For & Against

For & Against: Clowns

3 April 2019

FOR by April Nougher-Dayhew

In 2016, ‘sightings’ of evil clowns popped up everywhere. IT was a hit, Melbourne band the Clowns received hate mail and Mississippi made it illegal to wear a clown costume for Halloween.

Mass hysteria has tainted a diverse comic tradition which goes back millennia. Until the 18th century, monarchs sought jesters’ advice, knowing they would speak candidly. Sometimes they lost their head, but most of the time clowns made rulers doubt rash decisions when no one else could. Clown You Zhan convinced emperor Qin Shi Huang not to paint the Great Wall of China. James VI of Scotland was so averse to reading contracts, his jester tricked him into signing his own abdication. And when Persian ruler Shah Naseredin asked if there was a food shortage, his jester replied “Yes, I see Your Majesty is eating only five times a day”.

Aussie politicians don’t need any help with abdications, but good clowns are still giving us permission to be silly when the world feels heavy and over-complicated. Some of the most universally entertaining performers of recent times practice clowning–Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Jim Carrey, Charlie Chaplin and Helena Bonham Carter, to name a few.

The Melbourne comedy scene is full of clowns too, like Sharnema Nougar and David Tieck, who in their show Two Little Dickheads, feel groovy about the disco-meteorite about to obliterate the earth. “The idea is that you’re an expert on being an idiot”, Tieck says. Nougar, former captain for the Starlight Children’s Foundation, says clowns link health services to children in remote areas. “Clowns speak a universal language–the doctors don’t want to get on the plane without Starlight clowns on board, because the role they play in helping kids feel safe and relaxed is so important”, she says.

So, here’s a list of things creepier than clowns: taxidermists, toe socks, morning television hosts post-scandal, Russian Youtube channels made for children (look it up), Hollywood moguls, daddy long-leg spiders (who named them?), fedoras, Snapchat maps, every virtual assistant ever,and string cheese. Food shouldn’t be that texture.

If clowns still give you the jitters, think about this: classically dressed circus clowns put on the most recognisable outfit in the world. If clowns wanted to get away with murder, they should have gone corporate. Take it from PTV: you’ll be pummelled by a rhinoceros on a skateboard long before the clowns get to you.  

AGAINST by Caitlin Wilson

One of my earliest memories is being scared shitless by a clown. The terrifying creature goes by the name of Slava Polunin, and his nightmare carnival of a show, Slava’s Snowshow, scared me out of my five-year-old mind. My recollection of this encounter has grown hazy in the intervening almost two decades, but I remember a lot more cringing and shaking with fear than laughter.

That’s the major issue I think a lot of us have with clowns—they aren’t particularly funny. Maybe way back in the day clowns were the height of hilarity, before our sense of humour was refined/ruined by internet memes, Vine and Tik Tok. But it’s not just that they don’t make me laugh; it’s that they actively freak me out. Nowadays, clowns carry much creepier connotations. We all remember that weird spike in evil clown sightings around the world in 2016 with a shudder. Even here, Facebook pages with names like ‘Melbourne Clown Association’ threatened actions ranging from vague, potentially spooky pranks to legitimate violence—some clowns were seen holding knives or machetes.

The look doesn’t help dispute the spookiness either. The painted-on smile and whiteface is pretty nightmarish. Give me glam, full face beat clowns with Instagram brows and glaring Fenty highlighter and… I’m still not on board. In fact, I may have made clowns somehow even worse, and I apologise for giving you the most horrific nightmares you’ve had since the release of the movie IT.

Their annoyingly perky energy, much like their headache-inducingly bright appearance, doesn’t do it for me either. Frankly, I don’t trust anyone that positive in the year 2019. Have they not seen the news? Your juggling and honking won’t save the icecaps, buddy. And no, I don’t want a balloon animal, thank you very much.

Perhaps it is this lack of relevance that makes clowns such terrible characters. Krusty the Clown is undoubtedly one of the worst (non-racist) Simpsons characters. Ronald McDonald has a weird energy, and contributes to childhood ill-health with his spruiking of greasy, delicious fried food. Jared Leto’s Joker was laughable, admittedly, but I don’t think that’s quite what they were going for.

I could probably delve into my psyche to discover why a person with a façade of happiness permanently rendered on their face creeps me out so much, and make peace with the goofy entertainers. But I think it’s easier just to avoid circuses and children’s parties. I’m quite content with my coulrophobia.


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