Send in the Clowns: A Note on Fear, Humor, and Painted Faces

Clown IT

Clowns are terrifying.

I am convinced that the very concept induces anxiety. While on the surface, the “clown” seems to be an innocuous effort to play on simple comedic principles of exaggeration–big facial expressions; big hair; big noses; big shoes, all capped by physical buffoonery–it really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”), but his rather restrained response to coming face to face with a dangerous clown is instructive. We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plot-line of the episode that featured Crazy Joe Devola–off his medication–dressed up as a clown while on the hunt for the whole gang. He was dangerous.

Clown Crazy Joe Devola

In most cases, the character who fears clowns is simply part of the humor and seems ridiculous him or herself. But we recognize the underlying fear and share Kramer’s apprehension. We recoil from the hidden or altered face–even if that face is all smiles. Can you really trust anyone with a grotesque painted face? Do you trust Joan Rivers? I saw her in an antique shop in Florida years ago–horrifying. But I digress.

Perhaps one of the most terrifying film scenes exploring the nature of clowns in our society has no painted faces whatsoever, but it brilliantly traces the fine line between funny and fearful. It is Joe Pesci’s most powerful scene in Scorcese’s Goodfellas. Here is the scene. What is so funny? Clowns can make us laugh, but few people want to be thought of as a “clown.” Laugh at the wrong one, and you are in trouble.

Fear is closely tied to humor, and clowns forever stand at the crux of that tension in our individual psyches and our cultural zeitgeist. The incongruities that humor exploits can be both comforting and unnerving.

Enter the clown. The entity taps directly into those tensions. From the most happy painted face–Bozo!, anyone?–to any of a myriad of clowns in popular American culture that appear in works of horror or violence, we both anticipate with joy and tremble with fear the moment when clowns enter the stage. Do you ever really know what will happen?

(c) 2013, Jeffrey Melton


3 responses

  1. Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey: “To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kinda scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time when I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad.”

  2. Reblogged this on Humor in America and commented:

    It’s that time of year again when we all get busy in academia. Jeff Melton wrote me with some nonsense about having a “job” and “kids” and such and asking me nicely to post this piece on clowns in place of a new contribution. Here is another recent take on the question:

  3. Reblogged this on Humor in America and commented:

    A rash of stories in numerous media outlets this summer have tapped into a cultural phenomenon concerning our bizarre relationship with clowns. So, it seems logical to repost an earlier piece on the fear of clowns and comedy. Perhaps, it may help calm our fears, but in the meantime, please follow this basic bit of advice: do not follow a clown into the woods. OK?

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