The clown has been a standard character in the human drama from antiquity through the court jesters and commedia dell’arte troupes of medieval Europe to mid-20th-century America’s red-haired clown Bozo. We associate clowning with humor and laughter, but sad and evil clowns elicit other emotions. Humanity’s deep-seated mistrust of masked faces has engendered coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. Nonetheless, the clown has served as muse for writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Stephen King.
In the medieval courts of kings and queens and emperors and empresses, jesters had privileged access. Armed with wit, these professional clowns were often able to penetrate the shield of royal arrogance and temper. In 1340, after the English navy destroyed almost the entire French fleet at the Battle of Sluys, the French court jester took responsibility when everyone else proved too afraid to break the news to King Philippe VI. Approaching the French monarch in feigned outrage, the daring humorist declared the English “lily-livered” because “they don’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French.”
But candor came with a price; jesters walked a narrow line, and one step over could be a fatal mistake. Most royals didn’t exhibit coulrophobia (fear of clowns) per se, but rather alethophobia (fear of the truth); frequently a court jester was an object of apprehension for what he might say. Court jester was a particularly risky profession in China. The heavy-drinking Yuan dynasty emperor Yingzong ordered the execution of his lute-playing jester Mule Shi when he sang a seemingly harmless song that starts “Wine immortal.” Yingzong was apparently pretty touchy about his drinking.
Richard Tarlton, a renowned actor and clown of 16th-century England, was Elizabeth I’s favorite court jester and a founder of the traveling acting troupe the Queen’s Men. Although he could adeptly “undumpish” (cheer) the queen, he often maddened her by going too far, as he supposedly did when joking about Sir Walter Raleigh. Among many witticisms attributed to Tarlton is his retort when a woman threatened to “cuff” him: He asked her to invert the spelling and proceed. In Elizabethan times a clown was a necessity in any theatrical company, and playwrights constructed parts for popular clowns. Tarlton was known to stray far from the confines of a script, wildly improvising his scenes, often to the delight of the audience, if not the playwright. William Shakespeare addressed such antics in act 3 of Hamlet, interrupting his voluptuous verse and wily witticisms to have Hamlet berate a gaggle of unruly players for departing from a script: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you.” The clown’s seat-of-the-pants stage technique didn’t start in England. It had migrated from Italian commedia dell’arte, a stage show in which clown-like stock characters—Harlequin, Pierrot, Pulcinella—performed without written scripts.
Commedia dell’arte emerged in 16th-century Italy. Bands of traveling professional actors, decked out in outlandish costumes and makeup, portrayed sometimes bizarre stock characters—including the nimble Harlequin, the scheming Columbina and the pitiable Pierrot—and improvised a repertory of popular stories. Commedia stood apart from other theater of its day in that its female characters were portrayed by women. The English dramatist Ben Jonson, accustomed to the English convention of boys in dresses playing the female parts, described a commedia actress as a “tumbling whore.”
Over time, the characters from commedia and its spinoffs—which include Ruggero Leoncavallo’s 1892 opera Pagliacci—evolved into clown types, such as the wise-guy whiteface, the sad-clown auguste and the character clown, often a tramp. The American red-haired clown Bozo, invented in 1946 and played by countless performers on a series of children’s TV shows, carries on this ancient tradition. Bozo’s typical whiteface clown interacts, commedia-fashion, with the auguste Oliver O. Oliver and the tramp Sandy. In a departure from commedia traditions, American women clowns are few in number. One well-known contemporary female clown, Grandma of the Big Apple Circus, is played by a man, Barry Lubin. Ben Jonson might have approved.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, a Washington Post writer titled a column “Joe Biden, good guy or court jester?” The good-natured vice president, of course, is an accomplished statesman who hardly fits the role of the fool entertaining the monarch. But real clowns have gotten close to the presidency twice. The 19th-century clown Dan Rice (who falsely claimed to be a friend of President Abraham Lincoln) is said to have inspired the phrase “jump on the bandwagon” when he urged presidential candidate Zachary Taylor to campaign from a circus wagon. Rice, often cited as the original model for cartoonist Thomas Nast’s propagandist character Uncle Sam, was so well known that he ran for president in 1868, though he wasn’t popular enough to actually win.
Rice rose to fame performing “Negro songs” in blackface, theatrical makeup used for cruel caricatures (it was rarely a clowning motif). In American clowning, whiteface has reigned supreme since Bozo the Clown portrayer Larry Harmon bought the rights to the character in 1956 and masterminded its dissemination throughout the U.S. television market. Harmon announced a bid for president against Ronald Reagan in 1984, employing the slogan “Put a real Bozo in the White House.”
Pulcinella, the beak-nosed, Machiavellian character of commedia dell’arte, may be the prototype for the evil clown, a maniacal, nasty-tempered trickster who gives coulrophobes the night terrors. Another evil-clown type is the Joker, the white-faced villain from the Batman comics, who is also sometimes called the Harlequin of Hate, a reference to the commedia character Arlecchino. Joker’s sometime girlfriend Harley Quinn is another nod to the commedia mischief-maker.
Pulcinella wears a black mask and a white costume and carries around a wooden spoon, which he uses to beat anybody who doesn’t do exactly as he wishes. Although as the decades went by he was sometimes portrayed as a friendly, spaghetti-loving glutton, it is the brutish version of Pulcinella that evolved, in the 17th century, into the English character Mr. Punch. The highly stylized Punch and Judy puppet shows double the terror for those who are both coulrophobes and pupaphobes (afraid of puppets). What’s worse, the clown-puppet hybrid known as Punch is a veritable maniac—a completely unrepentant murderer, spousal abuser and baby beater. Yet somehow he and his long-suffering wife, Judy, remain fixtures, flaunting their dysfunctional relationship and clownish costumes for the amusement—or perhaps the horror—of English children.
In 2008 the University of Sheffield, England, conducted a study in pediatric hospital wards and found that children “universally disliked” clowns and considered them “frightening and unknowable.” It may be the clowns’ transformative makeup that makes the ostensibly cheerful whiteface a dream-haunter; indeed, coulrophobic actor Johnny Depp claims his terror starts with greasepaint, which makes it impossible to tell whether clowns are happy or “about to bite your face off.” In a 1992 episode of The Simpsons, Bart spends a harrowing night in a clown-shaped bed chanting “Can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”
And some clown faces have hidden genuine horrors. John Wayne Gacy, a serial murderer of teenage boys, earned the nom de psycho “Killer Clown” for his hobby of entertaining—and luring—children at charity events as the horrifying, red-lipped Pogo the Clown. Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki set out to explore the lives of professional clowns; instead, following dark hints from a clown called Silly Billy, he made Capturing the Friedmans (2003), which documents a child molestation scandal in Billy’s household involving his father and brother. Jarecki’s short film Just a Clown (2004) focuses on David Friedman, the real-life Silly Billy, whose life was upended by the events.
Author Stephen King has found many ways to frighten people. He terrified drivers with a maniacal car in Christine (1983), tormented pet lovers with the zombie animals of Pet Sematary (1983) and destroyed any hope coulrophobes had of enjoying clowns with It (1986). The novel follows the mad rampages of a dark supernatural force’s shape-shifting manifestation—known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown or Bob Gray or simply It—that kills and eats children. Pennywise looks, King says, like “a cross between Bozo and Clarabell,” a clown from the 1950s kids’ television show Howdy Doody: That blend is scary enough for anyone who finds clowns disquieting; yet the author later allows that Ronald McDonald might be a better comparison.
As the mascot for the largest fast-food chain in the world, Ronald McDonald is ubiquitous. But coulrophobes, as well as groups protesting the chain’s marketing of its unhealthy food to children, would love to see the clown go. McDonald’s refuses to bow to anti-clown pressure, maintaining that Ronald is “a force for good.” Viewers who were surveyed in 2011 about advertisements showing a sporty, health-promoting Ronald deemed the portrayal “creepy.”
Pierrot, a commedia dell’arte character, is likely the origin for the sad clown, a man who hides his sadness behind makeup. While typical whiteface clowns have lips painted into a constant smile, Pierrot wears a permanent frown or sometimes a single painted teardrop. He wanders around taking the blame for things that are not his fault. The sad clown image has been updated over time. Early in his career, Emmett Kelly created a tramp clown in tattered, grimy clothes and scruffy makeup, but circus management found the character too depressing; it wasn’t until 1933 that Kelly debuted the memorable hobo Weary Willie. French mime Marcel Marceau’s Bip is another Pierrot descendant. In 1967 Smokey Robinson & the Miracles sang about these sad characters in “The Tears of a Clown”: “Ain’t too much sadder than the tears of a clown when there’s no one around.”
Circus folk are quick to dismiss the myth that a clown’s greasepaint hides perpetual sadness. In the 2010 PBS documentary Circus, Big Apple Circus cofounder, ringmaster and clown Paul Binder remarks, “I don’t buy the sad clown thing. Clowns are complete human beings. They have all the emotions of a human being, but they’re writ large.”
For centuries writers have found inspiration in clowns, perhaps because of those fixed expressions that disguise their inner selves and allow writers to ascribe contradictory emotions to them. Stephen King expertly depicted an evil clown in the novel It. Tim Curry’s acclaimed portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the 1990 television adaptation of It magnifies the figure’s nightmarish qualities. Ruggero Leoncavallo, inspired by a real-life love triangle and murder, added a commedia dell’arte troupe and a Pierrot-style sad clown to dramatize the anguish of betrayal in his 1892 opera Pagliacci (Clowns).
Shakespeare also explored the sadness of the clown. In act 5 of Hamlet, two gravediggers, designated as “clowns” in the stage directions, are busy at work when Hamlet enters the scene. The three contemplate the skull of Yorick, the court jester. Hamlet, holding the skull, soliloquizes, remembering the clown and wondering where his “gibes” and “gambols” have gone. He concludes that in death we turn back into clay, which, formed into a plug, might “stop a hole to keep the wind away.” In Shakespeare’s day the word humor referred to a vital life fluid. Surely a clown without his humor is the saddest sight of all.