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Can they stop clowning around? This profession needs a makeover

Sep 25, 2023

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

Clowns creep me out. Rarely if ever does the sight of a middle-aged man in face paint dressed in primary colours turn my frown upside down. I want to stop in my tracks and run away.

I’ll tell you why.

For starters, a clown's ill-fitting outfits, oversized shoes, garish colour palettes and propensity for mixing stripes, polka dots and other loud patterns offends my fashion sensibilities. And don't get me started about the bad hair. Why are permed, crayon-red skullets de rigueur?

It was not always the case. Charlie Chaplin wore a pretty good suit and a fashionable hat. He was classy and understated. I imagine him looking at the clowns of subsequent decades, turning out his pockets and tooting his horn in dismay.

Clowns are phony, with their painted-on smiles and pancake makeup. I want to walk up to every clown who crosses my path and say, "Get real. You don't have to hide your feelings to cheer me up. Let's talk." Except that many of them don't speak. Was there some kind of choice made in clown school between selective mutism versus a booming, squeaky or way too cheerful voice? Is the talking one the spokesman for the group? I am confused. Express yourselves, clowns, in a normal human tone.

Clowns are also downright scary. They feature in horror movies for a reason. Stephen King's clown gone bad in It is a prime example, but even cheery clowns can induce nightmares. When I worked as a nurse at a children's hospital, we dreaded the arrival of the well-intentioned Shriner Clowns who visited, ostensibly to spread joy and laughter. I hate to say it, but they made the babies cry. Imagine a huge leering face hovering over your crib after just waking up from a nap.

Clown-inspired toys and décor are even scarier. Ornamental pastel-coloured clowns were all the rage when my firstborn arrived. She received a couple as gifts that I used to decorate her nursery. One was a little baby wind-up clown that played sweet music while its head lolled around like the girl from The Exorcist. It played Send in the Clowns, too, I believe. The other, larger clown swung on a toy swing; an eerie smile transfixed on its face. As soon as my daughter was old enough to communicate, she pointed at them and shook her head, lower lip trembling. They terrified her.

I should have known better, for I too was traumatized by toy clowns as a child. I distinctly recall a jack-in-the-box that gave me nightmares. Who thought it was a good idea to put a toy clown on a spring to pop out of a closed door after a build-up of creepy music? Sometimes it randomly popped open without being touched. That toy was possessed. It startled me every time. I’m okay, though. I’ve worked through my flashbacks with one of those inflatable Bozo the Clown punching bags. It was great. I could hit the bag's leering face and it would fall over and pop right back up again for another round.

And what is the deal with clowns and balloons? Sure, balloons can be twisted into cute animal shapes and magically ascend skyward when filled with helium. But balloons inevitably burst into pieces. Balloons end in tears. It's all fun and games until someone chokes or has an anaphylactic reaction to the latex. They are terrible for the environment and unsafe for small children.

Clowning pratfalls have also lost their lustre. I appreciate physical comedy, but the old slipping on a banana peel and banging into the next guy routines are getting tired. Try typing C-L-O-W-N into the text field on your device. The emoji that comes up is a balding man with red curls and a chalky white face. Does this image bring you joy? Or cause you to shudder in your boots? Is this stereotypical clown depiction in keeping with the nuances and diversity of life in 2023? I think not. Yet it persists.

I’m not proposing that clowns should be abolished altogether. But unless we want to relegate the sacred institution of clowning to the dark fringes of society, some serious rebranding and rehabilitation are in order.

Rebranding will be a challenge. They’ll need to bring a marketing team. They might even come up with a catchy slogan, something like Make Clowns Funny Again. I propose a reality show where the washed-out clowns of decades past can benefit from the interventions of an elite, focused team of consultants. They could bring in a fashion designer to create costumes that are bright, fun and runway-worthy. Trend-setting, even. An esthetician to deal with pesky makeup and skin care issues. A hairstylist, perhaps, although I’m not feeling hopeful about that one. Definitely, a choreographer from Cirque du Soleil to help them lose the balloons and develop some hip new routines.

Rehabilitation could take longer. Old habits die hard and interventions need to be tailored. Some recovering clowns may require driving lessons, others’ speech therapy and psychotherapy to talk (or honk?) out their issues. "Tell me Bozo, why did you have to run away and join the circus?"

All kidding aside, I would hate to see clowning disappear. They exist for a reason. There is a divine purpose to comedy. At their purest essence, clowns serve a vital function: They remind us of the importance of physical play, of silliness and of humility. We’ve been taking ourselves way too seriously. Clowns make us laugh and that is a precious gift indeed.

But please keep them away from small children.

Bonney Elliott lives in Ottawa.