Bad Clowns by Benjamin Radford
While Benjamin Radford begins with the question "Why not a book about bad clowns?" (p. 1), anticipating a critique of his book's relevance, Bad Clowns is a timely examination of a cultural obsession. Since its publication, America has seen the box office success of Joker (2019); a successful and highly publicized rally in 2017 on the National Mall in Washington, DC, by the Juggalos (fans of the musical group Insane Clown Posse), protesting their classification by the FBI as a criminal organization (2011); and an ongoing wave of threatening clown sightings across the country. Drawing from an extensive personal collection of clown ephemera, Radford goes beyond the usual suspects like the Joker, killer John Wayne Gacy, and Stephen King's Pennywise. Bad Clowns undertakes a broad portfolio, examining the history of the bad clown trope in the arts, popular culture, pornography, and real life. Radford necessarily trades some depth for breadth in this survey, which consists of 13 relatively short chapters, but he provides pointers to further exploration through his references.
Chapter 1 briefly examines the early history of the clown in Europe, from Greek theater to the Harlequin of the commedia dell'arte, and subsequently into opera through Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (1892) and the film work of Fritz Lang and Lon Chaney. Radford notes the association of the Harlequin with the Wild Hunt and the supernatural, but he quickly skips on to the role of the early clown as both the target and perpetrator of violence, humorous or otherwise. Chapter 2 continues the examination of clowns and violence through a closer examination of Mr. Punch, the violent antihero of the Punch and Judy show. This is Radford at his interdisciplinary best, mixing references from Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman with quotes from Marina Warner and scholars of theatrical history, all while engagingly describing the violent antics of Mr. Punch and the mechanics of a one-man puppet theater. He concludes with the commedia dell'arte and Punch's origins in the Pulcinella character, before returning to describe the action and narrative of a typical Punch and Judy show.
Chapters 3 and 4 are similarly interconnected, analyzing clown fear from two perspectives: what makes evil clowns scary and what makes people afraid of clowns. Radford proposes that it is not just that some clowns are bad, but that clowns are unnatural and ambiguous and that "a dark side had always lurked just below their caricatured features and painted smiles" (p. 20). Radford looks at both the psychological and physical underpinnings of clown horror, citing Joseph Campbell to associate the clown figure with mythic evil and Charles Dickens' biography of troubled nineteenth-century clown Joseph Grimaldi (1837) to establish the psychological stereotype of the tragic and damaged clown that hides behind a comic mask. Some clowns are not just frightening for what they hide, but rather for their perceived or actual deformities. Radford explores the practical [End Page 235] purposes of traditional clown makeup and accoutrements with their exaggerated and uncanny features and discusses the clownish and non-clownish participation of little people in the circus.
Clowns are not equally frightening to every observer, so Radford examines existing research on the nature and prevalence of coulrophobia (fear of clowns) in the context of the growing use of the menacing clown trope in popular culture. Radford asks whether the increasing use of the bad clown in media is an acknowledgment of an underlying cultural norm, or if coulrophobia is merely becoming more prevalent in response to these stereotypes.
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 map the pop culture lives of the bad clown through comic books, film, television, and music. Chapter 5, "Bad Clowns of the Ink," seems less like a literary survey and more like a leisurely Sunday afternoon browsing through a friend's comic collection—selective but entertaining. Radford discusses clowns like Obnoxio (Crazy Magazine, 1973–1983) and Frenchy (National Lampoon, late 1980s–1990s), marquee figures in their respective publications, and the brilliant if less well-known first issue of the Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children series written by Dave Louapre and illustrated by Dan Sweetman (DC Comics, 1989), all published since the mid-1970s. While it is unreasonable to expect a book like Bad Clowns to be a comprehensive bibliography, even a brief look at the portrayal of clowns in comics prior to the censorship imposed by the Comics Code Authority (1954) would have enriched this chapter a great deal. Chapter 6, "Bad Clowns of the Screen," provides a much broader survey, from the Lon Chaney, Sr., silent He Who Gets Slapped (1924) to The Simpsons' Krusty the Klown (1989–present), with a side excursion to explore urban legends surrounding television's Bozo.
Chapter 7, "Bad Clowns of the Song," is a bit of a letdown relative to the other two survey chapters. Radford lingers on visual descriptions of videos and album covers featuring clowns by the 1980s band Wall of Voodoo, before mentioning that Warren Zevon wrote a song about a clown in 1995 and then leaping straight to the Insane Clown Posse and Public Enemy. There is a lot of musical territory left unexplored here. At the very least, Ogden Edsl's Kinko the Clown (1979), made famous through The Dr. Demento Show, deserves some mention. The Insane Clown Posse and their Juggalo fan base are the uncontested stars of bad clown music, though, and Radford provides a great introduction to the band, their fans, and the legal problems underlying the band's skirmishes with the US Department of Justice that led to the 2017 Juggalo March on Washington.
Radford sets the tone for chapter 8 when he notes that "the subjects of clown sex and pornography have received relatively little attention in the hallowed halls of academia" (p. 89). He addresses this oversight through an irreverent review of clown pornography in film and literature that ends with the criminal case of Crotchy the Masturbating Clown, whose conviction for pornography went before the Nebraska Supreme Court in 1998. Along the way, Radford interviews Ouchy, S&M clown-forhire.
Chapter 9 brings the bad clowns to the real world, starting with the recent trend of people dressed as loitering or silently stalking clowns in the UK, United States, France, and elsewhere since 2013. Radford does an excellent job here of relating, in chronological order with references, the influential clown events of the past decade that have inspired copycats. Radford segues from the creep to the criminal with a cavalcade of clownish criminality that marches from clowns committing assault, molestation, and bicycle theft at Burning Man, to the infamous serial murders of John Wayne Gacy and a notorious Florida murder-by-clown love triangle. Radford further explores the possible influence of the Joker, Batman's murderous and clown-themed nemesis, on several contemporary crimes, including the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting of 2012. Radford, who seems to love scandalous characters, also shares the story of Koko, a sideshow clown from Coney Island alleged to have served time in prison for murder.
Iconic clowns like the Joker and Ronald Mc-Donald make great shorthand symbols for political and social statements, and "Activist Clowns" are Radford's next point of interest in chapter 10. Radford provides examples of the subversive use of Ronald McDonald to critique capitalism, consumerism, and carnivorous culture. [End Page 236] He also examines photoshopped images spread through social media of President Obama remade to resemble the Joker, as portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, and deployed as early as 2009 as a critique of his presidency. Activist clowns are often pranksters, so Radford includes information about famous hoaxers like Joey Skaggs, Alan Abel, and the Yes Men, who turn the media and bureaucratic processes against themselves through adroit manipulation. Radford includes Native American clowns, like those from the Hopi and Navajo, as activist clowns because of their use of humor to highlight and potentially defuse social conflicts.
Chapter 11 is one of the brightest spots in this book. Rather than categorizing different clowns, Radford researches the history and evolution of the "dip clown," the clown at fairs and festivals that sits above a water tank and provokes passersby to pay money solely for the opportunity to throw a ball at a target with the intent of dropping the offending clown into a tank of water. Radford interviews dip clowns, documents the origins of the game, and ruminates on his own observations of the crowds from the carnival midway.
Chapter 12 returns to the clown hysteria explored in chapter 9, but here the emphasis is on "phantom clowns," cases in which clown sightings are reported to authorities, but no evidence of clowns is subsequently found. Radford finds examples of phantom clowns dating back to 1981, often reported as trying to lure children either into a van or to some secluded location. Radford concludes that these clowns are "best understood as part of a larger social phenomenon known as phantom attackers" (p. 158), and he draws parallels to other historical waves like the Mad Gasser of Mattoon and Spring-Heeled Jack.
The internet troll, who pops up here and there throughout Bad Clowns, is the star of Rad-ford's concluding chapter. Radford lays out the motivation, or at least the self-justification, of internet pot-stirrers who often hide behind false or hidden identities to question, poke, or outright harass strangers online for the sake of personal amusement. Radford's clowns are ubiquitous. Though not always evil, they are transgressive, selfish, and ugly to the last. Above all, they are entertaining. Bad Clowns covers enough territory that there is something here for nearly everyone, but it also leaves plenty of room for further exploration.