‘Inside The Comedian’ is a series of longreads about laughter. In this instalment, clowns, and the sinister undertones that can lie behind a smile.
I was chatting with a friend last year, it was around halloween season and the shops had reached peak bullshit, this guy was chatting about the lame off brand costumes that popped up everywhere, with the shitty lawsuit avoiding names. He said… Then he brought up something peculiar that had happened to him the night before. He said he’d been walking down Weston Park, not the most safe place to be at night, but everything seemed to be normal. That was until in the corner of his eye he saw a man, just standing there, in a full on clown costume, staring him down. As he walked along the clown kept his eyes locked on to him. Things were a little off to he started to walk more briskly, and the clown started to follow him. He started to jog but it wouldn’t shake him off. At this point serious red flags had popped up and the poor guy started running and the clown bolted after him, chasing him right out of the park and into the street. And then the guy turned around and the clown was gone, probably back into the park to do it to some other poor stranger. Freaky stuff.
The story really caught my attention, I heard a similar story from someone else the day before. And I was pretty sure I caught something in the local paper about similar things happening around the area as well. I checked my facebook and incidents were popping up everywhere.
In August 2016 there were multiple reported sightings of strange clowns roaming the streets South Carolina. By the start of October, clowns were popping all over the country. By mid October, there had been clown sightings in Chile, Germany, & Israel. Nobody know who they were, where they came from, and what they wanted. It was freaky. People were warned about walking at night in case they encountered one of these people. We were all told to ‘Just act calm and walk away’.
And this all got me thinking, why clowns? I have to clarify at this point that I haven’t really had the same fear of clowns that others have had. This isn’t a humble brag or anything. I have a bunch of more dumb fears. Heights. Unexpected blasts of cold water. Social interaction. All of it. But I haven’t really got the clown thing. Not as a child, and especially not now. I mean clowns are creepy, sure. Not inherently, but in like 90% of cases, especially as you grow older. Sorry clowns, it’s true, your profession is tainted.
But why? Why this specific image get to us. Why is it such a reliable trope in horror fiction? And why is it so widespread? Arachnophobia is understandable from a evolutionary viewpoint of needing to run the fuck away from anything that is poisonous. But clowns are a cultural thing. Something must have happened. Something horrible must have happened.
I was thinking about of all this, and the first thing that came into my head, and I don’t know why, was Doink The Clown, the wrestler. I realised at that point, that I had watched way too much wrestling for my own good. But I digress.
I remember going back and watching episodes of golden era WWF. Now I have to say, wrestling means a lot of things to different people, but the vast majority of people picture wrestling as conceived in the so called Attitude Era. Stone Cold, The Rock, vulgarity, heightened soap opera like storylines, lots of blood. That’s all wrestling has been and ever will be to the vast majority of people. But all that stuff would come in the late 90’s. Go back half a decade and you’re in a completely different place.
Let’s be real here. I love wrestling, but wrestling is dumb. Really dumb. And this is the era that wrestling was the dumbest it had ever been. This is the world of hulkamania. Everything was in pastel colours. There was no blood, no vulgarity. This was for the children, this new WWF would not just entertain them, but inspire them. These wrestlers were superheroes, and the WWF was a cartoon.
And then there was Doink.
In 1992 a mysterious stranger started appearing at ringside during WWF shows. He didn’t have a name, he didn’t wrestle. He was just there. Nobody knew what he wanted or why. He started doing pranks to the wrestlers. He tripped the Big Boss Man with a tripwire, dumped water on Marty Jannetty, attacked Crush with a loaded prosthetic arm.
The thing about watching the character on these shows is that he isn’t really doing anything horrific or despicable. He trips some guy over, squirts water at another guy. But something feels off with Doink every time you see him. It’s intangible. Doink stands out. He doesn’t quite fit. The world that Vince McMahon had built was a power fantasy, but Doink brought you right back to reality. Doink reminded you of the local creep down the street. In a fake plastic world of action figures, here was a real person, dressed up in clown makeup, making his life’s mission to make children cry, and taking pleasure in doing it. It’s not exactly fun and playful.
Eventually it got too much for the creative staff. After a couple of months on WWF television, Doink’s character was fundamentally changed to be a good guy. Now he would only play pranks on the bad guys. The edges we’re rounded off and the kids could sleep again. Vince McMahon and his cohorts were tinkering with icons and figures of popular culture and moulding them to fit in their red white and blue, eat your greens universe. With Doink, they had gone to far. Doink was an horrible accident. A blot. They tried to right the course of the ship. But with the dark direction of the Doink character something had already started to shift. Hulk Hogan left the company in 1993, and five years later Mick Foley would be thrown off a 20 foot cell onto an announce table and nearly die live on air.
Never again would a destructive clown enter a WWF ring.
It’s fitting that McDonalds mascot is a clown when you think about it. Honestly, whoever thought of that should get a raise. The fact that such large, widespread companies like McDonalds even attempt to pull of marketing campaigns aimed at children who aren’t even old enough to perceive the idea of objects having monetary value, let alone spend anything, is absurd isn’t it? Like it’s so ridiculous. McDonalds in their pure money infused hubris, wanted to cash in on the disney effect. McDonalds wouldn’t just be restaurant chain, it would be a brand. It would appeal to every demographic and loom over every aspect of popular culture. It would be popular culture.
And hey, it worked. McDonalds, the big burger company that sells nuggets has solidified itself as one of the most well known images among the masses. Ronald McDonald is the face of progress, the wholesome face of all the good in the world. The ambassador of fun. Ronald is love, Ronald is life. Ronald is for the children. In fact, Ronald McDonald is only second to Santa Claus with children around the world when it comes to recognition.
So what’s the deal with all of this? Well, Ronald McDonald was the creation of Willard Scott, who in 1963 began to use the character in TV spots for a local Washington D.C. McDonalds of course grew it’s vast american empire through franchising, spreading its influence in every town & city in every state across the nation. And Ronald would be it’s ambassador. During the mid 60’s . And of course the driving force behind all of this was a clown, it couldn’t have been anything else if you think about it. McDonalds don’t mention Willard when they talk about Ronald in their official publicity material, they don’t need to. They’re selling a mythology, not a backstory.
When I was 11, during a vacation in the US, me and my family drove over to an amish community. We got to see how the meat was made, the animal had its blood drained and it’s carcass was hung from the rafters for the stage of production. It was a pretty harrowing image for a young person like me, but I think in the end it was an important lesson in knowing exactly what goes in to the things you consume. I like to imagine the Ronald McDonald does all that with the cows on his farm, I like to imagine that he has to butcher each cow, chicken, and fish individually. I like to imagine that he sends them down the production line too, making sure everything is just right during every step. In between entertaining the kids and making them happy he spends time unclogging beaks from the various chicken processing machines.
Earlier this year, several workers at the Cambridge & Crayford branches at McDonalds had had enough. They were sick and tired of having to simply endure poor working conditions with no leverage. It’s understandable to want some sort of leverage in a company where you work for long hours for little to no pay. The McStrike got a considerable amount of press and support from pro-union left leaning organisations, it was kind of admirable. The little guys fighting back against the big evil company is a nice little narrative reflective of the current mood for a lot of people. Ronald wouldn’t be one of them. Ronald wouldn’t be pleased with any of this. In fact I like to imagine Ronald prides himself in being the best strikebreaker in the fast food, that he takes a pleasure in it. As long as McBlood runs through his clown-like veins, there will never be a McUnion. Ronald McDonald is McDonalds, he is the system, and he enforces his will with a friendly smile and an iron fist. Every firing slip comes with a free promotional toy.
Sometimes I like to think of our horrific dystopian future, where the earth gets transmogrified into a eroded dust bowl, and society collapses as the seedy underbelly of our convenient society bubbles up and destroys the wildlife. I like to imagine all the things that will persist. Humanity will of course, not through goodwill or endeavour but through a sheer stubborn will to survive, a perpetual middle finger against the twisted god who is running this game. The fragile ecosystems which once gave the world it’s unique warmth & colour will fade and become but a mere footnote in its history. McDonalds will still be there though I reckon. All the franchises will still be there, dotted throughout the landscape, surrounded by the last gasps of the towns and cities that faded into the night. People used to walk those streets, living their lives, looking at the local landmarks, supporting the local sports teams. These were places with culture and customs unique to the square feet of land that occupied them, not anymore. Although I heard they’re doing a deal where you can get 6 McNuggets and a drink for 99 milk caps, so it’s not all bad.
I like to imagine that in this world those shitty promotional toys that people got in their happy meals for films like ‘Shark Tale’ or ‘Norm of the North’ are treated like precious jewels and antiques. Most of all though I like to imagine Ronald, watching over all of this. The endgame of his conquest. I wonder sometimes what would be going through his head. I like to think that as the remaining humans form rudimentary tribes and fight decades long wars over McFlurrys, Ronald is there watching from his tower, silently weeping like Alexander the Great. “Where do we go from here” whispers the clown. This is still an article about clowns, remember that.
Who would have thought it, a clown selling a cheeseburger, how odd.
A key factor in shaping the modern evil clown trope was probably the aftermath of the John Wayne Gacy murders. You can read them up if you want, i’m not going to waste time talking about the saga in detail here. Reading about it makes me feel physically ill. The gist of it is, he committed a series of awful crimes over years, mostly targeting young boys.
The thing that really got me the most about the whole thing was all the testimonials from locals about how normal the guy was. He helped around in his local community He in all terms and purposes was just a guy. I think it strikes into this deep fear we have of someone not being who they seem to be. Nobody can feasibly live their live in suspicion of everyone they ever meet, but cases like this throw you off your own axis. After all the physical damage was done, the damage done to the community receded, but ever slowly.
We sensationalise criminals a lot. It’s just part of our mentality. We’re morbid observers. We take a magnifying glass to the most deprived aspects of the human condition. We love fucked up shit. Who doesn’t? And yet this is a case with no mystery or glamour. It’s depravity comes from somewhere very different to cases like with the psychologically disturbed backstory to the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer and the anti-authoritarian mythos behind organised crime with something like Pablo Escobar. This all came from a betrayal of innocence.
You could see this when revelations about Saville came to life, Cosby & Rolf Harris too. Abuses of power on this scale are an all too common symptom of a blindly patriarchal society, arrogantly silencing the most vulnerable while protecting the aggressors. But with these high profile cases there was something else at play as well. These people we’re entertainers, they created an image of themselves as wholesome lovable figures that people could look up to. Saville publicly showed himself helping donating thousands of pounds to charity, Cosby portrayed himself as man that the black community could look up to. And they all created works that were enjoyed by millions of people. Secondary to the damage they did to the victims, the revelations that these people were monsters tainted everything they’d ever been involved with.
And now of course the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the leaks of sexual harassers in parliament have opened up larger power structures to the sort of scrutiny that those individuals had. Actors & elected public officials abusing their power to hurt the innocent on such a widespread scale and made many people lose faith in those systems altogether On a different scale but along the same lines, the release of the Paradise Papers has made us view faux-humanitarians like Bono in a whole different light.
The Weinstein stuff hits hardest though, since it reveals a deep rot that lies in the heart of the entertainment industry. It’s always been there, and the fact that it’s taken so long for it to finally be addressed is telling. It’s telling of people often don’t even hold entertainers to the same standard as the average man on the street. It just seemed so inconceivable that actors, or directors, or comics could even do things like this. They were just actors and directors and comics and so who even cared, it’s just how acting works, it’s just how the world of film works, it was just banter that went out of hand. Stop thinking about it, haven’t you got bigger things to be worrying about?
I’m sorry, this is all a bit much for an article on a comedy website. There is a point though, about clowns, of which this article is about. I think if you are in the important circles in the entertainment industry you have it fucking made. You get the same economic, social, and cultural clout as all the rich politicians who we rage against, but unlike said politicians, nobody cares. It’s just entertainment after all. It’s just a clown. You can exploit power to your hearts content all you’ve got to do is a little song and dance and all that context goes away, you can’t be angry at somebody whose just having fun.
That’s one thing though. A clown actually bragging about using his status to sexually exploit people and being rewarded for it though? That’s a whole different scenario. Thankfully, in spite of everything, that would never happen these days. We’ve advanced as a society, those problems are thankfully a thing of the past. Everything is fine.
Everything is fine.
Everything is fine.
Everything is fine.
Everything is fine.
“Oh my god.”
“Are you seeing this?”
“Watch the TV right now.”
“Stop joking around, this isn’t happening OK.”
“I’m sure it will all work out, it’s early days, everything is fine.”
“It’s not! Look at the TV right now!”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself”
“It’s fucking happening, I can’t believe it’s fucking happening.”
“HE FUCKING WON?!”
We all remember the day after. Last year, on November 9th, the day after Donald Trump was elected president, there was a somber feeling in the air. I felt it everywhere I went. I think everyone did. It’s like someone had personally sucked the joy and hope out of everyone’s faces. Like someone close to everybody had just died the previous night. The silences we’re longer, the rain felt heavier. People recognised each other and nodded, but chit-chat was scarce. For one day at least, Sheffield had become its worst nightmare, London. Sheffield is a Uni town, a labour heartland with a history deep in politics. and the whole world was reeling from a political hangover. It seemed so jarring that only days ago that it all seemed so innocuous. Trump, from the day he announced he was running to very end of the entire shitshow, was a joke. A living, talking caricature of the sleazy, uber-corporate, hyper-patriotic dullard that only occupied the most ludicrous satirical fantasies for UK political comics.
From the other side of the atlantic Donald Trump was a funny little curiosity, divorced from the reality of a man running as the Republican candidate in one of the most important US elections in history. He lurched around and fell over his words like a toddler. He was the perpetual zit hanging of the face of the nauseating 24/7 news cycle. Every dumb movement and linguistic fuck up became front page news. The campaign trail seem like more of a circus than it already was. He was tiny hands man, he was Drumpf, he said bigly a lot and moved his arms around like a wannabe sicilian gangster. He had silly orange hair and silly orange skin. Donald Trump was a clown, and we enjoyed every embarrassing fuck up, we revelled in his every trip and fall. And no one revelled in it more than Donald Trump. The Donald became target number one for every satirist around the world. Donald Trump, at that point a media and property mogul prominent in New York for over three decades, had been reduced to an infantile child. We believed if we deconstructed him, we would take away the power he held in his cult of personality, and somehow stop the inevitable.
It couldn’t. And as the administration begun and the President continued to embarrass himself, the comedy world was at an impasse. Some said that Trump was so ridiculous that they couldn’t even make fun of him any more. Some said that there was never a better time to be a political commentator. Saturday Night Live believed in the latter theory. And immediately post election they went to work. They hired Alec Baldwin, let him do his best Trump impression and let him loose at the start of every show. The president hated it. He hate tweeted about it, it was amazing. They even dragged more people in the mud too. Melissa McCarthy did a spot on parody of Sean Spicer, there were digs levelled at Betsy Devos, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Steve Bannon and KellyAnne Conway among others. Saturday Night Live tapped into the zeitgeist and pumped out relevant political humour week after week, they were gunning for Emmys.
And then the Emmys came, and everybody in the TV industry was there, celebrating the best of the best in an era proclaimed the ‘Golden Age Of TV’. And Sean fucking Spicer walked out, with that little fuck you grin on his face, and told his stupid little jokes and quips about himself. The audience lapped it up, maybe they thought it was still an SNL sketch, maybe Spicer was just a comedy character? Anything but the fact that he was a real person who did real damage. What’s the point? Really.
I think we forget that about satire, in crafting our own world and dragging whoever we please into it we lose a sense of where they came from, and why what they do matters. They become the clown, and in becoming the clown become less important and more like you and me. We lose the vital context which makes the things they do and how they act matter, because in the world of satire, nothing matters. That’s why anything goes with satirical content. Why all appeals to reason, empathy and restraint are met with resentful pushback. How dare you question the integrity of my beautiful satire. Like I don’t really have anything against it really, I think it’s funny a lot of the time, and that should be enough. Where I think I get irked is this presumption that it matters, and that’s culturally important and some sort of form of resistance or whatever. Like sure, the right to create art critical of established norms and power structures should be protected, but does the sort of ‘light political potshot’ stuff that we’ve seen rise to prominence in the comedy world really make a difference? Even if it does, is that result positive?
Folks in the UK have used this phenomenon to very beneficial effect. Tony Blair, who was a co-conspirator in an illegal war, appeared on an episode on The Last Leg as a guy to do funny skits with. Jacob Rees-Mogg, who believes women shouldn’t have a say in what happens to their own bodies and is scared of children despite having 27 of them regularly pops up as fun lax figure who speaks his mind. We laugh at his demeanour and accent and ignore his voting record. Boris Johnson, the puss filled lurching emblem of the most ostentatious remnants of imperialist british identity, rose to fame as a funny host on Have I Got News For You. The establishment long ago had figured out the tools of the oh so smart satirists and had learnt how to spin them to their advantage.The policy makers realised that if you take a couple of jokes thrown and you and smile while on TV, people would think about you differently. And in a political world increasingly reliant on spin and image, this was a tool to be exploited. The politician would become the clown, and the clowns would rule the world. This is an article about clowns remember?
Actually, I’ve got to be honest at this point, this article isn’t really about clowns. Despite the fact that this is being published on a website, i’m confident that less than 10 people will read this far enough to get to this bit. So it’s not really about clowns, it’s kind of about how we should still hold people who entertain us to account, and to not let evil creep under the surface of joviality or something. This kind of started as an article about how clowns were scary, but honestly I started reading fucked up clown shit and realised the reasons were probably self-explanatory.
There is a point to made from all of this though, we increasingly live in a world that makes no sense. With governmental & economic systems divorced from humanity and basic human empathy. Where the privileged abuse power structures to commit horrific acts of injustice. It’s a world filled with ugliness where ugliness is it’s only currency. We hurl abuse at each other over the internet & on the streets. We need laughter. We need it more than ever. I get it, I really do. People don’t want to be preoccupied with bad stuff all the time, and they shouldn’t have to. That’s fine. Entertainment and laughter is fine. It’s good. In these times it’s practically a byproduct of defiant goodwill.
We seek out laughter for comfort. It is our blanket, our protection against the storm. A smile wards off evil, it represents good natured charm, joviality. We smile to fight off negative thoughts that may way us down. But laughter, jolliness, it’s a fragile resource, it can be exploited. What lurks behind a smile is unknowable, it creates an uncertainty of intent and meaning. We let the people who entertain us off the hook, we buy into cozy false realities. And when that innocence gets ripped apart, that hits the hardest. Poor clowns, the legitimate ones I mean. All they ever wanted to do was make the people laugh, and now they’ve morphed into boogeymen. People tell hushed stories of clowns roaming the streets at night to scare children. And to be honest, can you blame them?
I’m not afraid of clowns. But maybe I should be. They’re everywhere. We all know why they’re here, and we all know what they want, and it’s too late to stop them. Just act calm and walk away.
Please note, the views and opinions expressed in this article are only of the author, Phil, who is the absolute worst when it comes to comedy and who won’t shut up about it. They do not represent the society as a whole. Phil occasionally roams around twitter under the handle @delitweet