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“Clown” as Epithet

In the 1924 film He Who Gets Slapped, the scholar Paul Beaumont (played by Lon Chaney) is betrayed by his patron, the Baron, in front of an academy of scientists. “He slapped me, Marie,” Paul tells his wife. “I would have killed him, but they laughed—laughed as if I were a clown.” After his wife betrays him as well (succumbing to the charms of the Baron), she hits him with a double invective: “Fool! Clown!” It’s a mantle that Paul, upon reflection, accepts. Cue the title card: “Years had passed—Paul Beaumont was forgotten—but the laugh was still his. For the brilliant scientist had, with a supreme gesture of contempt, made himself a common clown.”

But cue another title card: “In the grim comedy of life, it has been wisely said that the last laugh is the best.” Paul and the Baron meet again. (Baron: “I hate clowns!” Paul: “I hate Barons!” Among the many things I love about silent movies: Nearly every utterance ends in an exclamation point.) Stabbings and lion attacks ensue. Lon Chaney (who, until recently, I knew mainly from a Warren Zevon song) gives an expressive performance that complicates our feelings toward this “common clown.” He’s better than the Baron, better than the mocking academy members. Still, at the end, Paul is hurled (quite literally) from our spinning world. Clown down. “The End.”

Might there be a happier fate for a clown? Or does the label itself define the arc of the narrative? And must “clown” always be a pejorative term? Sure, we have comedians who eagerly accept the moniker—but that’s about it, right? Last weekend, in The New York Times, Timothy Egan admonished members of the Republican national security community for only recently speaking out against Donald Trump’s foreign policy. “Where were these people six months ago?” Egan asked. “Laughing at the orange-haired clown with the rest of us.”

In Diane Keaton’s Clown Paintings, various celebrities are invited to muse about clowns. Dan Aykroyd writes: “I enjoy the use of clown in the American vernacular when the word is applied with a derogatory and hostile delivery—as in ‘Hey clown! The light is green!’ Or ‘Jesus! Look at the clown in that ultra-light near the power lines!’”

William Trowbridge’s Kong applies the derogatory term to himself at the end of “Kong Looks Back on His Tryout with the Bears”:

So I was put on waivers right after camp,
and here I am, panty sniffer, about to die a clown,
who once opened a hole you could drive Nebraska through.

Substitute a member of some other low-wage profession for the clown figures above, and the response might be outrage. But no one minds kicking a clown. Or berating a clown. Or seeing a clown almost die of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Before suspending his bid for the presidency, Martin O’Malley had one semi-memorable moment on the Democratic debate stage. “The fact of the matter is, and let’s say it in our debate—because you’ll never hear this from that immigrant-bashing carnival-barker Donald Trump—the truth of the matter is that net-immigration from Mexico last year was zero,” O’Malley said.

There is no substitute for having comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for 11 million people, many of whom have known no other country but the United States of America. Our symbol is the Statue of Liberty, not a barbed-wire fence.

Trump responded in a Trump-like way (meaning via Twitter): “Hillary and Sanders are not doing well, but what is the failed former Mayor of Baltimore doing on that stage? O’Malley is a clown.”*

Will “clown” ever free itself from this abusive usage? To quote Bryce Harper: “That’s a clown question, bro.”

clown definition


* Trump also called David Brooks a clown last Friday, after Brooks wrote that Trump “insults the office Abraham Lincoln once occupied by running for it with less preparation than most of us would undertake to buy a sofa.”