The Last Laugh: Why Clowns Will Never Die

It’s no secret that clowns make people uncomfortable. Believe it or not, that’s the point: Clowns were created to test social conventions and speak truth to power, wagging their gloved fingers at institutional tomfoolery. When they’re right, we cheer them on — and when they’re wrong, usually in the most familiar, human way possible, they get their comeuppance in the form of painful or embarrassing pratfalls. To top it all it all off, clowns put many people on edge with their suspiciously cheerful costumes, exaggerated facial features, and seeming lack of impulse control.

“In many cultures, clowns would do things that were considered forbidden.”

Over the past 30 years, this general unease has blossomed into full-on clown hate in the United States, to the point where we have violent web games, popular Facebook pages, frequent Tweets, and blog rants dedicated to ridiculing clowns as creeps and monsters with phony, fixed smiles. You would think that, as the New York Daily News erroneously assumed, since clowns are more reviled than ever, no one in their right mind would want the job, and the tradition would be dying out in the United States and Canada.

But the truth is North America still has more clowns than it knows what do to with. In the same article in which the Daily News asserted a shortage, it also reported that 531 clowns applied to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus last year, and “The Greatest Show on Earth” only hired 11. That’s 520 out-of-work clowns — quite the opposite of a shortage.

Top: A detail of a 1955 poster advertising Geo. W. Cole’s Famous 3-Ring Circus. Above: In 2010, Daigo Mizutani, Fukue Mizutani, Misa Koya, and Yoshifumi Ogura won a skit competition at the annual World Clown Association Convention. (Via

“If there were a clown shortage up here in Winnipeg, I’d be happy because I’d be getting a lot more shows,” says Deanna “Dee Dee” Hartmier, president of the World Clown Association, who says she was misquoted by the Daily News. “We’ve got about 40 clowns in the city, and those 40 clowns are still vying for the same large corporate gigs and birthday parties.”

Making it as a professional clown is pretty much as hard as it is in any entertainment field, she explains. Prestigious jobs at Ringling Bros. or Cirque du Soleil are rare achievements. Today, trained clowns are more likely to find part-time work at hospitals and schools or as freelance entertainers for private children’s birthday parties or corporate family picnics.

“Clowning is not an easy business,” Hartmier says, “and it’s not necessarily a steady income. Most clowns end up doing it part-time unless they get into one of the circuses or they get full-time corporate gigs. If you’re looking at the younger clowns who want to get into it, they can’t survive. They’ve got to have other jobs.”

Today, diverse subcultures have embraced traditional clowning, from Christian ministries in small-town and suburban America, who use the foolish behavior to communicate moral lessons to children, to expressive arts therapists in urban areas, who encourage clients of all ages to try the exaggerated emotions of clowning to convey their mental states.

Still other aspiring clowns have adapted clowning into a more modern and even adult art form, and are often dismissed by professional-clown organizations like the WCA, which train clowns as politically correct, child-friendly entertainers and educators more along the lines of Bozo or Clarabell; they never sexualize their performances or riff on controversial politics. Instead, these registered clowns are well-versed in how to approach children without frightening them, how to behave in traumatic hospital situations, and what the child safety concerns are.

Sister Innocenta of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Gay Pride Paris in 2007. (Via WikiCommons)

For their part, so-called adult clowns are also students of the comedic form. Harkening back to court jesters and even ancient sacred clowns, the nonprofit organization Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence has employed a combination of drag performance, religious imagery, and traditional whiteface clowning to raise money and awareness around issues facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in San Francisco since 1979.

Other West Coasters obsessed with 19th-century circuses have produced clown bands like Gooferman and performance troupes like the Vau De Vire Society, the Lucent Dossier Experience, and Fou Fou Ha. These troupes are known for putting on elaborate parties and stage shows, as well as their performances at the annual desert bacchanalia Burning Man. They often blend clowning with acrobatics, sexy circus showgirl costumes, and sometimes even burlesque striptease. (In fact, several burlesque performers, have made a name for themselves performing as stripping clowns.)

Child-appropriate clowning has also been given a 21st-century update. In the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Thomas “Tommy” Johnson made birthday-party clowning cool for teenagers by adding hip-hop music and dance to the mix. Tommy the Clown began as a self-taught entertainer who invented his own style of performing for children’s parties. Soon, local teens wanted in on his act, so he formed the Hip-Hop Clowns. Their particular type of dancing, combining mime and hip-hop moves like twerking, became known as “clowning” or “krumping.” Hip-hop clowning grew so wildly popular, Johnson started hosting dance battles for the teens. Filmmaker David LaChapelle documented this phenomenon in the 2005 movie, “Rize.”

Thanks to Thomas Johnson, clowning has been embraced by teen and preteen boys in L.A. who would normally reject it. “To have guys dressed up as clowns and really do it in a way they can be cool and hip, that’s what makes the Hip-Hop Clowns different from the regular clowns,” he says. “With the hip-hop music and dance, we’ve got a different twist. Clowns have always been around, but the energy that we created and portray, it takes it to another level where it doesn’t have to be just for kids — you can get the adults and teenagers excited about it, too.”

A poster advertising the debut of the 2005 movie “Rize” featuring Tommy the Clown, at right, and a young dancer with his own style of face paint, at left.

In these pockets of American society, clowns are regaining some of their historic prestige. Anthropologists studying ancient cultures around the world have found that almost every one of them had some sort of clown figure in their mythology. These clowns often served a sacred role; for example, in ancient Egypt, clowns would be played by priests.

A Hudoq mask from turn-of-the-century Borneo on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (Via WikiCommons)

“It seems to be something that is inherent in human culture,” says Bruce “Charlie” Johnson, a veteran clown and clown historian for the WCA. “We can’t trace it back to any single point because as more ancient cultures are discovered, we find out they had their own type of clown characters. When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec nation in 1520, he discovered that the ruler, Montezuma, had court jesters. Cortés took two of the court jesters back to Spain with him to present as gifts to the Pope who had financed his expedition.

“In China, there were court jesters centuries before they had them in Europe,” he continues. “We have records of Chinese court jesters going back to 676 B.C., and they spread from China to India. In Southeast Asia, anthropologists found carvings of clowns in temples dating back to 800 B.C. I had the chance to go to Borneo, Indonesia, for the World Clown Association convention last year and learned about their character named Hudoq. In many ways, Hudoq has a lot of similarities to our clown characters. And when Europeans came to the United States, they discovered that most of the Native American tribes had clowns, too.”

A 1880s ledger drawing by Lakota Sioux Chief Black Hawk, depicting a horned Thunder Being (heyoka) on a horse-like creature with eagle talons and buffalo horns. The creature’s tail forms a rainbow that represents the entrance to the Spirit World, and the dots represent hail. (From “American Indians: Celebrating the Voices, Traditions & Wisdom of Native Americans,” by the National Society for American Indian Elderly)

In the Lakota Native American tribe, the “heyoka” trickster spirits, also known as the backwards people, played the holy role of the devil’s advocate. By showing the wrong way to go about everything, the heyoka helped the Lakota people gain a deeper awareness of their doubts, their foolishness, and why rules exist. Many Plains tribes had such “contrary” figures; Pueblo Indians also had contraries like masked “mudhead” clowns that play an intricate part in certain fertility ceremonies.

“The adult male dancers would come in and underneath their costume they would have children from the tribe,” Johnson says. “The mudhead clowns would sneak up, grab the children, and run away with them. Everybody else would chase the clowns. Some of the children, the clowns would put down, and some of the children, the clowns would take to a designated area and keep them there. The children the clowns took represented the spirits of the animals the tribe would hunt and kill during the next year. The ones the clowns released were the animals the hunters would miss, and those animals would live to maintain the herds. The captured children would be given gifts as an apology and a thank you to the animals who would be giving their lives to support the tribe. Tribespeople believed the ceremony had to be done in the proper way or the tribe would face a famine.”

Katsina doll of a Koshare, or Hano Clown, from the Hopi Pueblo Indian tribe in 19th century. (Courtesy of Moqui Trading Company)

The idea of contraries even surfaced in medieval Europe. “In many cultures, clowns would do things that were considered forbidden,” Johnson says. “Everybody would laugh at them, and that would reinforce the fact that the action was not acceptable. In medieval Europe, the church had a festival called the Feast of Fools. On that day, someone would bring an old shoe to the church, and the deacons would use that as the censer instead of the brass censer to burn incense. The lowest sub-deacon would be the bishop for the day, men would dress like women, and women would dress like men. On one day, everyone could do everything wrong. They could do the things they always wanted to do but were afraid to. In theory, it satisfied that desire, and then they wouldn’t do it again for another year. It was like a safety valve.”

Clowns or jesters played a similar role in royal courts in Europe, India, and China. We might think of jesters as lowly fools, but they were often respected political advisers, who had influence over the king that no one else had. They were empowered to warn the monarch of potential missteps and risks using humor and satire. (Today, you could say TV political satirists John Stewart and Stephen Colbert have stepped into the role of court jesters.)

In 2010, Taipei Li-yuan Peking Opera Theatre put on an opera called “The Jester,” based on Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Li Baochun was the star and director.

“They were known as the truth-tellers,” Johnson says. “When the Chinese emperor announced that he wasn’t going to mint any more coins that would be equivalent to our penny, two court jesters did a skit where one ran a drinks stand and the other was a customer. The drinks cost a penny, and neither the customer nor the seller had change for the equivalent of a dime, so the customer had to buy 10 drinks. As he was drinking each one, he’d be huffing and puffing more and more. When he finished the 10th glass, he said, ‘I’m glad the emperor decided to mint a coin smaller than a quarter or I would have popped before I drank everything.’ The emperor got the point, and he ordered the imperial minters to continue making the penny coin.

“One court jester, YuSze, is remembered as a hero in China,” Johnson continues. “When the ancient Chinese built the Great Wall of China to keep their enemies out, Emperor Qin Shi Huang decided that it would be nice to whitewash the wall to make it look pretty. He asked for volunteers to whitewash the wall on the enemy side of the wall, which would’ve been certain death. Nobody was brave enough to speak out about it, except for the court jester, and so he’s credited with saving the lives of thousands of Chinese citizens.”

A Netherlandish oil painting of a “laughing fool” circa 1500. (From the Davis Museum at Wellesley College)

That said, court jesters would be the first to lose their heads if they mocked their king on the wrong day, Hartmier says. The origins of European court jesters were just as grim: The concept of “natural fools” came about from the desire to gawk at and mock people who looked and behaved differently, whether they had dwarfism or some form of mental of physical disability. Often people with disabilities took jobs with traveling sideshows and put on comic routines just so they could survive financially in prejudiced medieval Europe. Before long, their unpredictable antics became trendy entertainment for royals. If a court jester didn’t have a particular disability, he would often imitate the movements, speech impediments, and vocal tics of someone who did to get a laugh.

“The legitimate fool would’ve been somebody like the hunchback of Notre-Dame,” Hartmier says. “If you remember watching the movie, Quasimodo was called ‘The King of Fools.’ Clowns go by all sorts of names — fools, jesters, jokers — so he would’ve been considered a clown back in that era. Later, every royal household had to have a clown. The able-bodied court jesters were actually considered imitation clowns at that time.”

Vasilij Suhaev painted himself and Alexandre Yakovlev as Harlequin and Pierrot in 1914. (Via Russian State Museum)

Jesters moved from the royal courts to the stage in the 16th century, as actors playing jesters became key characters in the masked improvisational theater form known as “commedia dell’arte” in Italy, which probably developed as a response to political and economic turmoil. One of the most influential commedia stock characters was an acrobatic jester in a colorful patchwork costume known as Arlecchino — who’s more familiar to us as Harlequin or Arlequin. Another such “comic servant,” a maudlin, lovelorn clown by the name of Pierrot, became Arlequin’s foil when commedia grew popular in France in the 17th century. Instead of wearing a mask, Pierrot wore white face paint and all-white clothes — starting the tradition of what’s known as “whiteface clowning.”

“Everybody’s always wanted to get a pie thrown in their face. But society says, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ When kids see clowns do it, it’s fun.”

“Looking back over the centuries, each clown character starts off stupid, the victim of a smarter character,” he explains. “Then the actors who play the stupid clown start making their character smarter, and the people who are playing the smart clown start making their character more beautiful. Eventually, the former stupid clown takes the position of the former smart clown, and the former smart clown has become too beautiful — too graceful and stylish — to be effective in comedy. That beautiful character fades away, and a new stupid character is created.”

For example, Harlequin started out as a bumbling fool, and when he became clever, Pierrot and a whiteface character simply known as Clown stepped into play dumb roles. After British theater star Joseph Grimaldi made the elegant, classic whiteface clown the smart one — the “straightman” as it’s known in comedy — the more garish “comedy whiteface” and red- or tan-faced “auguste” clowns stepped into the foolish, comedic roles. Along the way, Harlequin and Pierrot became too precious to be funny. But the straightman-and-comic formula remains unchanged throughout the history of comedy duos, including Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Sam Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

“The Christmas Pantomime” color lithograph book cover from 1890, showing the harlequinade characters, Clown, Harlequin, Pantaloon, and a cop. (Via WikiCommons)

In 1700s England, the theatrical form became known as “harlequinade,” and a standard part of musical theater performances called “pantomimes” — a term that referred to changing roles, not the silent “miming” we think of today. Most often, pantomimes began with a series of loosely related music and dance performances, done in masks, usually based on fairy tales or nursery rhymes. Halfway through, a fairy would transform the scenery and performers, who would shed their masks, into the cartoonish harlequinade. Harlequin became the romantic lead pursuing a romance with the fair Columbine. Meanwhile, her greedy merchant father, Pantaloon, employed Pierrot and/or the more mischievous character called Clown to intervene. Harlequin had the power to change the scenery with a pop of his magic wand, actually a slapstick — the root of the term “slapstick comedy.”

“The second half of the show would feature Harlequin and Columbine as young lovers trying to elope and Clown and Pantaloon chasing them and trying to prevent it,” Johnson says. “The sets would have flaps on them, and Harlequin would wave his magic wand which would make a big clapping noise, a big pop. When the stage crew heard that, they would release all the flaps so the scenery might automatically change from a city scene to a forest scene. Some people refer to it as a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon. Harlequin might knock Clown’s head off, and it would roll down a trapdoor. Then somebody with the same Clown makeup would stick his head up the trapdoor and get into an argument with Harlequin about knocking his head off. There was a lot of comic violence and magic effects.”

An Illustration of Joseph Grimaldi as Clown by George Cruikshank circa 1820. (Via The Public Domain Review)

By late 18th century, pantomimes, popular with both children and adults, were an English holiday tradition. One run would start the day after Christmas and another the day after Easter. The custom might have originated from “a tradition in the Greek Orthodox Church to use humor to celebrate Easter because they say that Christ’s resurrection was the ultimate practical joke played on the devil,” Johnson explains.

Starting in 1806, Joseph Grimaldi took the role of Clown in “Harlequin and Mother Goose: or, The Golden Egg,” a pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London. Grimaldi’s Clown become so iconic, he defined what we think of as a whiteface clown today, and inside the business, clowns are still referred to as “joeys.”

“He’s considered the first modern-day clown,” Johnson says. “Up until Grimaldi’s era, Clown was a supporting character,” Johnson says. “He was stupid. He was the victim of Harlequin. Grimaldi was the one who had made Clown smarter and was the first Clown to be the star of the show in the British theater. Up until about 1850, most theater clowns, especially in Europe, were expected to copy Grimaldi.

A 1870 photo of British duo the Payne brothers as Clown and Harlequin. (Via WikiCommons)

“Grimaldi was a very good theater magician, and he sang comedy songs,” he continues. “His most famous one was called ‘Hot Codlins’ about a woman who is selling toffee apples. In each verse, he would leave the last word out, and the audience shouted the word. For example, he’d sing, ‘Tho’ her codlins were hot, she felt herself cold. So to keep herself warm, she thought it no sin to fetch for herself a quartern of,’ and pause. The whole audience would yell out, ‘Gin!’ And then he’d look at them and say, ‘Oh, for shame!’”

While Grimaldi made a living getting laughs, his real life was far from joyful, as Smithsonian Magazome reports: His wife died during childbirth, and their son, also a professional clown, died from alcoholism at 31. In the 1836 fictional serial The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens portrayed a drunken clown wandering London’s streets, supposedly inspired by the younger Grimaldi. The physical demands of slapstick performance took its toll on the elder Grimaldi’s body, who grew disabled and lived in pain. He also took to drinking and died broke in 1837. Dickens was given Grimaldi’s papers to put together his memoirs, weaving a story of a man who was slowly killing himself to bring audiences joy.

Luis Casiano won the “classic whiteface” category at the 2010 World Clown Association Convention. The classic whiteface clown has become too elegant and beautifully adorned to be a comic. (Via

Dickens’ stories were the first to suggest clowns might have something more sinister and shadowy going on beneath the makeup. Meanwhile, Grimaldi’s counterpart in Paris, Jean-Gaspard Deburau rose to fame defining the character of Pierrot with his silent performances. When a young boy mocked Deburau on the street in 1836, he struck the child dead with his cane. In 1849, American writer Edgar Allan Poe published the story of “Hop-Frog,” a medieval court jester and “natural fool” who was born with both a physical disability and dwarfism. In the story, Hop-Frog exacts murderous revenge on everyone in the king’s court who’d abused him. Killer clowns also appeared in both French writer Catulle Mendès’s play “La femme de Tabarin” and Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera, “Pagliacci,” but it was still a small niche. By and large, Victorians loved clowns.

Cover of the first edition of “Pagliacci” published by E. Sonzogno, Milan, in 1892. (Via WikiCommons)

Grimaldi’s influence extended to the circus, a new form of entertainment that started in the late 1700s and flourished in the mid-19th century. His clowning style of exaggerated face paint and over-the-top antics was the perfect comic relief between terrifying acts of daring, and audiences could read them from the back of the bleachers. Clowns played a vital role in small, one-ring circuses, distracting and entertaining the audience while riggers changed the props, and also they were given their own feature act, known as an entrée, considered much less important that the other acts.

But circuses in America started to change in 1872, when showman Phineas Taylor Barnum and his partners expanded his traveling Museum, Menagerie & Circus from one ring to two. In 1881, Barnum merged “The Greatest Show on Earth” with James Bailey’s circus, The Great London Show and they added a third ring. The Barnum & Bailey show dominated the circus circuit until the late 19th century, when the Ringling Bros. Circus started to compete with it in terms of size and scale. After Barnum’s death in 1891, Bailey expanded their circus to five rings, and soon after Bailey died in 1906, the Ringling Brothers purchased the Barnum & Bailey show. The brothers ran two separate circuses until 1919 when they merged into the combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

A poster advertising the Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1900. It boasts “performing geese, roosters, and musical donkey.” (Via Library of Congress)

As a result, clowns started having a diminished importance in circuses, particularly when it came to set changes. Starting in 1872, they also went silent, as their voices couldn’t carry far enough to fill a multi-ring circus. Around the same time, the traditional whiteface circus “joey” got a dumber companion to kick around, the “auguste” clown. “With an auguste character, you’ve got a natural-color face and big, white eyes, and you also paint your mouth and your nose,” Hartmier says. “The name ‘auguste’ is actually drawn from a German word meaning ‘silly.’”

“People think, ‘I can put on a costume, and I’m a clown.’ They may jump in front of a kid and say, ‘I’m a clown! You’ve got to love me!’”

Legend has it that an American acrobat working in Germany’s Circus Renz created the auguste in 1869. “As the story goes, he was being disciplined for missing tricks in his act, so he was suspended,” Johnson says. “Backstage, he dressed up so he looked goofy and impersonated the circus manager for the other performers, and the manager came in and caught him. Belling ran to try to escape, running right into the circus. He tripped over the ring curb, and the audience started laughing at him. He was so embarrassed that he tripped going back the other direction. The manager liked that so much that he required Belling to continue doing that character and that act.”

At the turn of the century, Johnson says, the majority of performing clowns were whiteface clowns, but Johnson says they’ve been fading over the last 100 years or so, in favor of the auguste clown.

Yoshifumi Ogura, a winner at the 2010 World Clown Association Convention, wears traditional auguste makeup. (Via

“In the 21st century, we’re at a point now where a lot of the auguste characters are as smart as the whiteface clown. There’s a new character that some people call ‘auguste light’ that’s coming in and taking the stupid-character role. At the beginning of the 20th century, the whiteface clown was the smart one, and the auguste was stupid. Now, the auguste is about as smart as the whiteface clown, and the whiteface clown is fading away. We’re in the process now of the new stupid character being created.”

“Nobody was brave enough to speak out about it, except for the court jester. He’s credited with saving lives.”

And whiteface in the vein of Grimaldi just isn’t much fun anymore. “The classic whiteface is the top of the hierarchy,” Hartmier says. “They’re not going to be the ones that are going to have tricks played on them. They will never get a pie in the face. They will never get water spit on them. They’re the boss. Now, we also have what’s called ‘comedy whiteface,’ like my whiteface character. I can play with the kids. I can be silly. I don’t have to be quite as proper as a classic whiteface clown.”

Aside from the traveling tent circuses, clowning was such a popular form of entertainment, they performed in family-friendly vaudeville shows, and slapstick clowning techniques were employed in bawdier burlesque shows as well.

George L. Fox, a popular clown in America in the 19th century, wore a bald skullcap and did a pantomime based on “Humpty Dumpty.” (Image circa 1870s, via WikiCommons)

In the decades before and after the Civil War, a circus clown by the name of Dan Rice was a household name in America. A singer and animal trainer, he didn’t wear a lot of makeup. Instead he impressed his audiences at one-ring circuses by taking questions and answering them with quotes from Shakespeare. He had an “unrideable” mule he trained to throw off riders when he gave a cue, as well as a trained pig he called “Sybil” in the beginning and later “Lord Byron.” Sybil/Lord Byron would appear to answer questions by responding to a quiet click of his fingernails.

Dan Rice in 1901. (From “The Life of Dan Rice” by Maria Ward Brown)

“He’d ask the pig something like, ‘Who’s the biggest scoundrel in town?’” Johnson says, “And the pig would walk around and stop in front of the mayor. Then Dan would say, ‘Who’s the biggest crook in town?’, and the pig would come over and stop at Dan Rice’s feet. In the evening, Dan would sit in the pen with the pig and carry on a conversation. He’d ask the pig questions. He’d say, ‘Oh, really?’, and he’d repeat the answer. People would overhear him and be convinced that they actually heard the pig talking back to Dan Rice. The pig was known as being clairvoyant.”

In the mid-19th century, blackface minstrels in vaudeville, based on racist caricatures, were a new kind of American clown, who wore black makeup instead of white and depicted slaves and former slaves as happy-go-lucky fools or buffoons. What we think of as the beat-down tramp clown evolved from minstrelry in 1874, after many freed slaves ended up jobless and homeless.

“Caucasian blackface performers James McIntyre and Thomas Heath are the earliest tramp clowns I’ve been able to find,” Johnson says. “They said their characters were based on specific African Americans they had known. They studied African American culture and tried to represent it accurately, although humorously. It was later that it deteriorated into a very negative stereotype. Tom Heath was the first person to perform a dance called the buck-and-wing onstage, which he had learned from African Americans. We refer to it as tap dancing.”

Vaudeville performers Bert Williams, at left, and George Walker in blackface and comic outfits in 1903. (From sheet music “I’m a Jonah Man” from the musical “In Dahomey”)

Tramp clowns eventually transformed into Caucasian clowns with auguste-style makeup, red noses, and shadowy black beards, Johnson explains. Their popularity died down when the United States entered World War I in 1917 — and they made a comeback during the Depression of the 1930s, when German-born American clown Otto Greibling introduced his tramp character in 1930 to the circus. Three years later, Emmett Kelly, Sr., brought his own tramp character, “Weary Willie,” to life. Because so many people were out of work and suffering at the time, they connected to these characters.

“If somebody acted like they were sympathetic toward Otto Griebling’s tramp character, he would get upset,” Johnson says. “He didn’t want their pity. All the clown characters originally were based on actual people. But the tramp character is one that in the 20th century people relate to the most as being human and less of an exaggerated cartoon. Some clowns would just go for laughter. The tramp clown would try to get laughter but they would also go for other emotions as well.

Otto Griebling’s tramp talks to a duck in 1947. (Via WikiCommons)

“Emmett Kelly would wander around the circus audience, eating a head of cabbage,” he continues. “He would notice a beautiful woman in the audience, and he would stare at her soulfully while he was nibbling at the cabbage. Then he would remember his manners and offer her a piece of cabbage as well. Sometimes kids would offer him a peanut, so he would take the peanut and try to crack it. He couldn’t open it, so he would put it on a ring curb or an elephant tub. He’d take a sledgehammer and try to crack it, but he’d hit it too hard and completely smash it. Then he’d look even more mournful.”

At this point, clowns had lost their feature act in the three- and five-ring circus. “By 1919, there were two of seven Ringling Brothers left, Charles and John,” Johnson says. “Charles thought clown acts were important, so they should be given as much time as they needed. John thought clown acts slowed down the pace of the show. When Charles passed away in 1926, John abolished the long clown entrées and the Ringling Brothers circus, and most of the other American circuses followed his example. However, clowns stayed very important in Europe.”

Ringling Circus clown Emmett Kelly, Sr., in a bubble bath in Sarasota, Florida, circa 1955. He posed for this photo for his Christmas card. (Via State Library and Archives of Florida)

Clowns like Griebling and Kelly’s tramps often played a part in other acts in the circus. “The wife of famous juggler Massimiliano Truzzi assisted him in the ring, handing him his props,” Johnson says. “Emmett would stand by the ring curb and start flirting with Truzzi’s wife, which would distract the juggler. Massimiliano would start dropping the plates he was juggling, and they’d break. So Emmett would grab a gunny sack and clean up the broken plates for him. Then he’d stand there, holding the sack to catch the plates before they would hit the ground. When there was a high-wire act, Otto Griebling and Emmett Kelly would hold a bandana between them as if it was a safety net, walking along the ground underneath them to ‘catch’ one of the wire walkers if they happened to fall off. In a lot of ways, they were just trying to be helpful.”

Even though clowns were side acts in U.S. circuses, iconic clowns like Kelly, Greibling, Lou Jacobs, Red Skelton, and Felix Adler won Americans’ hearts. Lou Jacobs, originally a contortionist, was famous for emerging from a tiny car. Comedian Red Skelton was known for his 1950s tramp clown character, “Freddie the Freeloader.” Ringling clown Felix Adler was billed as the “King of Clowns.”

Postcard photo of the main cast of Chicago’s “Bozo’s Circus” in 1968. From left: Ringmaster Ned (Ned Locke), Mr. Bob (bandleader Bob Trendler), Bozo (Bob Bell), Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Rayner), and Sandy (Don Sandburg).

With the introduction of film and then television, vaudeville faded into obscurity. But American clowns found their way into these new media. Makeup became more subtle and natural as film stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin adapted clowning techniques to the silver screen. As clowns for adults like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges shed the whiteface and auguste makeup and costumes, clowns in full makeup took jobs in children’s television. In three-ring circuses, makeup had to be extreme to play to the people in the back row. On TV, the round red noses, big red lips, floppy shoes, and shock of colorful hair were thought to appeal to little kids, who are attracted to simple shapes, primary colors, and smiling faces. While turn-of-the-century clowns amused kids and adults alike, in the mid-20th century, clowns came to be thought of as children’s entertainment only.

“The opportunities that are available to clowns have always changed,” Johnson says. “In the early days of television, local TV stations each had a children’s program, and a lot of them were hosted by clowns. When the FCC changed the rules so that the show’s local host couldn’t do commercials anymore, it wasn’t financially viable for the TV stations to produce their own shows. So they got rid of the live clowns and purchased syndicated cartoon packages. The clowns who had been on TV, some of them retired, but others would do personal appearances within their former television market. If you were just looking at TV, suddenly, all the clowns vanished. But if you looked in their community, they were still active.”

A Ronald McDonald statue in Thailand greets guests with the traditional Thai “wai” gesture in 2005. (Via WikiCommons)

Despite that, children’s clowns had a lasting impact on TV. The pioneering 1947 NBC children’s program “The Howdy Doody Show” starred a puppet, but he had a silent auguste clown sidekick named Clarabell. Alan W. Livingston’s Bozo the Clown, played originally by Pinto Colvig, started out in October 1946 as a character in the first children’s story record with a read-along book. Colvig introduced Bozo to television, via a local Los Angeles children’s program, in 1949, and in the 1950s, Bozo became something of a franchise, where channels all over the country were licensed to have their own Bozos. This particular clown stayed a television staple until 2001. Thanks to the popularity of Bozo, Willard Scott, a clown now better known as the “Today Show” weatherman, says McDonald’s asked him to create a similar clown character to help sell their hamburgers to kids in 1963 — thus, Ronald McDonald was born.

During the political and social upheaval of the Vietnam Era in late 1960s, though, at least one clown brought the political bite of court jesters to America. Because he’d been arrested for demonstrating multiple times, a peace activist by the named of Hugh Nanton Romney started wearing a clown costume to protests and changed his name to “Wavy Gravy.” But he didn’t stop there: The official clown of the band Grateful Dead, Wavy Gravy began entertaining children with comic routines and magic tricks, and even went on to found Camp Winnarainbow in Northern California with his wife, a place kids and adults can study clown philosophy as well as acting, improv, juggling, stilt-walking, magic, unicycle, acrobatics, trapeze, tightrope-walking, and art.

American clown David Shiner, part of the new vaudeville movement, is pictured during a 1984 performance of the German Circus Roncalli in Düsseldorf. (Photo by Eddi Laumanns a.k.a. RX-Guru)

Clowning for adults returned to the mainstream in the 1980s, with the new vaudeville movement. Bill Irwin and Avner Eisenberg, for example, performed tremendously popular solo clown shows on Broadway. Clowns also regained some of their prominence with the re-emergence of one-ring circuses in America, such as the Big Apple Circus based in New York City, which began in 1977; the Altanta-based UniverSoul Circus, which started off as an African American circus in 1994; the Cirque du Soleil shows that started in 1984 in Montreal; and the small-scale Pickle Family Circus, founded in San Francisco in 1974 and is now part of the Circus Center. “When one-ring circuses became popular again, then the role of the clowns became important, and you began seeing entrée clown acts being performed in American circuses again,” Johnson says.

A poster advertising the 1924 film, “He Who Gets Slapped.” (Via WikiCommons)

While clowns got a G-rated, happy persona in the 20th century, the mystery of what might be behind the face paint was lurking in the shadows. In the 1920s, silent film star Lon Chaney played a couple of sad clowns who fall tragically in love and die. In 1928’s “Laugh, Clown, Laugh,” his clown falls to his death from a high-wire, and in 1924’s “He Who Gets Slapped,” he unleashes a lion to kill his romantic competition before he dies from a stab wound. The Joker, the famous criminal mastermind in sinister clown makeup, was introduced in the first Batman comic in 1940. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 film, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” James Stewart plays Buttons, a clown who uses his whiteface makeup to hide his identity as a doctor who performed a mercy killing on his wife. “There is some history of clowns as sinister characters,” Johnson says. “It’s the irony or the dichotomy of a character who’s supposed to bring happiness doing the opposite.”

But, by and large, clowns enjoyed most of the 20th century as saccharine symbols of childhood innocence. That is, until December 1978, when John Wayne Gacy, who sometimes performed as Pogo the Clown (despite having a criminal sexual assault record), was arrested and charged in connection to the rape and murder of 33 teenage boys. The man known as “The Killer Clown” was put on death row in 1980 and was executed in 1994.

A 1970s snapshot of John Wayne Gacy as Pogo the Clown. (Via

The concept of “coulrophobia,” or a fear of clowns, didn’t even exist before the 1980s, and it’s not acknowledged in any psychiatric manuals. Johnson says that little children generally like real, professional clowns, but when they get older, they tend to reject clowns as embarrassing and childish. “Preteen boys especially decided that they’re too old for clowns and that a way to prove that their maturity is to be aggressive towards clowns.” To appeal to a teenage-boy sensibility, a target demographic for advertisers, clowns depicted in movies, television, games, comics, and books got edgier — scarier and more loathsome.

“It just became a fad to talk about clowns negatively and say that you hate clowns,” he says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with actual clowns. It was almost a way to show that you were sophisticated.”

In the 1980s, evil, malicious clowns started creeping into movies. In 1982’s horror film “Poltergeist,” a clown doll possessed by a vengeful spirit grabs a child and attempts to choke him. In the 1985 children’s film “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” Pee-Wee dreams his beloved bike is being slaughtered by malevolent clown nurses and doctors. Then in 1986, Stephen King published his horror novel, It, about children who are terrorized by an inter-dimensional being that takes the shape of their biggest phobia: Pennywise the Dancing Clown. (It also manifests as a giant spider to adults.) It was adapted into a television miniseries that aired on ABC in November 1990.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown in a still from the 1990 TV miniseries, “It,” based on the Stephen King horror novel.

Thanks to It and Pennywise, the image of the evil monster clown was solidified in the public imagination. Movies like 1988’s “Killer Clowns From Outer Space,” 1990’s “Clownhouse,” and 1992’s “Dr. Giggles” hit the screen. In 1992, a Detroit hip-hop group made its debut as the facepaint-wearing Insane Clown Posse, championing a genre known as “horrorcore rap” that uses horror-film tropes as metaphors for the brutal realities of urban street violence. A performance of I.C.P.’s song “The Juggla” in 1994 inspired the group’s fans to wear clown makeup and call themselves “Juggalos” and “Juggalettes.” Horror clowns only got more horrifying with the titular demonic spirit in the “Killjoy” series starting in 2000, the deranged Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s 2003 slasher “The House of 1,000 Corpses,” Billy the Puppet in the gory “Saw” franchise starting in 2004, and Heath Ledger’s nihilistic turn as Batman’s arch-enemy The Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”

Aside from psychotic serial killers, clowns were portrayed in mainstream entertainment as having dark lives in the real world, consumed by depression, cynicism, addiction, and other vulgar pursuits. Krusty the Clown, who debuted on “The Simpsons” cartoon in 1989, was a beaten-down misanthrope off the set of his TV show. For the sketch comedy TV show “In Living Color,” Damon Wayans created Homey D. Clown, an ex-con doing community service, who first appeared in 1990 and flat-out refused to engage in any foolishness, declaring, “Homey don’t play that!” In 1990’s “Quick Change,” Bill Murray commits a robbery in a clown costume, and in 1992’s “Shakes the Clown,” Bobcat Goldthwait played a clown in the grips of depression and alcoholism who is framed for murder.

“Wicked clowns” Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope in a publicity photo for the hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse.

In 2007, a researcher from the University of Sheffield named Dr. Penny Curtis surveyed 250 British children, ages 4 to 16, about hospital design and decor. “We found that clowns are universally disliked by children,” Curtis told the journal Nursing Standard in 2008. “Some found them quite frightening and unknowable.” However, most news outlets who published her quote misunderstood the widely reported survey: It was about decoration, not the live “caring clowns” who provide therapeutic care in hospitals, and clown images were only a small part of the study. In the results published online, only five children are quoted saying they dislike clown images, calling them “creepy” or “babyish.” By contrast, two recent Italian studies have shown that professional hospital clowns can help reduce children’s anxiety before surgery and even speed up recovery time for respiratory illnesses.

Hartmier attributes much of clowning’s bad rap to amateurs who lack modern clown training. “People think, ‘I can just put on a costume, and I’m a clown,’ she says. “Those people tend to be the ones that have the scary-looking makeup. They may jump in front of a kid and say, ‘I’m a clown! You’ve got to love me!’ and scare the kid because they don’t know how to properly approach children.”

Little kids are often frigthened when parents shove them in the arms of an odd-looking stranger, whether it’s a man dressed as Santa Claus or a costumed Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, and a good, professional clown knows that.

The chain-smoking Krusty the Clown debuted in “The Simpsons” cartoon in 1989.

“When I see parents approaching me with their kids and I see the kid’s eyes being huge, I stop the parents,” Hartmier says. “I say, ‘No, don’t come any closer.’ Parents sometimes reply, ‘But we want to get a picture with you,’ and I say, ‘I don’t want the child coming closer to me until that child asks me to,’ And they look at the kid, like, ‘Well, she’s only this much old. How can she ask?”’ I say, ‘Just wait.’ I just take my time, and next thing you know, the little girl reaches out to me. Now, it’s safe for me to come close.”

Professional clowns trained to work with children have credentials, whether that’s being registered with the Clowns of America International or the Association for Accredited Clowns, attending classes and workshops held by the World Clown Association or the Circus Center’s Clown Conservatory, or partaking in clown camps. Often, those who work parties will have liability insurance and be able to produce a criminal background check. Hartmier even has fire-safety education training and works as a safety clown for Just for LAFS (Life and Fire Safety).

Deanna Hartmier, as Dee Dee the Clown, paints a little girl’s face. Hartmier says she knows all the ingredients in her paints. (Courtesy of

“Clowning is a business,” Hartmier says. “Clowns today have to be politically and ethnically correct. We have to know where our hands are at all times. We have to know the safety rules, like you don’t give balloons to children under the age of 3 because they can put them in their mouth and choke on them. If I do face-painting I can tell you the all ingredients in my paints, in case of allergy. You have to know etiquette. If I were to go and clown in Japan, for example, I would need to know it’s a huge no-no to touch a child on the head.

“If I’m going to a private home to do a birthday party, I also indicate that I’m not a babysitter,” she continues. “I’m here to do my performance. I expect an adult to be in the room the whole time.”

Today, while stage and TV jobs are all but gone, “there are so many different areas where clowns are being utilized,” Hartmier says. “You’ve got hospital clowning, Christian clowning, safety clowning, birthday-party clowning, circus clowning. I even know a gentleman who does history clowning.”

Ringling Circus clown Lou Jacobs with Carla Wallenda, the daughter of tightrope walkers, in Sarasota, Florida, in 1941. (From the State Library and Archives of Florida)

Professional clown makeup tends to be less extreme than the old-fashioned grotesque, comedy whiteface. Many clowns favor the more natural auguste light look. And, as Hartmier points out, clowns don’t have to be funny all the time, particularly, say, when working at a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. True professional clowns also never play pranks or gags, like squirting flowers, on audience members without explicit permission; they only pull gags on other clowns. As much as kids love their smartphone games and movies, Hartmier says they still are charmed by clowns.

“He’d ask the pig something like, ‘Who’s the biggest scoundrel in town?’ And the pig would walk around and stop in front of the mayor.”

“Most kids now aren’t used to live entertainment, so they don’t know how to respond,” Hartmier says, explaining that she encourages children to clap or cheer. “Then they realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I can be noisy here. I don’t have to be just sitting quietly like I’m in a movie theater.’ Clowning comes from the heart, and it really connects with them in a way other forms of entertainment don’t. I get kids coming up to me afterward, giving me hugs because they’ve loved the performance so much. You can’t hug a movie.”

Routines have changed quite a bit, too. One popular old bit had to do with two clowns in a stagecoach being chased by a rider. In the old routine, as the rider gets closer, the clown driving the coach repeatedly asks the clown on lookout how big the rider is. Once the rider gets too close, the driver clown beseeches the other to shoot him, and the punchline, or blow-off, is, “I can’t. I’ve known him since he was this big.” Hartimier says clowns can’t shoot guns anymore, and since Westerns aren’t as popular as they used to be, kids often don’t know what a stagecoach is anyway. But the joke can be parlayed in a routine about a Justin Bieber type getting chased by paparazzi.

Dee Dee with her friends and family on her wedding day. (Courtesy of

“Kids looove slapstick,” Hartmier says. “My partner and I, we do slapstick. We do the pies and the mess. We get covered in slop. One of the things that kid love about the mess is the fact that they kind of live vicariously. Everybody’s always wanted to get a pie thrown in their face. But society says, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ When they see clowns do it, it’s fun. My partner and I, we do a wallpapering routine, and we end up getting covered head to foot.That’s the finale of our show. At the end, when I’m covered, I’ll turn around and go, ‘Free hugs.’ You’d be amazed at how many people want to come up and give me hugs. They want to get in there and play.

“The tramp character is one that in the 20th century people relate to the most as being human and less of an exaggerated cartoon.”

“Again, we have to be ever so careful not to portray that we’re bullying each other because they’re young and impressionable,” she continues. “When we do our slapstick routine, yeah, we’re having a bit of the fight. We’re getting frustrated with each other, but then we’re laughing at each other. We’re not really angry, and we’re still helping each other.”

Hartmier loves clowning so much that she married a fellow clown — in a clown wedding, naturally — and their daughter also clowns. She has a vast collection of clown dolls and figurines, clowning magazines, objects from the Ringling Circus, and even clown Christmas ornaments. Bruce Johnson is an even more serious clown collector, who explains that there are three categories of clown collectibles: fantasy or made-up clowns, those based on real-life clowns like Emmett Kelly or Lou Jacobs; and objects belonging to real-life clowns like noses or props. Johnson also has clown masks and katsina dolls from Native American tribes; children’s books about clowns and circuses; clown photographs; and clown statues.

An item from Hartmier’s clown collection, displayed in her bathroom. (Courtesy of Deanna Hartmier)

“I have some clown dolls, but I try to stay away from the fantasy ones,” he says. “There are more dolls of specific characters, like Oleg Popov, who was a star at the Moscow State Circus, and Grandma, which was the character of Barry Lubin, the star of the Big Apple Circus.”

Clown memorabilia isn’t particularly valuable collecting category, Johnson says, so it’s best just to go for what you like. Circus programs, because they were printed in limited numbers and thrown away, are best investments. But be wary of circus posters.

“In the 1970s, the Ringling Bros. Circus reprinted a lot of their classic circus posters and sold them in the souvenir stand,” Johnson says. “And the Circus World Museum reprinted a lot of the classic posters and sold them in the gift shop at the museum. I’ve seen those in antique stores. Even though I can see where it says ‘Circus World Museum’ on it, the owner of the antiques store was saying, ‘Oh, no, no, that’s an original poster. That’s very valuable.’ You have to become educated at to know whether you’re looking at a modern reprint or if it’s actually an antique poster that has value to it.”

A vintage poster advertising the Cole Bros. Circus.

No matter how ridiculed clowning becomes in mainstream American society, Hartmier says, clowning will never die, because it connects people.

“Laughter brings closeness,” she says. “When I was in Hong Kong, I was actually asked to speak with the performers at Ocean Park, which is similar to Sea World, and they asked me, ‘What do I see as a clown? What do clowns do?’ And I told them clowning comes from the heart. They were saying, ‘Is it juggling? Is it balloon art?’ I said those are all great skills that clowns utilize, but that doesn’t make a clown. You don’t have to be a clown to do balloons. You don’t have to be a clown to face paint. Those are just skills. ‘But what’s clowning?’ Clowning is a connection with people.

“They were going, ‘Well, I don’t understand,’” she continues. “So I did a funny bit. And at first they wondered what I was doing, and then at the end of it, they were roaring. So they said, ‘Why does that work?’ And I said, ‘This is what I mean by connection: Why is it that people laugh when you see somebody hit their thumb with a hammer? Because somewhere in your past, you’ve done something just as stupid.’”

(Recommended reading: Bruce “Charlie” Johnson’s Clown History; Smithsonian Magazine’s article, “The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary”; John Plant’s paper, “The Plains Indians Clowns, Their Contraries, and Related Phenomena”; the Disability Studies Quarterly’s paper “From Marvels of Nature to Inmates of Asylums: Imaginations of Natural Folly”; Andrew McConnell Stott’s book, “The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi”; and Janet M. Davis’ book “The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top.”)

Originally published at

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