Humor Magazine

Send in the Clowns: A Note on Fear, Humor, and Painted Faces

By Humorinamerica @HumorInAmerica

Clown IT

Clowns are terrifying.

I am convinced that the very concept, while on the surface seeming to be an innocuous effort to play on simply comedic principles of exaggerated facial expressions and physical buffoonery, the “clown” really taps into our most perverse fears. This is not a new idea, of course. Having a character in a comedy who is deathly afraid of clowns is a staple of American humor. The best example that comes to mind is Kramer from Seinfeld. Using Kramer’s always over the top responses to otherwise normal social contexts is comedic gold (“Gold, Jerry, Gold.”). We should keep in mind that Kramer’s fear was a point of rational thought within the context of the plotline that had an un-medicated clown on the hunt for the whole gang.

Clown Crazy Joe Devola

In most cases, the character who fears clowns is simply part of the humor and seems ridiculous. But we all know the underlying fear we all have when encountering a hidden face–even if that face is all smiles. Can you really trust anyone with a grotesque painted face? Do you trust Joan Rivers? I saw her in an antique show in Florida once–horrifying. But I digress.

Perhaps one of the most terrifying film scenes exploring the nature of clowns in our society has no painted faces whatsoever, but it brilliantly traces the fine line between funny and terrifying. It is Joe Pesci’s most powerful scene in Scorcese’s Goodfellas. Here is the scene. What is so funny?


Fear is closely tied to humor, and clowns forever stand at the crux of that tension in our individual psyches and our cultural zeitgeist. Again, this is no great observation. The incongruities of humor provide can be both comforting and unnerving. Enter the clown. The entity taps directly into those tensions. From the most happy painted face–Bozo!, anyone?–to any of a myriad of clowns in popular American culture that appear in works of horror or violence, we both anticipate and fear the moment when clowns enter. Do you ever really know what will happen?


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