I’m calling myself a humorist these days. In a conversation with my mother the other day, she told me “ I tell people you are a humorist.” She does not like the word clown: “You use THAT word?” she asks me. I tell her that sometimes I do despite the possibility of deep misunderstanding. Especially in the United States. it is about just that-Depth. The notion that a clown might possibly have depth, conjure up feelings or philosophical insight is not usually associated with the word clown in this country. Compare that with Spain, where my friend, Tortell Poltrona, founder of Clowns Without Borders, calls a clown ‘un provocador de sentamientos’ (a provoker of feelings), which many in that country would affirm. Of course for my mother, I think it is more about respect and dignity.
How is the clown perceived in the US?
There was a survey done some years ago that is often quoted, that 94% of American children when asked to name a clown name Ronald McDonald. If you Google ‘clown’, first up is the Wikepedia definition that states: “Clowns are comic performers, stereotypically characterized by their colored wigs, stylistic makeup, outlandish costumes, and unusually large footwear.” It follows with a brief historical perspective : “Clowns spread in cultures of any time and place, because they meet some deeply rooted needs in humanity: violation of taboos, the mockery of sacred and profane authorities and symbols, reversal of language and action, and an ubiquitous obscenity. An interesting example can be found in the Native American clown societies.”
So perhaps in the United States, I should call myself a ‘humorist’, and reserve the word ‘clown’ for other parts of the world. Americans seem to like their humor brash, loud and somewhat crass. It is fine to put down anybody and anything in the honorable goal of a good laugh.
There is a lot of negativity around clowns in the United States, and elsewhere in the world. Referring again to Google, the website ihateclowns.com comes in at #7. Every day in my google alerts for the word clown, half the entries are uses of the word as a negative invective to describe some politician or public figure as an idiot, mostly in Anglophone countries. The evil clown image is getting a lot of play these days as well. Lots of people, especially children are scared of clowns. This is perhaps because the clown make-up and exagerations were created to reach across the huge circus tent audience, not to be seen from two or three feet away.
I read an article in the New York Times the other day, a story about Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr Bean”, and British comedy in general, discussing how the amiable bumbling Bean doesn’t quite stick with a population more bent on more caustic comedy. The article points out that a British comedy, no matter how successful worldwide, never makes more than 25% of it’s gross in the US. It is interesting that an article about humor (in a US newspaper) makes a judgment based on $ signs, confirming the almighty dollar’s dominance of the cultural landscape of the United States.
Well this discussion could go on ad nauseum. On the bright side, there are other words to choose from. The Hopi describe the role of clown as a ‘delight maker’. And there is the word “Kunzenmacher”, joy bringer, in Yiddish. Oy veh!