Sad clown car trundles into town

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on July 31, 2020

With some of our funniest actors playing them, gloomy jokers are everywhere on our screens

* Jim Carrey currently stars in a show called Kidding, where he plays a depressed children’s TV presenter called Mr Pickleson

* ‘Puddles Pity Party’, the sad-clown alter ego of American musician/entertainer Mike Geier, often features in the YouTube videos of Postmodern Jukebox

In the 1986-87 comics series Watchmen, there’s an oft-cited joke involving a man who complains to his doctor of chronic fatigue. The doctor surmises that the man is under stress. The great clown Pagliacci is in town, the physician says. Go see him and you’ll feel better. But doctor, the long-suffering patient exclaims, I am the great clown Pagliacci.

The joke works because it’s philosophical: Who heals the physician, and just who’s in charge of making clowns laugh?

Also, there’s an opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo titled Pagliacci, in which the titular clown was a version of the 17th-century sad clown character Pierrot from Italy’s commedia dell’arte tradition.

Sad clowns are suddenly everywhere on our screens. Not just in blockbusters such as the Joaquin Phoenix masterclass Joker, but some of our funniest actors have also been busy with sad clown roles these last few years. Jim Carrey currently stars in a show called Kidding, where he plays a depressed children’s TV presenter called Mr Pickleson. Zach Galifianakis played a tragicomic rodeo clown in Baskets (2016-19), a show that he co-created. One of the biggest horror films of recent times featured a scary clown (Pennywise from It).

‘Puddles Pity Party’, the sad-clown alter ego of American musician/entertainer Mike Geier, often features in the immensely popular YouTube videos of pop hits recreated in vintage style by Postmodern Jukebox, the musical collective founded by musician Scott Bradlee. And, of course, there’s BoJack Horseman, one of Netflix’s most watched shows globally, which ended in January. The (animated) story of a washed-up has-been TV comedian perpetually struggling with depression and substance abuse, BoJack Horseman is arguably this era’s definitive sad clown.

It can be argued that the excesses of the last 10 or 15 years have led to sad clowns growing in cultural prominence. Since the late 2000s, the world has gone through two economic recessions and now a pandemic. People have elected demagogues and stood by while gargantuan corporations and their algorithms took over the business of culture. Income inequality threatens to upend capitalist societies. It’s fair to say, therefore, that sad clowns are, in part, a reactance phenomenon — everything’s gone to hell, and there’s no reason to turn that frown upside down.

In fact, one of the first prominent sad clowns in popular culture, Weary Willie, seems perfect for the ongoing era. Created by the American performer Emmett Kelly (1898-1979), Weary Willie emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930s — he was specifically modelled on the impoverished, often jobless ‘hobos’ (an Americanism for poor migrant workers who are always on the move) he saw everywhere during that era. It’s 2020 and we are, once again, in a global unemployment crisis; America, in particular, has lost a record-breaking number of jobs. Kelly said of his creation: “Weary Willie... is a man who has given up. The boat has gone and left him.”

Academia, too, has been very interested in this field — so much so that there is a concept called ‘sad clown paradox’, the correlation between clinical anxiety and writing or performing comedy.

Psychologist Seymour Fisher first hypothesised this in his 1981 book Pretend the World Is Funny and Forever: A Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors. The idea was that the business of performing humour for a living left comedians doubly susceptible to mental illness. However, the current consensus is a little more nuanced. We now know that for a lot of comedians and performers, comedy is how they deal with existing traumas, stuff that was inside and festering long before they started performing professionally.

Academics Scott Barry Kaufman and Aaron Kozbelt have written several papers on the psychology of humour — and humorists. Their 2009 paper ‘The Tears of a Clown: Understanding Comedy Writers’ (published in a Cambridge University Press anthology titledThe Psychology of Humour) is a fascinating treatise on what makes comedians tick. Based on large-scale studies of both amateur and professional comedians, Kaufman and Kozbelt draw a number of conclusions about their inner lives — they’re much more likely (compared to other kinds of performers) to have been deprived of maternal warmth in childhood and likely to see their fathers in an approving, idealistic light. They’re likely to use metaphors of ‘smallness’ to communicate their childhood helplessness. They’re likely to view language as a way of control, the means through which they control the emotions of their readers/viewers.

“Comics may be motivated to make people laugh in order to gain acceptance and to reveal the absurdity of life to make sense of their own lives. There is reason to believe that these results can also apply to comedy writers,” they wrote.

In other words, while it’s tempting to ‘diagnose’ the sad clown through the ‘toll’, or the emotional effort it takes to create comedy, the other way around is much more likely to be true. That comedians, like all artists, use their art to process things that they’re going through, that their art (over and above its narrative merits) is also a way to discuss aspects of their lives that would not be a part of ‘polite conversation’. And that’s how it should be — as a GK Chesterton line goes, “People like frequent laughter, but they don’t like a permanent smile.”

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on July 31, 2020

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