©Shers Gallagher 2015
Living overseas I've often viewed programs a few days after their release on prime-time TV. One of these is ‘Modern Family’, a show featuring different branches of a family unit, descending from the remarried and semi-retired father and absentee mother. The middle-aged children live nearby with their own eclectic pods, involving scenarios that can be quite wittily written and performed, though sometimes dull and obtuse in forcing canned laughter, as I thought was with the episode of my last viewing. What I’m referring to is one of the families, consisting of gay husbands and their adopted Asian daughter, Lily. In it is a mostly stay-at-home partner, who teaches HS athletics part-time and is a hobbyist clown. His love of clowning is so deep that he desires to pass it on to his now six-year-old daughter, which results in him taking her to clown camp. Briefly describing their own campy interactions, I disappointingly write that they consist of little more than Lilly acting out a few scenes of soft-core violence whereby she punches, trips and hits her clown dad, hoping that he’ll come to his own resolve that she’ll make a terrible clown and stop taking her to camp without hurting his feelings by telling him the truth that she hates clowning.
Clown humor began when our earliest ancestors painted their faces and perhaps also donned some sort of costume to alert others to the fact that they were doing something out of the ordinary to attract attention and alleviate stress. Jesters of the kings’ courts were employed for a bit of a laugh, possibly breaking the ice of an otherwise tense situation. And our circus clowns of modern times have been not only slapstick but highly skilled in deeds and tersely spoken words. Some of the best and cleverest clowns I've seen were those performing with the Russian circus in Moscow. To me these clowns were more like magicians than silly fools of lowbrow humor. Their scenarios were cleverly orchestrated and enchanting to watch as they took our attentions away from our present worries and daily cares. To me this is the best of clowning.
Throughout history there have also been sad clowns. Soulful and wise, they laugh on the outside while crying within, causing us to think on the human condition. One of my favorite true-to-life clowns has been Wavy Gravy, a 1970s hipster and head of the Hog Farm family commune made famous for their presence at Woodstock, feeding the hungry masses of idealistic teens who’d thought little of their health and well-being while attending the 3-day love-in music festival in upstate New York. And, in recent years, there have been clowns that have twisted the familiar costume and makeup of joy and laughter, creating an uncertain horror through fear and havoc. Personally, I’ve only seen clowns like these in stories that writers like Steven King have made themselves famous for. King’s own trademark has been to take the ordinary and twist it into something uncommon and bizarrely frightening, such as turning a talking doll into a sadistic stalker or a simple soda can into a deathtrap. This has also been done to the persona of clowns, adding a scary edge to their already out-of-the ordinary makeup and design.
Like one of the husbands of the gay couple on ‘Modern Family’, my mother was a hobbyist clown. And I grew up, not like some children afraid of clowns, but with fond memories of a sweet lady volunteering her time and humor to give a few kids joy – adults too – as everything she did was in lighthearted fun. And in that her heart was big!