What the Hell Is the Deal with Clowns?

“All the world loves a clown,” Cole Porter once wrote. Turns out, not so much. Today, people’s perceptions of clowns are largely negative: clowns are weird, clowns are scary, clowns are incomprehensible. One thing clowns are not is funny. As Louis C.K. has said, “Clowns aren’t funny. There’s nothing worse than somebody who is not funny trying to be funny. That’s what a clown is.”

However, clowns remain intrinsically linked to comedy. The jokester in the back row is called the class clown. Chris Farley carried “The Clown’s Prayer” in his pocket at all times. There are a whole bunch of terrible articles referring to Robin Williams as a sad clown. For most purposes, “clown” and “comedian” are synonyms. Clowns are comedy, even if clowns aren’t comedic. Where does this disconnect spring from? Why do we hate clowns now?

Partially, it has to do with John Wayne Gacy, who murdered at least 30 young men and performed at children’s parties in the guise of Pogo the Clown. This disturbing detail took hold of public imagination and was echoed in subsequent media like Stephen King’s It and the movie Killer Klowns From Outer Space. The Evil Clown archetype has become so widespread that the group Clowns of America sent out a press release last October chastising American Horror Story for its homicidal circus clown. Also, there was that recent rash of creepy clowns infesting Bakersfield, California.

Yet we can’t entirely blame this trend on Gacy. Murderous clowns have been around since at least the opera Pagliacci in the 1890s. And there is something inherently unsettling about clowns. A British study found that children in a hospital universally hated the images of clowns adorning the walls, and some researchers believe that exaggerated clown makeup leads to an uncanny valley effect in audiences – revulsion to this human-but-not-quite-human form.

Enough about why we hate clowns: Why did we ever think they were funny? To answer that question, we need to take a look at the history of clowning, which it turns out is basically the history of humanity. Not to get all Joseph Campbell here, but most cultures on earth have some form of clown, and there were clowns as far back as Ancient Egypt, meaning it’s probably the oldest form of comedy there is. Watching someone in a mask perform slapstick in a somewhat transgressive context turns out to be fundamental.

However, as time has gone on, the western world’s artistic sensibility has gone from the hyper-stylized to the hyper-realistic. That’s a huge oversimplification, but it’s basically true: poetry has moved from strictly metered to free verse; theatre has moved from choruses and tales of heroes to kitchen sink dramas about regular people.  With comedy in particular, we’ve increasingly demanded authenticity and simplicity – any sense of pretention is antithetical to our sense of humor.

Clowns, though, are always concealed, always removed. It’s impossible to completely see the person beneath the makeup, and this is unacceptable in the modern zeitgeist. Even a character like Krusty from The Simpsons has been essentially re-contextualized to be a man who happens to have a red nose and white face. Krusty has no hidden identity – he was only seen out of makeup in one uncomfortable scene in the first season – which makes him less unknown and off-putting. It makes sense that a comedian like Louis C.K., who’s built a career on frank observations of the human condition, would find clowns particularly unappealing.

This isn’t to say that clowning is a less difficult or vulnerable form than standup – by all accounts, clown classes are an emotionally exhausting, ego-shattering experience – it’s just not likely to become mainstream anytime soon. Like cockroaches and sharks, clowns have remained largely unchanged throughout the centuries, even as the world has evolved, and that primordial aspect helps make them terrifying.

Despite his ambivalence towards them, Louis C.K. is producing an upcoming show for FX that stars Zach Galifianakis as a clown. This show will likely be funny, but its humor will come from seeing the man behind the makeup, the disparity between the public persona and personal life. As modern audiences, we can’t help but want to peel away those layers of paint.

Matt Crowley is a writer and comic living in LA.

What the Hell Is the Deal with Clowns?