28 January 2008

Send in the . . .. Oh wait; that's me.


I heard recently (can't recall where) that a fear of clowns was the universal fear of all children. I know some adults who would postulate that children ain't the half of it. Clown fear, or coulrophobia, is prevalent. Of that there can be no doubt. Check some articles, my fine, feathered readers: and a-one, and a-two, and a-three. I hardly feel a need to provide references for this phobia, however. It seems to be universally understood that clowns are, under the right, or wrong or, for some, any circumstances, scary. Friend Davey backs this up. He doesn't like clowns, either (though apparently the Puck from Neil Gaiman's Sandman he's just hunky-dorry with), and one of his best friends is a clown. It's tearing our nation apart! It's brother against brother! Cats and dogs, living together; mass hysteria!

And that is what I think the fear of clowns comes down to. Someone, please, tell me if I've got it all backward. I'd love further insight into coulrophobia. (And while you're at it, please break down the etymology of that word, too.) To me, who only fears the certain, intentionally scary clown, it comes down to anarchy. People simply don't know what a clown will do next, and on top of that, clowns are the ultimate breakers of the fourth wall, or the audience-performer separation. We can't exist without you, audience. If a clown gets his foot lodged in a trashcan, then stumbles around until accidentally setting himself on fire, and no one's around to hear the screams of agony, did the clown really get his foot lodged in a trashcan and stumble around until accidentally setting himself aflame? The sad answer is: No, my dear audience. No.

I love clown work. I was introduced to it as a performer by a fellow clown, Grey Valenti. Friend Grey graduated from the Dell'Arte school, is a member in good standing of Zuppa del Giorno, and directed our only full-length clown production to date: Silent Lives. I think it's safe to say that Grey feels she learned a lot from clowning--the which she does in the general Lecoq/red-nose style--and applies those lessons to the rest of her life. I was very cautious to enter that world for quite a while. Rather like my few flirtations with attempting dance, I would find myself feeling lost in the work, a stranger in a strange land, and quickly become discouraged. Add to that all the aspects of clowning that actors are trained not to do, such as acknowledging the audience or drastically modifying one's behavior on stage in response to them, and you have yourself a pretty scary little world to enter . . . even without the intimidation of how personal clown work is. The idea is that one's clown is unique to one's self, thriving on our unexpressed emotions, and that the more difficult a time the clown is having, the funnier it is to the audience.

Taken from that perspective, I wonder if persons suffering from coulrophobia might not start to feel some sympathy for the clowns they meet.

It's unfortunate that, in our community at large (I'm speaking here of the U.S. of America, people), a "clown" has the stigma that it does. Google images of "clown" and (as of the date of this writing) you get that whole "birthday-clown" package, replete with elaborate face paint, grotesque colors and ginormous shoes. You also get Google suggesting you try searching for "scary clowns." The allegory here is very nearly self-evident. I don't know a lot about how the birthday clown(TM) became the prototype clown for us. I can assume influences from what I know of clown history, but that's just what they'd be: assumptions. I do go so far as to suggest, however, that the birthday clown is the result of a certain competitive and/or capitalistic philosophy we tend to adopt, knowingly or no. Drive anything to a certain point of extremes, and it will become grotesque.

These things do not a clown make. We've got clowns we love (or hate) unabashedly, without fear, surrounding us in our culture. Certainly two of the greatest silent-film comedians were clowns (I'm not sure I'd classify Harold Lloyd as one; I see him as beginning the swing toward more naturalistic comedy), and possibly the birthday clown has borrowed from their pedestrian wardrobe. Dr. Stephen T. Colbert is a clown, and I don't mean that in the derogatory sense. I mean that he is an iconic comedian, heavily dependent upon his audience, and who is developed out of the particular personality of a performer. The fact that he is also a scripted telelvision "host," more verbally motivated than driven by pratfall, is simply an adaptation to the time, and has evolved from other, more Western traditions of clowning. I believe Simon Cowell may be a clown, too. If he really behaves the way he does on American Idol at all times in his life, well, then he's not, and I pity him.

The funny thing about clowns (ha-ha), is that we are essentially children. I've spoken to a lot of people with theories from all sorts of places about why this fear of clowns. My sister recently insisted that the "traditional" clown face-painting taps into a primal fear of death, that children see a white face and know instinctively that it means a dead person. Could be. Lots of articles suggest that clowns are chaos-makers, and most mythologies contain some such figure, which is often associated with animalistic behavior. A fear of clowns, then, is a survival instinct, a defensive reaction to something outside one's community that has found its way in. (Never mind that many Native Americans figured this clown figure--Raven--for having created the world.) I can dig it. Me, though: I think people are threatened by the anarchy of a person behaving child-like. That is, in ignorance of "the rules."

As I grow older and (ever-so-slowly) more mature, I value what the clown has to teach me more and more. The clown takes nothing for granted. The clown makes mistakes regularly, and makes them with absolute commitment, and sometimes they even work out for him or her, in which case he or she never comes to view it as a mistake. The clown sees purpose in everything, understanding in nothing. The clown is selfish in its needs, yet absolutely dependent on the love of others. The clown, in short, makes me feel a little less an "adult, " and a little more human.

Which, I admit, can be scary.

6 comments:

Davey said...

Alright, more on this topic later, but for the time being... It seems that the word for fear of clowns is a recent invention, and the creator, wanting to give it a classical sense, looked to the greek. Not finding a typical clown he or she went with a close alternative, and one that is near to your heart. Kolobathristes was a stilt walker. From that we get kolon, a limb, and from there...

Well, I don't get that connection either, but it's the best I could do this fine morning. Don't thank me, thank worldwidewords.org

Jeff Wills said...

I live in refusal, Davey, and thank YOU, mercilessly. Great thing to know, regardless of accuracy or source. A stilt-walking Greek...

Adam said...

Ok, here's your answer, albeit a few days later.

I hate clowns! HATE! The clown that I hate is the circus clown, which I believe is the definition that most people to think of when ask to define a clown. (Your examples of Stephen T. Colber [god] and Loriel and Hardy are also appropriate, but do not serve the current definition)

We all know I'm a comedian, and my job is similar to that of a clown's, which is, to make people laugh. But here's the different betwix me and a clown. When I stage I am myself, when a clown is on stage they are someone else. And in freaky makeup.

Humor is derived from fear, fear presented in a non-fearful way, hence we can then laugh at it. The problem clowns have is that they themselves are scary, it's hard to laugh at fear when fear is trying to make you laugh at it. (wow that was either really insightful, or unintelligent)

Take Mr. Bean, he's a clown, but with no makeup, hence funny (to the English [bastards]) But do the same shitck with a clown with giant pants, goofy shirt and makeup; not funny.

It's the medium of the message. Jokes coming from me or any other modern age talented comic are funny. When a clown tries to make you laugh, there's too much going on, too many pixed signals

I could keep going but I think the point's been made.

So Jeff, be a clown, but please don't wear the makeup, or the nose :)

Jeff Wills said...

Oh, Adamantium. Thank you for reading my 'blog and responding to my post. It really means a lot to me that you check in here. Fo' reals.

That having been said: When can we sit down and have a nice, long conversation about theatre history, just you and me? Because, if we don't, I may eventually have to pass out, unconsciously vomit into my own mouth and choke to death from your ignorance. And I mean that in the most respectful, complimentary way possible.

Clowning is a performance tradition that reaches way, way back in history, and continues on today. It's not the clown's fault that Americans have come to define its name by the "circus clown" or "birthday clown." And, my brother, my bro-meo, without the clown, there would be no stand-up.

And you can have my red nose when you can pry it from my cold, dead . . . uh . . . nose.

Patrick said...

Two thoughts:

One: I have done some street busking as Arlecchino (in mask, which is probably worse), and have seen the birth of a new terror in the eyes of more than one child. I wonder how many years I will spend in purgatory for the nightmares I have caused. I have even more children race up to embrace me, and play with me. No idea what makes the difference.

Two: I think Mimes suffer from a similar stereotyping. Somewhere along the line Marcel Marceau/white face mime became the only kind there was. Mummenschantz is also a mime troop, but people often refuse to accept it, because they love Mummenschantz and hate mimes. And frankly some of the best clowns there are (Keaton, Chaplin, Irwin) are also quite good mimes, but I would suspect more than one of their fans would bristle at that statement. (I bet none of them would.)

Jeff Wills said...

Yes, it's a big step for a clown to come out of the closet, and people don't seem to want to see what's right before their eyes when it comes to we clowns.

As for mimes...well. Even I know those SOBs are perverse and unnatural. ;P