What evil lurks behind a greasepaint smile? Who are these orange-haired strangers folding balloons for our kids? What could be worse than when clowns go bad?
The fear of clowns is no laughing matter. It's called coulrophobia, and for many, it's way worse than that nagging fear that you'll be buried under a bucket of confetti by some big-top bozo.
P. Diddy: I'm No Clown-Phobe
Just recently, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs denied being a coulrophobe, after reports circulated that he demanded a "no-clown clause" in his performance contracts. Did the rap star ever get pummeled silly with a rubber chicken?
Perhaps the venerable art of clowning is still haunted by the memory of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who tortured and killed 33 young men and boys. In his spare time, Gacy strapped on oversized shoes and performed as "Pogo the Clown" at birthday parties.
"Perverts and bad people have all sorts of rackets," says Kathryn Keys-O'Dell, executive director of the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee. "It's no wonder they dress as clowns. Children trust clowns."
Nevertheless, Keys-O'Dell points out that there are some 30,000 entertainers in the United States who work at least part time as clowns, and the vast majority are only interested in throwing custard pies and piling into cars. The sickos are few, and they stand out like a red rubber nose.
Still, as the mother of a 12-year-old, she can relate to skeptical parents.
"If you see a clown at the park or on a street corner folding balloons by himself, don't trust him," Keys-O'Dell says. "He's a stranger."
She says she wouldn't hire any entertainer without rigorously checking out his references and professional associations.
The Krusty Legacy
Popular culture is awash with the image of the evil clown. For many of us, it began with the menacing Joker in Batman comics. Then there's the demonic toy clown in the 1982 movie Poltergeist that wrapped its candy-colored arms around a little boy to choke him to death.
In It, Stephen King gave us the horrifying image of "Pennywise the Clown," who hid in sewers and ate kids.
Cult movie fans point to Killer Klowns From Outer Space. And then there's the dark comedy Shakes the Clown, staring Bobcat Goldthwait as an alcoholic birthday party entertainer. The widespread condemnation of the film once prompted Goldthwait to remark, "Clowns have no sense of humor." That image could only be reinforced by the cynical, hardened Krusty on The Simpsons.
Clowns were once the most revered of entertainers, and they trace their history back to ancient Egypt and China. They were the truth-tellers in Shakespearean theater. There's an old vaudeville joke that even cannibals won't eat clowns … because they taste funny. But now they're easy targets.
About a year ago in Britain, "Coz the Clown" said he was assaulted by a group of 10-year-olds who mangled his magic wand, tore his clothes and popped his balloons as their parents watched in apparent amusement. He's since started a campaign to stop what he calls "Clown Abuse."
On the corporate front, even the Golden Arches' beloved hamburger huckster has been targeted. Last year in Billings, Mont., a Ronald McDonald statue was stolen from a local restaurant and found the next morning, lynched, hanging from a tree.
To be sure, that for every bad clown, there are hundreds of good clowns. The Wolf Files has dug around for a few examples of each. The good ones are devoting their lives to entertaining sick kids, reforming juvenile delinquents, even traveling to war-torn countries. The bad ones, well, they speak for themselves.
Good Clown, Bad Clown
GOOD CLOWN: Mr. Yoowho
In lands ravaged by war, "Clowns Without Borders" performed in the streets, entertaining child refugees. Moche Cohen, the mime clown known as "Mr. Yoowho," says his group has traveled to such places as Bosnia, Turkey, North Africa, Nepal and Afghanistan. The group's motto is "No Child Without a Smile."
BAD CLOWN: Ouchy the S&M Clown
If you need a little more thrill than a squirt of seltzer down the front of your pants, Ouchy the Clown of San Francisco is at your service. He'll discipline you with a rubber chicken, or worse. In his own defense, he says, "I don't do children's parties." However, "If you're an open-minded adult, I'd like to meet and beat you."
GOOD CLOWN: Dr. Stubbs
Who's the biggest clown on staff at the renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center? It's Dr. Stubbs, aka Michael Christensen, a co-founder of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit. Cynics assume entertainers pay highly publicized hospital calls scripted by public relations experts. But since 1986, Christensen has spearheaded a program that's placed 93 clowns on the clinical staffs of 17 hospitals around the country. They make about 200,000 bedside calls each year. Some convalescing kids might be a little freaked out by Christensen's hairy-legged, hobo clown. "It happens," he says. "The key is to wait at the door for the child to invite you in. It sometimes helps to let the child watch the clown put on his makeup."
BAD CLOWN: Koko the Killer Clown
Koko the Killer Clown, a featured attraction at a Coney Island sideshow, has spent recent years folding balloons in a soiled prison cap, mumbling caustic remarks to the audience through the smudged greasepaint on his lips. Koko (né Tony Torres), was once a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown. But when he caught his best friend in bed with his wife, he shot the man 69 times. Since he was a dwarf — and both men were standing — many of the bullets were lodged in the victim's crotch. Koko tells audiences at his Coney Island performances that he served six years of a 50-year sentence.
GOOD CLOWN: Mr. Twister
Even if you don't find clowns the least bit funny, you have to appreciate a guy who runs down the street ahead of meter maids, feeding coins into parking meters in downtown Santa Cruz, Calif., to help forgetful motorists. The folks watching his street act sure laughed, but not some city officials. They want local merchants to enjoy a high turnover of shoppers. And, of course, parking tickets are a source of city revenue. A cop told him his act was illegal and he was later given a summons. Seven years ago, city council members embraced Mr. Twister's plight and, in a show of solidarity, they donned red rubber noses as they voted to repeal the law.
BAD CLOWN: Coco the Cop
In a purple wig and light-up nose, Coco the Clown busted four hookers in Tampa, Fla. Officer Tim Pasley, posing as Coco, engaged women in conversation until they offered him sex for money, when backup officers would swoop in to make the arrest. You'd think that would make him a good clown, but real clowns have been offended that Officer Pasley played off the bad-clown image, making their jobs harder. Pasley admitted to a local newspaper that the idea for Coco came from a producer for Fox's COPS TV show.
GOOD CLOWN: Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams
The doctor portrayed by Robin Williams in 1998's Patch Adams is sending 30,000 pounds of donated medical gear to Kabul, Afghanistan, along with a troupe of clowns to help hand out the goods.
BAD CLOWN: Larry Harmon's Bozo
Larry Harmon bought the rights to TV's most famous clown in the mid-1950s and marshaled an army of Bozos who performed on local shows in Chicago, New York, Boston and dozens of other cities. But that's not enough for Harmon, who has, on many occasions, taken credit for creating Bozo. That honor really belongs to legendary record producer Alan Livingston, who created the Bozo look and sound for TV, records and picture books. Credit also goes to Pinto Colvig, who appeared on Bozo records and first portrayed Bozo on TV in Los Angeles in 1949. Harmon has denied that he's taken credit for being the original Bozo (a title not everyone would covet). But The Wolf Files unearthed Harmon's own promotional literature, which states otherwise. Bozo always said, "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice." Harmon should listen to his own inner-Bozo.
GOOD CLOWN: Earnest Desire
Michael Fandal might be a clown in prison, but he's on the right side of the law. This 53-year-old retired New York City policeman works at Horizons, a juvenile detention lock-in facility, as a teacher, showing troubled youths how to have good clowning fun. He started performing while still on the force, sometimes tying balloons to the girdle holster that concealed his pistol. "I could stand on my head without my gun falling out," he said. "The kids never knew. It was hidden under my clown suit."
BAD CLOWN: Insane Clown Posse
Members of the hard-core rap group wear clown makeup while singing about sodomy and promising beatings for their enemies.
GOOD CLOWN: Onionhead
The Universoul Circus endeavors to bring circus entertainment to minority communities. Star Onionhead developed his clowning skills on the mean streets of the Bronx, incorporating rap music, basketball and traditional clowning skills. "My clown's a 'playa clown,' " he says. "I give respect and I get respect."
BAD CLOWN: Flasher the Clown
Flasher never really exposed himself. Bob Manion, 61, had entertained thousands of parade watchers for more than 20 years in the annual Walnut Festival in Walnut Creek, Calif. In his act, he'd rip open his trench coat to reveal his pet dog sitting inside his pants. There was no flashing of skin. But two years ago, he got booted after someone complained to police that clown peekaboo acts were offensive. Festival organizers say Flasher will be invited back this year, as long as he changes his act and obeys the rules. So, at least for this bad clown, there's hope.
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.