Inside D.C. entertainment

Correction:

This post previously misspelled Micael Bogar's name.

The year in clowns

December 29, 2010 - 11:30 AM
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A.K.A the year in YOUR CREEPIEST NIGHTMARES. TBD covered clowns to a degree that made many people uncomfortable this year. That's probably because, on a slow day in August shortly after launch, I chose to write about nothing else for an entire workday, thanks to Dog & Pony DC's Separated at Birth, a clown show (I'm glad to be working for a place that would support such an endeavor). Those who were brave enough to click learned a lot about clowning. Such as:

Clowns are scary: This is what many people have told me on Twitter, in our comments, and in person when I embedded myself as a clown with the Sane Clown Posse for the Rally to Restore Sanity (more on that in a bit). Even perfectly nice clowns wearing little to no makeup – such as Rachel Grossman, a clown from Separated at Birth, who I profiled – were able to creep almost anyone out. I've never had a harder time finding someone to go to a show with me than to Separated at Birth. Perhaps I'm not scared of clowns because I've never seen the movie It, or any of the other frightening clown movies out there. Juggalos, though, are a pretty frightening bunch.

Except when they're not: I spoke with Abigail Marsh, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University for clown day, who told me that many people who think they suffer from coulrophobia are just big fakers. While many people find clowns disturbing, it's rare that a person's fear of clowns becomes a deep-seated phobia – that would require their fear to become a significant disruption to their life, rather than an icky feeling every time they see a circus. But even though most people's fear of clowns is not psychologically diagnosable, since can explain why we find them so disturbing. The a psychological principle called "The Uncanny Valley" explains how we like humanlike beings, such as robots, to look ilke humans only up to a point. Once they become too lifelike, they re frightening, This can explain why clowns, with their exaggerated features, are scary to kids who haven't even been conditioned not to like clowns by the media.

Clowns are religious: Outside of D.C., the big shocker in the clown world was the revelation that the Insane Clown Posse – the horrorcore rap band that inspired legions of juggalo followers who could recite every word of their violent and misogynistic lyrics – have been an evangelical Christian band teaching God's word all along. This news was received with a collective "huh?" from their followers and pretty much everyone else who could recall their decade-long beef with Eminem, and who could easily Google the lyrics "I'm hating sluts / Shoot them in the face, step back and itch my nuts." Their new album preached of God's miracles, none of which included science apparently: One of the most derided songs, "Miracles," contains the lyrics "Fuckin' magnets, how do they work?"

Except when they aren't: The ICP's announcement was widely derided by, well, pretty much everyone. They found it hard to explain themselves. When asked by Guardian reporter Jon Ronson about the hypocrisy of their violent lyrics encouraging murder, rape, and other un-Christianlike activities, as well as their willful ignorance to science, Violent J just made an analogy about how science is like fucking your girlfriend's mom. OK! So that's what made fellow Separated at Birth clown Micael Bogar take notice prior to the Rally to Restore Sanity. Bogar organized a troupe of amateur clowns to attend the rally as the Sane Clown Posse, a group of clowns who prized rationality over all other things. The clowns made signs like "There's actually a perfectly rational explanation for magnets" and "Rainbows are light diffractions." I embedded with them, red nose and everything, and became part of one of the rally's more popular photo opportunities.

Clowning is serious stuff: In talking to Grossman and Bogar, I learned that there's a lot of study and practice that goes into clowning. Grossman studied physical theater and attended clowning workshops, and it took a while before Sunshine, her clown character for Separated at Birth, naturally emerged. Choosing audience members to clown with in the show is also a process – in a flash, she has to be able to size someone up to see if they would be a willing participant. Sometimes they aren't – and then she needs to use her talent for improvisation. For the Rally to Restore Sanity, Bogar gave out some brief clowning lessons as we marched down 16th Street to the Mall. "Always make eye contact," was one. I aso interviewed Matthew Wilson, whose troupe Faction of Fools is dedicated to reviving the lost art of Commedia dell'Arte, an Italian renaissance tradition of masked clowning. Wilson thinks that physical theater will become more prevalent as live actors find new ways to compete with TV and movies. Finally, in my research of unscary clowns, I learned about Wavy Gravy, Patch Adams, and other clowns who used their talents for good.

Except when it's not: Clowning doesn't have to be a lesson in audience psychology or ancient traditions of physical theater. It's just fun, too When I dressed as a sane clown for the rally – rainbow-striped sweater, purple tights, yellow sneakers and classic white face makeup with a red nose – my attire directly contributed to how much fun I had at the rally, which was otherwise pretty lame for us (the Sane Clown Posse, arriving late, decamped to a bar shortly after the Roots began to play). A few people told me I was creepy. One indicated that I looked like a 12-year-old girl (as I wrote in my reporter's notebook, she said "Aw, look, the little clown is writing about the rally for her school paper"). But most people cheered for us, or took photos with us, or interviewed us for their foreign-language TV stations, Wearing a clown costume on Halloween was an opportunity to act totally silly. After all, a clown is just a megaphone for every human emotion: Happiness, curiosity, sadness – even, for one special occasion, sanity.

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