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

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: http://splitsider.com/2015/03/what-the-hell-is-the-deal-with-clowns/

Humor in America

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…

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