Funny or scary? The two faces of clowns

Vance “Pinto” Colvig, the first person to portray Bozo the Clown.

AP/International Clown Hall of Fame

The circus clown is a familiar figure for all of us. We’re supposed to laugh, but for more than a few, a clown is more scary than funny. Our Mo Rocca has given the subject some serious study:

All the world loves a clown, right? They smile, they play tricks, they just wanna make ya laugh!

Then why do so many of us find them so scary?

To Amy Bracco, they’re “Terrifying.”

Michael Miller was chased by a clown. How did he escape? “We just ran, you know?” (Well, he was wearing clown shoes. You can’t run that fast in clown shoes.)

Turns out much of the world loathes a clown …

The evil clown has long lurked outside the big top in the scary-funny, the scary-bad, and the just plain scary.

Writer Mark Dery believes that coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, is a reaction to the clown’s mask, the eerie whiteface.

“He’s selling you a perception of himself that is so strident and so resoundingly false, it all but begs you to believe there’s something awful behind the carnival music,” he said.

“The clown is a very cadaverous figure,” said Dery. “He has deathly pallor, he has the rictus, the frozen grin of the corpse, which is why the Joker in ‘Batman’ is such an uncanny figure.”

Is the clown even smiling, Dery wonders … or baring his teeth?

“It’s the story told by the clown in the Steven King novel ‘It,’ which is the man dangling the Tootsie Pop with the painted-on smile may not have your best interest in mind.”

A story all too real in the case of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who often dressed as … Pogo the Clown.

The rap group Insane Clown Posse has exploited the fascination with wicked clowns to sell over 10 million albums.

“People are scared of clowns for a reason, you know I’m sayin’?” said Violent J.

“Oh come on - people are scared of clowns for a reason?” Rocca asked.

“Right. Everybody knows what the hell’s going on behind that face paint.”

“I understand a lot of people are scared of clowns,” Rocca said, “but obviously there are a lot of clowns out there that are good citizens.”

“The dorky ones!’ Violent J replied. “They’re not even doin’ the face paint justice.”

But lead singers Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope aren’t exactly anti-clown.

“The clowns sometimes put on a pretty good damn show, like when they all get out and they’re boppin’ each other and they all climb out of a Volkswagen - you know, that’s not too scary,” said Violent J. “But take them out of the three ring circus, anywhere else? Terror!”

Thousands of the Posse’s fans wear clown makeup to watch them perform.

If the fear of clowns seems like a big joke in some cases, it kind of is. Big Apple Circus clown Barry Lubin certainly thinks it’s a joke - a bad joke.

“You know, there are things on the Internet in which there seems to be a trend at times where it’s hip to be, or act, afraid of clowns,” Lubin said. “But it’s not real.”

He says genuine cases of coulrophobia are rare.

“Did clown college prepare you for the reality that some people are terrified by clowns?” Rocca asked.

“We never really addressed that,” Lubin replied. “It’s the sort of thing that you experience every once in a while. I can’t really explain it. I mean, I’ve had adults say to me, ‘I know this is irrational, but I’m scared to death of you, can you please go away?’ And, you know, my job at that point is to give them their space, and not try to break through the walls. Back off.”

This reporter must not be coulrophobic, because he didn’t find any of these clowns scary.

But Violent J’s self-image may belie his little polka dot nose. “Are you saying I’m cute and friendly, ‘cause of my nose?” he asked Rocca. “Do you like my nose? I think maybe the nose by itself would be cute and cuddly. But connected to the rest of my face, I think I’m plenty evil.”

The best clowns, says Barry Lubin (who performs as “Grandma”), wear makeup and costume that reflect the performer underneath.

“I wouldn’t hold the door for Barry,” Rocca admits, “but I will for Grandma.”

“That is very nice of you!” Lubin/Grandma said.

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