You may have noticed something awful going on in America lately. No, not that. The other thing: Clowns are back. (So, sort of that.)
If the sudden resurgence of mankind’s most aesthetically invasive performer has not hit you yet, it’s only a matter of time until you realize just how fully inundated we have once again become by clowns. And yes, I know that for some, clowns aren’t the least bit frightening. Congratulations. You just haven’t had your clown story yet. To quote Tolstoy: People unafraid of clowns are all alike; people who are afraid of clowns are afraid of clowns in their own way.
But the problem at hand is not just about the terror of clowns, with their artificial smiles and grotesque shapes, nor is it about me personally recounting all the ways a clown has ruined my life (when I was in third grade, a circus clown punched my neighbor in the face and broke his nose, but I don’t know, it probably has nothing to do with all of this). The issue, as I see it, is that clowns are a non-naturally occurring relic of the past that have far overstayed their welcome in the zeitgeist. The modern interpretation is, at best, a bastardized form of the art that likely once was. I wonder, even, if those who run in proper clown circles would agree; the World Clown Association is certainly fully aware of the change in the air.
Sure, at one time, I can believe that clowns provided a necessarily colorful diversion to people. I’m sure uncorrupted children still relish a clown’s brand of family-friendly comic relief and low-octane party illusions. I would fully expect a French scholar or Zach Galifianakis to slide into my mentions and clownsplain the importance of jesters throughout history, or the clown’s nuanced evolution from Shakespearean fool to high-art opera hobo. Nevertheless, people who found entertainment in clowning and circuses also loved hoop rolling! And the World’s Fair! And penny arcades and adventure radio and waiting for monthly packages from trains. These things have gone away, recognized for the antiquities they are. Clowns have not.
Now, they only haunt our pop culture because of the ways they’ve literally haunted pop culture. You Know You’re a ‘90s Kid, perhaps, if the notion of a clown evokes an image of Pennywise from It or Zeebo from Are You Afraid of the Dark?. You’re an ‘80s child if you can recall Clownhouse, Poltergeist, and Killer Klowns From Outer Space; for a ‘70s kid, Ronald McDonald and Bozo and John Wayne Gacy. But oh, best of all, you know you’re a conscious human of the 2010s, age be damned, if the very word “clown” draws your mind to the roving gangs of homicidal crackpots in the South who have been luring people into forests with machetes. What a fun legacy clowns have enjoyed in the past three decades!
The good clowns are waning, and fast. There’s but a small list that is acceptable in the year of our Lorde 2017: Krusty. Baskets. Homey from In Living Color. The Joker (but not Jared Leto’s). That one Bobcat Goldthwaite movie. Ronald McDonald, hand-drawn (not live-action). Cirque du Soleil, viewed from mezzanine or further. Whoever the last good opera clown was.
It thus stands to reason that, personal feelings aside, we’re in the midst of the solidification of clowns as a predominantly horrifying force in pop culture. For the past 30 years, the primary iconography of clowns has been evil, and their primary target formative teenagers — suggesting that, with the ascension of this generation, what’s going to happen is this: Millennials are actually going to kill clowns. Whiteface Pierrot and buffoon clowns, at least. The evidential extinction of the Ringling Brothers Circus demonstrates that it’s already happening, and It and American Horror Story are only accelerating the deflation of that reputational balloon.
Millennials aren’t rooting for clowns. They don’t want to see greater clown representation on television. They don’t want to know the gritty origins of the first family to pile into a small car. They’re not clicking on viral clown content or trending clown make-up on Instagram or workshopping new clown characters on YouTube. The salvaging efforts of celebrities like Galifianakis or Eric Stonestreet have been noble, but have not risen with the technological tide. So yes, the It remake will blow up the box office — but to what culturally impactful end? In a certain light, clowns aren’t really going anywhere… but they’re also not really going anywhere. And so, of all the industrial casualties being pinned on the changing habits of twenty- and thirty-somethings these days, the decline of the clown will be one that’s not only justifiable, but bears its own share of the blame, if only because of how an entire generation was exposed to but the dregs of a centuries-long art form that had a good run. Perhaps clowns deserved better audiences. Perhaps we deserved better clowns.
Send out the clowns.