Pennywise the Dancing Clown may scare kids away from red balloons but American clowns get the last laugh.
“All the world loves a clown,” Cole Porter wrote in the 1948 song “Be a Clown.” They get to wear the cap and the bells, and occasionally squirting flower lapels. But the image of the happy jester has been twisted like a balloon into a grotesque new mask. The upcoming It Chapter Two is now in theaters, and professional clowns are getting hit where it hurts most, in the pockets of their baggy pants.
The artist formerly known as Twinkles, now a retired clown, tells Den of Geek in an exclusive interview that she entered into the world of children’s entertainment because there was a big demand for female clowns. It was a rare commodity. But she says the climate has dramatically changed. “The It movie is not great for people who do this as a job,” Twinkles says. “They have to perform well and make people laugh after being portrayed as these horrible monsters.”
As Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons can attest, professional clowns don’t earn a bad living. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clowns can pull in about $90,000 a year. Rodeo clowns make a little over $50,000. “Nobody makes fifty bucks an hour but doctors,” Binx the Clown remembers being warned. The professional clown says he was “15 and looking for a job when he saw a classified ad that said ‘be an entertainer.’ It didn’t say clown. They left that part out.”
The adaptation of Stephen King’s novel wasn’t the only frightening figure to emerge from the clown car in recent memory. American Horror Story: Cult featured masked terrorists with lipstick, grease paint and big red noses turning the tide of the election to put a prankster in office. In 2016, news and social media exploded into a full-fledged “Clown Panic,” as reports of people disguised as evil clowns showed up in the United States and Canada. It had already been happening in England when a clown stalked Northampton in 2013. The British press passed it off as a publicity stunt, but by August 2016 copycat clowning spread to Greenville, South Carolina, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. In our original report on the professional clown industry, filmed at a 2017 clowns-only screening of It, we uncovered a rift developing between the public and honest, hardworking clowns.
Dealing with the fallout of a media frenzy isn’t something you learn at Clown College, which was created by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus owner Irvin Feld and Ringling clown Bill Ballantine in 1968. It closed in 1997 as the era of the clown appeared to be nearing its punchline. World Clown Association membership dropped a third over the past decade as the younger generation sees the profession as a joke. Binx tells us that professional clowns, including himself, having started using less makeup in recent years to avoid conflating funny with creepy.
Presto, who performs as both a clown and a magician, tells us he didn’t see himself as a slapstick performer. His “goal was to be a rapper.” While he regrets giving up cursing, he tells us pulling rabbits out of hats works out pretty well for him. Binx says his family didn’t want him to go into clowning, and his friends only found it amusing for a while. But the job comes with unexpected benefits.
“I get to torment people sometimes,” Binx admits. His brand of comedy wasn’t badly impacted by the onslaught of creepy clowns.
“People ask us to terrify them on a regular basis,” Binx says, adding he used to advertise it as a regular feature. “Sure, we’ll stalk you for a week and pop out from behind” pretty much anything. Binx further feeds into the myth of the horrifying Harlequin when he says he likes stomping on balloon animals and flipping the bird at passing cars when he forgets he’s in a clown costume. Similarly eerie, the former Twinkles has no empathy to Coulrophobia, people with a fear of clowns, especially adults who should “know they’re not going to come around and bite your head off,” she says. “I would tell them, just get over it.”
While the clowns all insist snacking on their young audience is a Bozo no-no, we had a little fun with them in the interview and asked, hypothetically of course, how would they go about eating children if they were in Pennywise’s oversized shoes? Binx says he would toss lines of M&Ms on the floor because it worked in ET. The ex-Twinkles would feign interest in a toy. But the clown magician gives the illusion he might really be able to make them disappear. “I would get a van,” the heretofore reticent Presto details. “A green van, kids like the color green, or purple because who doesn’t like purple?”
Presto tells us he would adorn the vehicle with a cartoon character, like Snoopy or a member of Paw Patrol, and have the words “free candy” professionally spray painted on it “to make it look less shady. Maybe an ice cream truck because you gotta lure the kids.” The magician would dazzle the parents with a viral sleight of hand, misdirecting them into their cell phones while he drives bunches of children off to a house-sized pre-heated coal-fired oven, bought under an assumed name.
Presto likes his kids medium, again: hypothetically. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who performed as “Pogo” the clown, would be proud.
But to clowns across America, this buffoonery is no joke. The World Clown Association says creepy people who put on masks and grease paint to terrorize neighborhoods are not real clowns, they are imposters, and Pennywise is just a figment of Stephen King’s imagination. Real clowns want to bring good, clean fun to children of all ages, and a little comic relief to the world. For true crimes against comedy, we urge people to take a look at mimes.
It Chapter Two is in theaters now.