In a classic episode of “Seinfeld,” George Costanza attends a birthday party for a boy whose mother has booked a professional clown to entertain. As the reigning master of awkward small talk, George chats with Eric the Clown about his credentials. Within minutes, the gaffe-prone Costanza is upset that Eric has never heard of Bozo, his favorite TV jester. “How can you call yourself a clown,” George rants, “and not know who Bozo is?” Even though the red-haired joke-smith was a staple of children’s television for years, Eric justifies his ignorance. “Hey man,” he explains, “this is just a gig — it’s not my life!”
The joke is all on George because as usual, he cannot let this go. Eventually his tirade causes Eric to accuse him of being “hung up on some clown from the sixties, man,” and because later, when a fire breaks out at the party, George knocks children and old people out of the way as he runs screaming from the room. And yet the viewer can’t help but sympathize just a bit with our neurotic hero, because Eric has so little passion for his job and such blase contempt for its heritage. A twenty-something punk in a rainbow wig, Eric the Clown cares even less about children than George does. And he doesn’t care at all about the comic legends of the past.
It’s always a rude awakening for a man to realize that the heroes of his youth are just meaningless names to the next generation. (Just try making “Seinfeld” references to today’s teens and be prepared for totally blank stares — except from those who had a proper upbringing.) But once upon a time, kids had to request tickets a year in advance to be on “The Bozo Show,” and every child in America knew the star’s name. So George’s whiny argument with Eric the Clown is merely the angst-ridden cry of a generation when its icons are scorned.
I thought of this when I heard on the news that there may soon be a nationwide shortage of clowns. According to the President of Clowns of America, membership has plummeted in recent years as fewer and fewer young people dream about running away with the circus to become a clown. The COA has lost 1,000 members in the last decade. “The older clowns are passing away,” lamented Glenn Kohlburger, who cites a declining interest in the profession as the reason for its potentially grim future.
The story has been an easy target for humorists, who were standing by with a predictable volley of tiny-car jokes, seltzer cracks and snarky comments about polka-dot bow-ties and oversized shoes. Not to mention a seething undercurrent of anti-clown prejudice.
I realize that the cultural tide turned against clowns long ago. For a generation who loves labeling things as “creepy,” the spectacle of adults wearing white make-up and red rubber noses is just too bizarre to accept. No matter that the slapstick antics of clowns have delighted circus-goers for centuries. No matter that Bozo, Emmet Kelly and Ronald McDonald were long-running staples of American pop culture. No matter that the funeral for Chuckles the Clown on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was one of the all-time funniest moments in television history.
The sardonic mavens who now rule our culture have decided that clowns are creepy, and that is that. They point to the Joker on “Batman” and other white-faced psychos as evidence and then greet the upcoming clown shortage with undisguised glee, high-fiving each other with joy buzzers.
But for that tiny handful of children in the world who are not scared of clowns, and for those who still think the art of pratfalls and pantomime is worth saving, there is a silver lining to the clown crisis. Ringling Brothers is not only keeping its clowns, but the venerable circus is raising the bar on clowning. Of the over 500 applicants for a job with the show this past season, only 11 made the cut. So far, then, the shortage hasn’t hit America’s most famous big top. Even if the job market is tough for clowns these days, the fact that there were 500 who cared enough to try for the big time is heartening. It suggests that there is still a demand for highly-skilled lunacy in America. And not just in Congress.
It’s enough to make a fellow want to run off and join the circus.