Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Clowning Isn't Dying Off, It's Just Changing Shape

There's been some considerable commotion in clown and coulrophobe circles, following a story yesterday in the NY Daily News on a so-called "clown shortage" that has had many casual observers proclaiming that the fix is in and the End of Days for clowning is near at hand.

Quite the contrary, I propose that the presence of clowns and clown motifs is actually on the rise throughout the arts and media, albeit rewriting itself through a transition into the next chapter of a centuries-old evolutionary history.   Clowning isn't dying off, but like so much of western culture, it's in the process of re-envisioning into in a more layered, faux-intellectualized, winkingly ironic version of itself.

 In its report, the Daily News cites concerns from various U.S. based trade unions like the World Clown Association and Clowns of American International on the fierce membership spiral they have experienced over the past decade.  WCA, for instance, has shrunk about 1000 members since 2004, bringing their number to around 2,500.  These associations attribute much of this to the retirement and "dying off" of their older membership, and a scarce base of new recruits under forty or so.

A good number of mainstream papers picked up on the clown drought story, mostly sticking to tired puns while trying to keep a straight face, though some like The Independent expand on the subject enough to note the possible influence  of modern evil clown depictions in the generational decline reported.

Popular online media went further into gratuity, of course, mostly a lot of smirking Hmm-I'm-Shocked reiterations extolling the vague creepiness of clowns and concluding with a sort of smug relief.  After all, not all people afraid of clowns become hipsters, and not all hipsters adopt a fear of clowns, but there's certainly quite a bit of overlap there.

"And so the art of clowning rides its sad, wobbly novelty jalopy into the sunset, sad honking growing gradually fainter as it recedes in the distance,"  proclaims Kelly Faircloth, with all the sledgehammer subtlety of pop culture insight one expects from a Jezebel blogger.

"America's clowns are dying," agreed the ever-nuanced Gawker.

 While traditional clowning trade associations like these are understandably concerned about their hemorraging membership, though, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the recession of these old guard clown unions may no longer be an accurate gauge of clown populations in the western world.

Organizations like the WCA and CAI asking themselves "where are all the younger clowns?" need only look to the growth of newer operations like Clowns Without Borders.  There's your 20-30 something clowns, they're in the Phillipines right now, entertaining in post-typhoon refuges.  CIRCA, the politically satirical Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, has also grown significantly, by all accounts.  And while outside of Patch Adams & friends, medical clowning never really took off in America, it's bloomed tremendously in some other developed nations, such as Israel.

Aside from the booming niche of the socially or politically active clown, there is an ever burgeoning market for the more adult-oriented clown entertainer, a model that either partly or explicitly acknowledges and incorporates the fog of unsavory associations that has crept in all around the Clown in the post 1980s popular culture.

I go to a healthy number of festivals, arts and social events of various kinds, and I still see a lot of clowns out there.  I'm prone to notice them, I guess, and I tend to stop and watch whatever they're doing.  Mostly, these days, they're not juggling or making balloon animals- what I've seen is clowns reciting William Burroughs, clowns break dancing, clowns faking tourettes syndrome.  

Clown burlesque in fact is already quite passé... but the scene is ripe for ripoffs of the fabulous Puddles and his Pity Party act:

Full on Evil-Clowning is an increasingly viable commercial prospect as well, from eccentric party services like Evil Clowns For Hire, Dominic Deville's Evil Clown stalking-for-hire, and  a profusion of others, to TV show jobs and book deals, to a seemingly endless profusion of awful bands to be found all over the interwebs, bastard godchildren not only of ICP but of their earlier horrible-evil-clown-band ancestors, K.I.S.S....

For these kind of performers, the traditional circus camp to clown school trajectory just doesn't have that much relevance to their career path, and expensive memberships in old fashioned clown unions is not only not advantageous, it's probably not even an option.

Clowns-as-entertainment are maybe not even primarily for "the kids" anymore, and this should come as no surprise in a wider economic view.  The decade that the birthday clown unions shriveled is the same one that saw Halloween spending for adults first exceed and then begin to vastly outstrip that for children - just one concrete example of an accelerated engagement of grown up demographics in entertainment areas that once catered more solely to youth bases.  Really, when was the last time anyone made a cartoon or a children's movie that wasn't also trying to appeal to older customers?

The wider re-calibration of all "children's" entertainment to appease an older, more jaded audience has helped mold the changing iconography of the clown, augmented by a constellation of other social and media influences, and admittedly awkward publicity in the past few decades.

Perhaps the only thing that is actually surprising about any of this, given the historical scope of changes occurring in the evolution of the archetype of the clown over the past few centuries*, is that many commentators are so quick to predict the approaching "end of the clown."

Quite the opposite, it seems to me the figure of the clown is alive, thriving, and perhaps more self aware than ever.

*See previous blog on how the coming of the Northampton Clown helped herald in the next phase in the era-specific development of a trickster-based archetype.