- 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...