By John Popham
October 6, 2022
Clowns are weird right?
The more you think about it, the less it makes sense. We are almost desensitized by them because they are everywhere, in cartoons, in horror films, at circuses, and rodeos.
But what are they and where did they come from? Well, Josh and Chuck of the Stuff You Should Know podcast are here to help. The hosts have done a deep dive into the sometimes-dark history of clowning that stretches back to early recorded history.
“Clowns are exaggerations of a human personality, specifically that person’s (the clown’s) personality,” said Josh. “It wasn’t until the early 20th century that clowns were taken away from this idea that they were adults, pranksters, (with a) kind of bawdy humor, and placed squarely in the realm of little kids.”
The pair explained that historically, clowns were not meant to be the one dimensional happy characters they are known for today. For hundreds of years, clowns often appeared as entertainers for adults. They would interrupt shows and plays with their comedic routines, exaggerated makeup, and slapstick humor.
Clowns were then what Saturday Night Live is today, over the top humor for adults to watch late at night. And like some SNL stars, a few had their own issues outside of work.
Take Joseph Grimaldi for example. Grimaldi was the most popular live entertainer of the Regency era and is credited with creating the modern look of the clown. Sadly, his life was pretty grim, and his struggles were well known to the public. After his death, they became engraved in history when Charles Dickens was asked to edit the 31 year old’s memoirs.
“He basically laid it all out there,” said Chuck. “What ghastly sort of person this guy was in real life, and it was a huge hit.”
Whether we realize it or not, Dickens’ dramatic portrayal of Grimaldi’s short life still hangs over modern clowns. The idea that there is something darker hiding underneath a clown’s makeup can be traced back to this early 1800’s memoir, which you can read online for free here.
“You have this dark seed planted,” said Chuck. “You have a recipe, at the very least, for clowns to be confusing.”
That about sums up the relationship we have with the modern clown. The real-life atrocities of John Wayne Gacy and fictional horror stories like IT seem like they are enough to end the clowning industry. However, clowns seem to be doing just fine on their own.
Listen to “Selects: How Clowns Work” to hear the full history of clowning. Stuff You Should Know releases new fact filled podcast episodes every week, find them on the iHeartRadio app or anywhere podcasts are available.
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By John Popham