pogo the Clown.

Sorry, but my fear and loathing of clowns predates Stephen King and John Wayne Gacy.

When I was a kid – in those long ago years when, if you belly-ached that there was “nothing on TV”, it was true – there was a Friday night show, hosted by Don Ameche, that showcased circuses from around the world. My father and I would often watch it, mostly so we could have a backdrop for our running commentary, which entailed wonderment that anyone in their right mind could actually enjoy the circus.

Most of the circuses were European, so we attributed the apparent European liking for this sort of “entertainment” to that fact that everything worthwhile must have been destroyed during World War II, so the Europeans just clung to their circuses because they didn’t have The Flintstones on TV. (That was another Friday night show I watched with my father. The Flintstones we liked.) There wasn’t much that we liked about the circuses, but we really didn’t like the clowns. Mostly, we pitied them. They seemed so needy, so pathetic.

Needless to say, my father never took us to the circus. We went to Red Sox games, instead.

I did make it to my first circus at the age of 17, when, with my friend Kathy Shea, I spent April vacation week in New York City. We stayed with Kathy’s aunt – a career gal who worked for Pan Am and lived in Queens. Aunt Mary treated us to the circus in Madison Square Garden, and this was long enough ago that the circus had an actual freak show – fat man, bearded lady, etc. – which we took a pass on.

But we did get ourselves seated for the main event.

Then I saw it. Him.

A clown.

A creepy clown.

Making his way up the aisle, stopping to make contact with folks sitting on the aisle seats. Which, in our row, would be me.


If there are no atheists in foxholes, neither are there any at the circus, praying their hearts out that the clown will not choose to make sport with them. This was the first time I experienced the wisdom of not making eye contact.

If nothing else, clowns are apparently pretty good at figuring out who might puke on their floppy shoes and/or turn into one rigid, hostile, don’t f-with-me circus-goer to contend with. So monsieur le clown gave me a pass.

…New York-based clown Chris Lueck believes that any animosity that exists towards clowns is actually a reflection of the critic's own unhappiness.

Au contraire, mon frère.

That week I spent in NYC – the first time I’d been there – I was deliriously happy, completely in love with everything about New York, from the weird statue of Pius XII at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to all the lunch counter joints where you could get a tuna on white toast really cheap, to the smell of the subway stations. I loved everything about New York City. Everything, that is, except for that clown.

I did not then, and do not now, like anyone invading s-CLOWNS-FIGHT-CREEPY-TAG-largemy space, especially someone I don’t know who’s dressed weirdly and whose face is disguised. And who’s purportedly funny. But – at least to me and the other clownists – is NOT.

"There is a freedom in clown and if you see someone being free and you're not, it can be threatening," [Lueck] said.

And there’s also a freedom in being a “civilian” (i.e., a non-clown) who’s willing to say ‘back off, buddy’, even if it will make them look like an unfree, unhappy, bad sport.

Free to be you. Free to be me.

Boy, do I wish I had a copy of the clown picture that hung for a while in our family room.

For a while, my mother had a hairdresser, Claire, who made house calls. On the side, Claire was an “artist”. Somewhere along the line, my mother – a complete and utter softy – acquired a picture of a clown that Claire had painted. I don’t know if she paid Claire for it, or whether it was a gift. But because my mother didn’t want to hurt Claire’s feelings, she hung the painting. Which, quite naturally, given our familial antipathy towards clowns, became a complete object of derision for years. Once my mother started going to a normal hairdresser, i.e., one who had a beauty parlor to work out of, the clown picture made its way to the basement, from whence it landed (many years later) in the trash.

Be a clown, be a clown, all the world love’s a clown?

Sorry, not in my house.

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