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Alright! Who's the Clown?

Updated on September 2, 2015

It’s been said, the world loves a clown. But that statement isn’t entirely true. On the popular sitcom Seinfeld, one of the leading characters, Kramer, has an irrational fear of clowns.

The fear of clowns is a real phobia called Coulrophobia and some researchers believe it is more prevalent than once thought.

The term is of relatively recent origin, thought to date from the 1980s and there are even websites dedicated to it. Even so, very little scientific research has been done on the subject.

But at the other end of the spectrum, clowns are common characters at circuses, parties, Halloween and other events. Many have made being a clown into a successful career. Outlandishly costumed clowns perform magic, juggle, make balloon animals and entertain with comical acts.

A stereotypical clown often sports a large, bulbous red nose and wears grossly oversized shoes that look more like gunboats. Their main goal is to make people laugh, with the exception of rodeo clowns who are indispensable in protecting riders from broncos and bulls. It can be a challenging, but rewarding occupation.

Historians have traced the art of clowning back thousands of years. A pygmy clown performed as a jester in the Pharaoh’s court during Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty about 2500 B.C. Court jesters have performed in China since 1818 B.C. In fact, throughout history most cultures have had clowns.

The origin of the word “clown” is uncertain, but thought to be derived from a Scandinavian or Teutonic word for “clod,” meaning a coarse, boorish fellow. Throughout the middle ages there were fools and court jesters.

They were often skilled magicians, musicians, mimics, dancers or acrobats. Early fool costumes usually had a hood with donkey ears and a tail. This identified as an object to be ridiculed, not taken seriously. The hood and tail eventually became a three pointed cap with bells at the ends and became the symbol for jesters.

One of the most famous European court jesters was Nasir Ed Din. One day the king looked in a mirror and began crying when he saw how old he looked. Those present in court at the time decided they better cry as well to mollify him. When the king had dried his tears, everyone else turned off the waterworks as well, except for Nasir Ed Din. When the king asked why he was still crying, he replied, "Sire, you looked at yourself in the mirror but for a moment and you cried. I have to look at you all the time."

Philip Astley is credited with establishing the first English circus in 1768 and also creating the first circus clown character known as Billy Buttons. His comical act was based on a popular tale of a tailor, who was totally inept in the art of horse riding and kept falling off. The act soon became a traditional part of most circus performances for the next century. Variations of the routine are still being performed.

Joseph Grimaldi (1778 - 1837) a theatrical clown, is considered the Father of Modern Clowning. He elevated the whiteface clown to a popular status and starring role replacing Harlequin. He grew up in the theater, designing elaborate tricks and special effects. Grimaldi was also known for his comic songs.

There is a legend about the origin of the Auguste Clown, although it’s doubted by most historians. The legend tells of an American acrobat named Tom Belling performing at a German circus in 1869. Belling was adept at doing comical exaggerated impressions of the show manager by putting on ridiculously oversized clothes.

When the manager caught him in the act one day, Belling took flight, ending up in the circus arena and tripping over the ring curb. Embarrassed, he hurriedly tried to exit the ring and again tripped, much to the audience’s delight. The audience applauded enthusiastically and repeatedly shouted "auguste!" which is German for fool. Thus, the Auguste Clown was born.

The typical modern clown with oversized shoes ruffled collar and painted face originated in Germany after a character known as Pickelherring.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I was just clowning around.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I enjoyed the wonderful historical info on the clown. Voted awesome and up. Great job!