When I was a kid I had a thing about clowns. My parents would take me to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus every year and once got me this large- format souvenir book that I treasured. Inside were two spreads I particularly loved: one of all the clowns in their clown gear, and, a few pages later, one of the clowns without their makeup or getups. In each, their positions were rearranged. I pored over these images, attempting to match the paintless faces with the painted, rapt by the transformation.

The star clown was David Larible, an Italian performer who wore a baggy black-and-white-checkered suit with a bright red vest to match his painted nose. I adored him. The way he’d make a fool of himself and the audience members he dragged into the round stage, the confidence of his pantomime, both bossy and self-effacing. He was, perhaps, my first crush.

If it wasn’t Larible, then it was Donald O’Connor, a 1950s triple threat raised in vaudeville. In Singin’ in the Rain, he played Cosmo Brown, the goofy sidekick to Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood, and his “Make ’Em Laugh” scene was my very favorite. There was something deeply intriguing—erotic, even—about the slapstick, the way he made his face look like clay, how he used his body as a prop. “Just slip on a banana peel, the world’s at your feet,” he sang, falling into Lockwood’s lap. “You wiggle till they’re giggling all over the place”—walking into a wood plank—“and then you get a great big custard pie in the face!” He was a clown without the costume.

Recently it seems like everyone’s been crushing on clowns. They show up in music, fashion, art, Saturday Night Live, my local bar, and, like, practically every DIY show. Maybe it’s an extension of hyper-digitalization, a cultural existential crisis, a great big HA! But I like to think it’s more joyful than that—albeit, in its own dark way. Maybe it’s because, deep down, we’re all clowns and always have been.


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