A clown is a person who wears a unique makeup-face and flamboyant costume, performing comedy in a state of open-mindedness (by reversing folkway-norms) all while using physical comedy.
While clowns usually aim for laughs, the reaction from many—especially those who suffer from coulrophobia (fear of clowns)—is more like fear. Why? Maybe it’s the masklike makeup. Or because of recent “creepy clown” sightings. One thing’s for sure, clowns seem to always be in the popular imagination.
Unlike court jesters, clowns have traditionally served a socio-religious and psychological role, and traditionally the roles of priest and clown have been held by the same persons.
The early ancestors of the clown flourished in ancient Greece—bald-headed, padded buffoons who performed as secondary figures in farces and mime, parodying the actions of more serious characters and sometimes pelting the spectators with nuts.
The same clown appeared in the Roman mime, wearing a pointed hat and a motley patchwork robe and serving as the butt for all the tricks and abuse of his fellow actors.
Clowning was a general feature of the acts of medieval minstrels and jugglers, but the clown did not emerge as a professional comic actor until the late Middle Ages, when traveling entertainers sought to imitate the antics of the court jesters and the amateur fool societies, such as the Enfants san Souci, who specialized in comic drama at festival times.
London entertainer Joseph Grimaldi was said to have invented the modern clown in the early 1800s. Grimaldi performed physical comedy while wearing white face paint with red patches on his cheeks and bizarre colorful costumes. He was known for being extremely depressed outside his routine: His first wife died during childbirth, his father was tyrannical, and his son became an alcoholic clown who drank himself to death at age 31.
Around the same time in France, everyone was laughing at Jean-Gaspard Deburau’s Pierrot, a clown character with a white face, black eyebrows and red lips — one of the first professional silent mimes. He was universally beloved in France, but in 1836 Deburau killed a boy with a blow from his cane after the boy taunted him. Though he was ultimately acquitted, the image of a killer clown stuck in the public conscious.
In 1892, an Italian Opera called “Pagliacci” (“clowns”) became extremely popular with the public. The main character was Canio, a cuckolded clown who murdered his cheating wife on stage during the final act. It’s still a widely-staged play to this day.
England exported the circus and its clowns to America, where the genre blossomed – in late 19th century America, the circus went from a one-ring horse act to a three-ring extravaganza that travelled the country on the railways.
The clown figure in motion pictures culminated in the immortal “little tramp” character of Charlie Chaplin, with his ill-fitting clothes, flat-footed walk, and winsome mannerisms.
Clowns had a sort of heyday in America with the television age and children’s entertainers like Clarabell the Clown, Howdy Doody’s silent partner, and Bozo the Clown. Bozo, by the mid-1960s, was the beloved host of a hugely popular, internationally syndicated children’s show – there was a 10-year wait for tickets to his show. In 1963, McDonald’s brought out Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown, who’s been a brand ambassador ever since.
In anthropology, the term clown has been extended to comparable jester or fool characters in non-Western cultures. A society in which such clowns have an important position are termed clown societies, and a clown character involved in a religious or ritual capacity is known as a ritual clown.
Modern clowns are strongly associated with the tradition of the circus clown, which developed out of earlier comedic roles in theatre or Varieté shows during the 19th to mid 20th centuries. This recognizable character features outlandish costumes, distinctive makeup, colorful wigs, exaggerated footwear, and colorful clothing, with the style generally being designed to entertain large audiences.
Floyd “Creeky” Creekmore (USA, b. 14 July 1916), has been performing as Creeky the clown since the 1980s and was recognized as the oldest clown still working at the age of 95 years, 6 months, and 19 days on 3 February 2012.
The most inventive clown was Charlie Cairoli (Italy) who, with his father, between 1927 and 1937 at the Cirque Medrano, Paris, devised over 700 different routines (entrees). He then played 40 consecutive seasons at the Blackpool Tower Circus, UK, without repeating and entree in more than one season.
The largest gathering of clowns was in 1991, at Bognor Regis, UK, where 850 clowns, including 430 from North America, gathered together for their annual clown convention. The convention has been held since 1946 by Clowns International, which is the largest and oldest clown organization in the world.
The longest career as a clown – Charlie Rivel (1896-1983) made his first public appearance at the age of three, and performed for 82 years (1899-1981), retiring at the age of 85.
Coulrophobia is no laughing matter. This irrational fear of clowns can cause panic and nausea. Although it’s a rare phobia, many people find clowns creepy if not downright scary. Why? The answer lies partly in the prevalence of evil clowns in popular culture—think Pennywise in Stephen King’s It (1986). However, according to researchers, there are actual psychological reasons why we fear clowns.