American Clowns: Performance, History, and Cliché
Our first president George Washington attended the first American circus in Philadelphia in 1793. Circus would expand from that auspicious start to become American folklife, intertwined with the history of the country. Circus performers, workers, and managers emerged from the people, and their performances attracted larger crowds than any other American institution.
Through its first century, circus focused on attracting adults, with little interest in children. All regions, all economic classes, all political stripes attended. In its next century, roughly the 1880s to the 1970s, circus drew children while continuing to market to adults. Clowns were central to that shared experience, flashing an irresistibly anarchic spirit, in one of America’s rare democratic forms. Now in the middle of its third century, circus and clowns face challenges, especially the split in audiences.
Based on my experience as a circus clown and a historian of performance, I have identified six eras that illustrate how clowns have been central to the circus—from their initial anarchic appeal, which gave way to late-nineteenth-century stereotypes that mushroomed in the twentieth century. The resulting happy-clown clichés more recently sparked a backlash with the phenomenon known as the scary clown.
Amusement for Adults (1793 to 1880s)
That first American circus in 1793 had no clown, relying on comedy in the horse-and-rider partnership, the foundation of circus. However, clowns soon joined the mix, amusing the adult audience by mocking the status quo. Beyond pratfalls, clowns generated laughs by appealing to their fellow citizens’ contrarian nature, saying and doing what politeness insisted shouldn’t be said nor done.
This Jacksonian impulse flourished most in the great clown Dan Rice (1823–1900). He became one of America’s first celebrities by joking about sex and mocking authority. Paired with Abraham Lincoln, celebrated by Walt Whitman, and echoed by Mark Twain, Rice expanded his political comments into campaigns for office, including a brief but genuine run for president in 1867. Even as Rice’s rowdy anarchic impulse continued, he called himself “The Great American Humorist” (a label Twain later adopted) and claimed refinement, appealing to a rowdy country struggling to be seen as refined.
Amusement for Adults—and Children (1880s to 1930s)
Historians point to the 1880s as the decade that generated our modern notion of childhood as a time of innocence, requiring special protection and extended education. American circus followed suit, and clowns began to be paired with children in child-focused publicity, children’s books, and children’s magazines. While the earlier era had sporadically invoked clowns as life-affirming figures for adults, this process turned clowns into kiddie clichés, shifting focus from what they did, their performances, to what they symbolized. Though the sad-clown cliché began in adult tales of lost love, seen in the 1892 opera Pagliacci, it too turned juvenile, the sad-clown-and-sick-child as an inversion of the happy-clown.
Regular circus-goers compared clowns the way fans now compare baseball players. In fact, Frank “Slivers” Oakley (1871–1916), nationally famous for his one-man baseball gag, was better known than the era’s ballplayers. The New York Times lauded Slivers as “Laugh Maker in Chief to the American People.” His suicide in 1916 made news around the country and reinforced the new cliché of the sad clown. A romantic tale that Oakley’s lead-based makeup caused insanity made the image of the sad clown even more compelling.
Amusement for Children— and Adults (1940s to 1960s)
Clowns continued as cultural touchstones, but swelling clichés tilted the focus to children. They were increasingly incorporated into circus publicity, and the clown became a major part of TV programming. Local and national examples included Clarabelle Clown on The Howdy Doody Show (1947–1960) and The Bozo Show (1960–2001). Ronald McDonald, the fast-food chain’s symbol since 1963, was one of a growing clown-face multitude pitching products to children.
Circus clowns still appealed to adults, who brought a sophisticated appreciation of the anarchic spirit. Clowns were used to advertise adult products, including cigarettes. Red Skelton’s tramp clown, Freddie the Freeloader, first appeared on TV in 1952. The great Otto Griebling, a tramp clown many circus people consider the best of the century, was celebrated on his death by the New York Times. An American postal stamp echoed Lou Jacobs’s nationally known makeup, with a high domed head and tiny hat. Emmett Kelly, who created his tramp face as a cartoonist before he started clowning, grew famous from movie and TV appearances.
A Clattering Concatenation of Clown Clichés (1960s to 1980s)
This era brought new energy to clowning, as students learned to juggle, teachers offered clown classes, and Marcel Marceau’s mime tours of the United States influenced many. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus opened its “Clown College,” with a session every fall that generated a steady flow of clowns for three decades. The creative ferment persuaded many to become clowns on their own, including some who studied physical theater in Europe.
Yet even as the ferment regenerated circus, it nudged circus away from folklife, into classes and credentials. What had been relatively few clowns in the distinct world of traditional circus became a flood of amateur clowns, clown organizations, experimenting college kids, Clown College graduates, and professionals in new circuses, including a small show that would expand into an empire as Cirque du Soleil.
Most of these new performers were college-educated, dipping in and out of circus to try other adventures or return to conventional jobs. The impact of schooling could be seen in a new sixties-infused cliché, as writers expanded a few instances of medieval jesters into the concept of the trickster speaking truth to power. Meanwhile, older clichés increased.
Nevertheless, the anarchic spirit of the clown endured. Even if national fame no longer beckoned, some clowns became stars. Bill Irwin moved from the Pickle Family Circus to PBS’s Sesame Street, then a career as a solo clown and a Tony-winning actor. David Shiner, having honed his work on the streets, performed for major circuses in Europe, for Cirque du Soleil, and on Broadway. Barry Lubin shifted from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to the Big Apple Circus, eventually playing his “Grandma” character on seven continents. Avner the Eccentric forged a solo career that included a one-man show Off-Broadway. Bello Nock combined seven generations of circus family and his own daredevil flair. The Flying Karamazov Brothers jumbled juggling, Russian names, puns, and irony. The Reduced Shakespeare Company blended verbal and physical dexterity in its spoofs of historical and literary subjects.
The “Scary Clown” (1980s to present)
The scary clown is a relatively new phenomenon. What had been an occasional instance of a child crying, as children cry at thunder or the first day of kindergarten, morphed into a claim adults made about their longstanding fear and anxiety. It is also a curious phenomenon, as people now boldly proclaim their fear.
Although many people now consider the “scary clown” as some ancient truth about clowns, it has a recent history. It did not appear in popular culture until the mid-1980s, and even then it began as an exception to normal, presumably non-scary clowns, usually as an ironic joke that the clowns were in on. (That’s how it appears in the 1974 movie The Groove Tube, when a TV show clown insists parents leave the room, and then reads erotic literature on air.) The evidence shows a specific historical process, with happy-clown stereotypes ballooning so much they demanded a backlash. Writers obliged, making up creepy, angry, and killer clowns, including these notable examples:
- 1986: David Letterman’s TV show introduces “Flunkie the Clown,” an ironic joke of a character in bad makeup, cigarette dangling.
- 1986: Stephen King’s novel It, followed by a TV movie four years later, features a clown who kills children.
- 1988: The horror comedy Killer Klowns from Outer Space becomes a cult classic, contrasting “Killer Klowns” against the still-benign image of clowns.
- 1989: The movie Uncle Buck makes the same joke, contrasting implicitly positive clowns with a negative one, a drunk clown at a kids’ party.
1989: The Simpsons expands that joke, adding the addicted, depressive Krusty the Clown to the Springfield population.
- 1990: Sketch comedy TV show In Living Color introduces Homey D. Clown, an ex-con sour at kids and angry at “The Man” but working as a clown per his parole agreement.
- 1991: Saturday Night Live airs a brief segment in which Jack Handey deadpans, “To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kind of scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad.” Again, the joke works only because of a contrast with the normal positive image of clowns.
- 1991: A clown is framed for murder in the film Shakes the Clown, which the Boston Globe terms “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.”
- 1992: The World Wrestling Federation introduces “Doink the Clown” as one of its villains.
- 1992: In a Seinfeld episode titled “The Opera,” a man dressed as the title character stalks a woman at the opera Pagliacci.
- 1990s: A Detroit rap duo changes its name to Insane Clown Posse, adding bleak makeup, a look copied by their devout followers who call themselves Juggalos.
- 1990s: Someone invents “coulrophobia,” a phony word for a fake medical condition, though its scientific-looking label and the cultural fashion make it catnip for the Internet.
A new flurry of “scary-clown” sightings popped up in the fall of 2016. The best explanations were the few that considered the context: anxiety before the presidential election, Halloween’s approach, and clown makeup used to publicize a movie. But all failed to note the difference between deliberate attempts to frighten and inadvertent fright (if it happens at all). A person dressed in a police uniform and waving a knife isn’t a “scary cop,” but no one made that distinction about “scary clowns.”
Other explanations lack historical evidence, especially when asserting incorrectly that scary clowns have always been an essential part of the clown. Meanwhile, some contrast the happy clown in public and some presumed private sorrow, but the same could be said for any performer, or anyone in public service for that matter. Makeup may be a mask, symbolically or ritually, as many assert. However, human features can be seen through clown makeup; in circus, it was mostly a device to signal comedy. No one declares a fear of Kabuki makeup, or of the green witch in Wicked.
Clowns Now and in the Future
For two centuries, clowns represented hilarity, and the folklife of circus appealed across the spectrum of American life: rich, middle-class, working-class, young, old, parents, toddlers, teens, rural, city, all regions, all races, all political affiliations. But as circus continues its third century, clowns drift from their anarchic spirit, often succumbing to cliché. At the mention of “scary clown,” they tend to insist they’re “happy clowns,” its own cliché that has little to do with professional performance. Meanwhile, those who have little experience with crowds, the do-it-yourself clowns and young graduates of classes, do what they think a clown should do, inadvertently agitating people by forcing hilarity, making extravagant faces and outsized gestures. Avoiding anarchic impulses, these clowns weaken the natural bonds with their audiences.
Nevertheless, clowning endures—and not only in revered older figures, such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and Richard Pryor. Contemporary performers—Melissa McCarthy, Donald Glover, James Corden—figure their own way to balance physicality and verbal dexterity. Meanwhile, Dan Rice’s political commentary finds successors in Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Colbert, Glenn Beck, and Jon Oliver.
Clowns now cobble together careers wherever they find or create work—in circuses, theater, shows at schools and in small clubs, at comedy festivals around the world, on cruise ships. What was true of the first circus clowns persists today: the best ones are both anarchic and communal, violating norms and joining with audiences to create the comic moment.
David Carlyon is an advisory scholar for the 2017 Circus Arts program. A former Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown and a historian, he has written the award-winning books The Education of a Circus Clown: Mentors, Audiences, Mistakes (2016) and Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You’ve Never Heard Of (2001).