It's Time For Real Clowns To Do This

Real clowns (like the late Oleg Popov) wear makeup to exaggerate their foolishness from a distance - not to terrify you.
Real clowns (like the late Oleg Popov) wear makeup to exaggerate their foolishness from a distance - not to terrify you.

It's time for professional clowns to abandon the word "clown". Just let it go.

It's the worst year ever to be called a "clown". For months, the name has been a synonym for Donald Trump. And now there are widespread reports of red-nosed maniacs lurking in the woods.

Real clowns - performing clowns - have been valiantly defending themselves online in recent days, trying to salvage their profession's good name. But it's a losing battle.

As a comic performer (formerly a stage clown, now a comedy magician), I think about this a lot, and I have a suggestion.

There is only one connection between scary clowns, Trump, and real clowns: breaking society's rules, and the wild unpredictability that comes with that. Performing clowns, from Mr. Bean to a hospital clown playing a foolish doctor to cheer up a sick kid, get the audience to laugh with them at society's restrictions. Everybody secretly knows that society is a lie humans tell themselves. The clown acts out our wishes to follow our individual desires with reckless, joyous stupidity.

They play the fool, the idiot, the innocent. Sometimes they wear makeup to look more cartoonish. But makeup never makes anyone a clown. And the performers know that in their offstage lives, they have to abide by many of society's rules to avoid harming others - a message that Trump and other sociopaths never got.

Clowns are not heartwarming creatures. They're not sad figurines in your grandma's china cabinet. They are jerks - jerks who bring the audience delight by acting in a way we all wish we could. But in contrast to real sociopaths, the actor playing the clown does it for other people. They act out their selfish desires with the unselfish goal of giving the audience a gift of laughter.

Sadly, the word "clown" no longer refers to this great and ancient profession. To most people, it means someone with nothing to offer others but horror and disgust: an axe murderer with a frozen smile, or an idiot politician.

Here's my proposal to real clowns: Let it go. The word is finished; let pop culture and the media have their way with it. It's much simpler to just call ourselves something else.

Let's skip the multisyllabic yawns like "physical comedian". Old-fashioned words like "buffoon" are OK, but I think we could do better. I propose "buster". It suggests busting social pretension, busting your ass when you fall down, and pays tribute to a great clown without makeup, Buster Keaton.

Or maybe we should just go with this suggestion from a 9-year-old clowning student of mine. When asked what we should be called instead of "clowns", she thought for three seconds before responding, "dumb crying people that hang on clotheslines from their underpants on Wednesday at 7:01 pm".

She gets it.

Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton