Why are people afraid of clowns?
Whenever people find out that I am a Clown College Graduate and toured with Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth”, they often say, “I’m afraid of clowns.” To a trained clown, this can be quite frustrating, but it brings up the question of why?
In Ireland there is no real tradition of clowning. Sure there have been a couple of small circuses in Ireland for over 100 years, but how many people can name an Irish clown? Not many.
Countries like Italy and Russia have a long history and appreciation of clowning. Heck, several Native American tribes used to have a place of honour in their hierarchy for the equivalent of a clown. Here in Ireland, entertainment history was much more about writing, singing and Irish dancing. While all great skills, the emphasis was never on silliness.
When I arrived in 1991, fresh from the circus, I entertained as a clown all over Ireland. People were astonished and the reaction was almost always, “You’re a REAL clown!” It was obvious no had ever seen clowning before.
Up to that point, events used to just hire a random volunteer, throw some face paint, put some silly outfit on them, and have them hand out sweets. The kids learned to hate this sort of clown because they didn’t do anything. They had no skill, no character and worst of all no sense of fun.
Sadly, this is what a lot of people think a clown is.
Today, circus skills have taken off across Ireland, as people are learning silks, tumbling, trapeze and more. Still though, there is very little in the way of clowning.
When people say they are afraid of clowns, what they are usually talking about are entertainers who paint their face bright colours, wear garish outfits and tell bad jokes.
In all honesty, these people can be kind of scary, but are they clowns?
To me, they are not. They are, at best, children’s entertainers. To me a clown is someone who can entertain all age groups, has a specific skill, and a very strong character.
It takes more then makeup to be a clown. Anyone can slap on a face and people think, “Yikes! That clown is scary.”
What makes a clown is on the inside.
You have to have a big heart, be able to relate to people of all ages, have a sense of fun, be honest and bring a skill. The skill can be juggling, mime, magic, it doesn’t matter, but it is what earns you respect and gives the entertainer something to build their comedy on.
Honesty is key. This is why people who merely dress as clowns can be scary. For some reason it is in their mind that clowns always have to be happy. That is so far from the truth it is ridiculous.
A good clown offers an honest reflection of all the human emotions. They then exaggerate that emotion to the point of comedy. Think of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. Most of their comedy is based on their struggle against every day life. It’s their honest, yet exaggerated, reaction to that struggle that brings the laughs to life.
A genuine clown also doesn’t need make up. I know this may shock some, but it’s true. Most amateurs put on a full clown face. What they don’t realize is that the full clown face is designed to be seen at a distance, in a circus. It’s so that someone sitting 30 rows back can see if the clown is smiling or frowning, and it works well for that. Bring that same face close up and it is intense to the point of scaring people.
Clowns need to express all the emotions because the “always happy” clown just doesn’t ring true. No one is always happy and to pretend to be so just isn’t funny.
I love performing. Mostly now I do magic shows and juggling, but when I get the chance to clown, it offers me the freedom to express all of my emotions. Perhaps the funniest ones to other people are anger and frustration.
I remember walking out to perform at a festival. I had to walk from the B&B to the hotel where I was doing the show. I left my room with my shoulders slouched, shaking my head and mumbling. My big shoes kick any pebbles I saw. It was a way over the top expression of a tired and bored clown.
The people I passed on the way thought it was hilarious. I shook my fist at them, and then just sat down on the sidewalk to take a break. Why bother to go on? Soon I decided to turn this into a chance to take a nap. When kids persisted in waking me up repeatedly, I broke into a big mock tantrum, crying and banging my fists on the cement.
The crowd that had gathered were laughing and taking pictures. In no time, their happy mood infected the town and a lot of people followed me into the show.
So, I guess the point I am trying to make is that when people say they are afraid of clowns, they probably aren’t talking about a genuine clown, just a guy who dress like one. It may be a subtle difference to the average person, but that’s just because they have never seen a real clown.