Why Are We So Afraid of Clowns?

This essay was published in April 2022.

When the slap happened at The Oscars in March, I felt it was a culmination point in terms of comedy. I was navigating the dimensions: horrified by Will Smith’s actions, impressed by Chris Rock’s composure, pondering the Jada-Will dynamic, contemplating whether Chris knew about Jada’s alopecia, puzzling over the lack of Academy intervention, gobsmacked by the Best Actor standing ovation and Will Smith’s resulting speech. But amid it all, I was feeling something else, something in regard to the role of The Clown in contemporary culture.

As in, somebody had finally walked up on stage and smacked one.

Mind you, this didn’t make me feel relieved. I like Clowns. I think Clowns signal a healthy and robust First Amendment.

Human cultures have always, since ancient times, had Clowns. They’re there to challenge staid decorum by speaking truth to power— and saying what the rest of us would like to say but can’t, or are too afraid to. Clowns can revolt in ways both low (dropping their pants) and high (roasting the king). To drop one’s pants is to rebel against civility, to declare, “I am not a grown-up! I’m a child!” To roast the king is more serious; it’s to rebel against authoritarianism. It declares, “You can control my society, but not my thoughts!”

But in America, specifically in 2022, Clowns are not only in disrepair, they’re apparently in physical danger. What’s going on?

The Oscars culmination followed another culmination, the one in February when Joe Rogan apologized for his long-ago on-air use of the N-word. He’d never used it in a derogatory manner, but he ceded that as a white guy, it’s not his word to use. It was, to my knowledge, Rogan’s first-ever apology. They’ve tried to get him on so many things: COVID comments, Trump comments, the people with whom he’s friends. Never once had he apologized. This time was different.

Before that, last October, was Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer,” wherein he spent 70 minutes on Netflix using his microphone to comedically challenge the trans community, testing their fault lines while saying that as a Black man he envies the speed of their progress, then attempting conciliation yet inciting ire. In and around Netflix’s corporate offices, protests were waged to get the comedy special taken down.

“Power dynamics” are the keywords here: The aforementioned culmination points all highlight efforts by others to take away the comedian in question’s power.  They said Chappelle abused his power by spouting hate speech. And Rogan abused his power in the same way as Chappelle. And Rock abused his power by criticizing a woman of color’s appearance while lampooning her autoimmune disorder.

Some offer a solution for comedians like the ones examined herein to avoid any backlash in terms of power dynamics. That solution is to avoid “punching down.” In other words: never make jokes at the expense of a less powerful party, and you’ll be fine.

Comedians don’t like rules, however. Comedians are jesters, anarchists. Comedians have as their most potent cultural symbol Batman’s main nemesis, The Joker. And The Joker’s not funny; he’s destabilizing – terrifying.

Why are Clowns so scary? And why are they now being targeted?

What’s in play here, essentially, is a war between two groups: we’ll call them The Jesters and The Solemn.

The Jesters act as individuals. The laughter they provoke makes for powerful humanmade weather: it floats about, reporting to kings and stiffs alike that not everybody takes them or their objectives seriously. Their jesting is a way of telling people, for worse or for better, that they have to get over themselves.

Some people don’t play. These we call The Solemn. The problem with The Solemn is that they have a good point. They always have a good point. Those with less advantage do deserve the utmost, outermost respect and dignity. When Chappelle’s onstage jokes are identical to dead-serious hate speech found in the comment section of trans creators’ Youtube videos, The Solemn have a point. When Rogan cavalierly uses a word steeped in a centuries-old history of atrocity and pain, The Solemn have a point. When Rock is ear-to-ear grinning and (knowingly or otherwise) cracking wise about a woman’s appearance and health condition, The Solemn have a point.

The problem is, The Jesters have a point, as well. For The Jesters, life is, and always will be, ridiculous. As such, nothing in life is off-limits. And there can be no “punching down” when all of us, at every moment, are being punched down on by life itself: its whims, its cruelties, its madnesses and unpredictabilities.

It’s been said that you can see who has the power in a society by simply looking at who you’re not allowed to joke about. In days gone by, this was the king or queen. But in the current age, power is distributed unevenly. Those who’ve faced disadvantage have been granted, by the advantaged, a means of making up for what they’ve long lacked, in the form of cultural power. This they wield on social media. They wield it, also, in mass media. Academia, Hollywood, pro sports, corporations – all these spheres have shifted and revised their policies, messaging, and personnel to shed more light on the un- and underprivileged. You can say that they’re afraid of being canceled. You can say that they’re correcting eons of systemic injustice. What you can’t say, however, is that the disadvantaged have no power whatsoever.

They’ve found a means and a mode. The world is changing. And when The Jesting are caught “punching down,” The Solemn begin punching back.

(Ed. Note: After this article was prepared for publication, an audience member physically attacked Dave Chappelle at The Hollywood Bowl. ) 

Eric Shapiro

Eric Shapiro

Eric Shapiro is a writer and filmmaker. He has won awards for journalism (CA Journalism Award) and screenwriting (Fade In Award), and has served as a ghostwriter, speechwriter, or script doctor for over 3,000 clients. His first novel is a dark political thriller called "Red Dennis" (2020). His first nonfiction book is a guide for helping writers be more productive called "Ass Plus Seat" (2020). He co-hosts the "House of Mystery Radio Show" on NBC News Radio. Eric's books can be purchased here.

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