Sad Clown

by Belle Waring on March 4, 2014

Sometimes people need to be cheered up. And sometimes nothing cheers you up like a 6’8” sad clown/performance artist named Puddles nailing “Royals” so hard you can’t hear the real song in your brain anymore. It’s like he did a weird magic trick to me.

AAAAAAH THEY WON’T LET ME EMBED THIS SONG!

Imagine you see an impossibly tall clown in old-fashioned black and white clown makeup, bald head all covered up with white paint, and black lips and eye drops and just a little red paint on his nose, overly expressive, is what it makes him, with white clothes, and three enormous black bobbles in place of buttons on his shirt-front, and black rick-rack at his ruffled white satin sleeves and double neck-ruff, and white gloves on his huge hands, which he uses to mime the driving of imaginary Cadillacs to excellent effect, and a duo of backup singers so composed they look as if they are waiting for the Kronos Quartet to come on, at which point they will contribute 12 bars only and stay at the side for the rest of the time, and a pianist who…is never seen and may well be Satan, don’t ask me but I’ve just got a bad feeling about this guy—and then anyway upright bass, and drums with brushes because it’s MTV-Unplugged time, apparently…right, but Puddles is wearing a crown made of tin painted gold with a P on it and is…is… Man, y’all should watch this video.

I personally, am not afraid of clowns. There’s something humorously American about thinking, “oh, we’re the only one’s afraid of clowns, it’s Stephen King’s fault, etc.” No, fools! Everywhere in the world people wear masks, or face paint, and when they do that, they freak you right out. A tiny Japanese school-girl wearing a fox spirit mask? Scary. Even askew so you can see her real face? SCARY. These guys from Trivandrum in India, when they play the demons [I have been corrected by reader Peter Erwin,who notes that divine heroes also use the blood-red eyes. Having checked, it seems as if this man, with his red lips only, is probably a hero, while if he had similar green makeup with red slashes in it he would be a demon—but an awesome demon], they put a flower petal inside each eye at the bottom, under the lower lid next to the eyeball, to make their eyes blood-red. (I watched them do their make-up one time when I went to see the performance, you could go early.)
Kathakali performer - Laxman
Verdict: SCARY. I have a mask from Lombok that’s of the evil Balinese king from a play (all the Balinese kings in all the plays are evil; it’s like having a Grand Vizier; you signed up for evil) and I used to have to go to ridiculous lengths so my kids wouldn’t have to walk past it at night.

mmask
Now it’s part of my shrine to evil so that’s OK I guess, though Violet still says “I don’t know how you can sleep like that with him…watching you.” [sotto voce: still scary.]

But this type of classic clown of mime makeup, so derided, so strangely expressive…it’s compelling somehow. Not the foam nose. I saw a real Punch and Judy show when I was a kid, sort of wooden theater and puppets beating the tar out of each other. I went to a one ring circus, too, outside Columbia, South Carolina. Some of those guys who were there in 1980 must have been some old-timey carnival types… Once at the real Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus in Savannah when I was 6 or something there were identical twins who were high-wire walkers and they would walk up these steep ramps of wire on either side and then across on the long flat. My mom took me and my brother. We had good seats, and caramel popcorn, we were right up over the lights when the one twin fell from almost all the way to the top of the platform, into the bank of lighting. He died instantly. I was sure he was dead, but I was willing to believe people lying to me that he wasn’t dead. They sent in for the clowns then, brother, not just a few, but every damn one they had, unicycles and juggling bowling pins and torches and coming up into the stands with pinwheel lollipops, and all that time trying to cover up the broken glass and the lights but get the body at the same time, but not get anybody else hurt, and then smuggle him out of the ring when the beautiful ladies in the spangled costumes came in standing on the horses. The other brother got down safely. I’m still not afraid of clowns, though.

{ 50 comments }

1

JakeB 03.04.14 at 6:19 am

Well, after hearing that story I think you should be!

Perhaps there’s just a bit of the clown . . . in you?

2

Belle Waring 03.04.14 at 6:53 am

It does seem just barely conceivable, JakeB, yes.

3

Phil 03.04.14 at 8:59 am

I was developing a theory that seeing that poor guy killed had in some sense undermined the fearfulness of clowns for you, when I realised that I never got the “clowns=scary” memo myself (or the “clowns=depressingly unfunny” variant either). I think clowns are great, just like I think musical theatre is great (can you walk sideways across a stage from point A to point B while singing, keeping eye contact with the audience and staying in rhythm? I know I can’t). When you think how we valorise & genuinely appreciate Circus Skills in general, it’s downright weird the way that clowning is devalued.

4

Mark English 03.04.14 at 12:59 pm

Against my better judgment I was reading something about Wittgenstein’s diary notes which (like anybody’s genuine diary notes I would have thought) include many silly and many objectionable statements. He talks (circa 1930) about the ‘unpoetic mentality’ of the Semitic races (good for them, I say), and says that even the greatest Jewish thinker is no more than talented, and that only Jews will be attracted to masked theater.

Can anyone make any sense of this last statement? (The others seem more conventional.)

That fall story was really nightmarish. What I always feared when I watched circus trapeze artists performing without a net. They had the most glory of all the circus performers and they earned their status.

5

Barry Freed 03.04.14 at 1:39 pm

Glad to see you giving props to Marceline, Belle. Did you see the last one? That was mathematical!

PS Where’s P-Bubs?

6

Peter Erwin 03.04.14 at 2:17 pm

That was an interestingly surreal addition to my day; thank you.

As an aside: I’m pretty sure the “red-tinted eyes” approach in Kathakali makeup is a general design element, not just something done for “demons”. And in fact your picture is of a heroic or divine character, given the pacha (green-dominant) makeup.

7

Belle Waring 03.04.14 at 3:18 pm

I had thought it was for the conventional baddies in the story Peter? It was like twenty years ago though. With regard to your objection, even Ravana has green face paint in traditional dance; it’s just deeply interspersed with streaks of red, while Rama would not have any red streaks. Even demons are divine, if they are so great as that? (8 extra heads are not provided). There’s darker make-up for lesser demons, hired goons, and so on. No…you seem to be right about the eyes because I think that character above’s lips don’t count for the purposes of streaks? Oder? I’m going to have to wait til I see the red of Rama’s eyes. No, I’ma have been schooled. I’ll correct above.

Separately, the Wikipedia page says that the Keralan martial-arts-based training through which a dancer is meant to go before being skilled enough to act out dramas which last from dusk till dawn, using only stylized hand gestures, takes eight fucking years. Dayum. Get serious with some shit one time. I had a friend trained in Balinese traditional dance, it was really amazing. As with the Kathakali, they have versions only three hours or so long that tourists can go to (or less, like with buffet dinner) but the real thing goes on all night at your local temple, with backing band 30 guys with 30 insane percussion instruments. Some young women do an incredible job as the “golden deer” that lures Rama and his brother into the forest (well, it’s all Sita’s fault really…)–a dance they can perform only at 12 or so. Then, the entire rest of their lives they are still known for that thing. That one year of their life when they were so tiny and slender and beautiful and wore a headdress with countless gold petals quivering on springs, and made their whole village enviable for the year. Like new, unripe rice coming out pale grass golden. It’s awesome. Balinese villages are very competitive.

8

Belle Waring 03.04.14 at 3:25 pm

Mark English: Erg. “Crazy Anti-Semitic Ideas I Have Entertained.” Knocks out all of Aeschylus, doesn’t it? Bit troubling there?
Barry Freed: the last ep was totally mathematical, and each half was awesome. BCUZ I LUV CINNAMUN BON SO MUCH!. We were just saying, what about that coup Flame P staged with Cinnamon Bun? P-Bubs, Fionna, Cake, The Wizard Po-Po, Jake, other Jake, Finn, Battle-Damaged Finn, etc. are on the girls’ shelf. Mine is a shrine to evil. We don’t have a Hunson Abedeer or Gunter The Evil Penguin figurine yet.

9

NickS 03.04.14 at 4:28 pm

That’s a fun video, thanks. I think the composition/staging is really excellent. The visual iconography of the clown, the back-up singers, and the musicians are all well chosen, and play off of each other well. The prominence of the microphones in the frame, the way in which the piano gives enough weight to the background elements so that the three people in the foreground don’t completely take over the frame . . . very nicely done.

I’m also a fan, in general, of that idea of taking over-produced pop songs and re-doing them with a more intimate theatricality. I don’t think the transition is seamless — I’m not familiar with the original and even so, I can hear the spaces that the production would fill in in the pop version. Specifically the chorus feels like it’s missing something in this version. But it’s a very good performance, and I appreciate the way in which he brings genuine emotion to the song while still clearly being a theatrical performer — he never reaches too far for intimacy, and I think that is a good choice.

In a related vein, tt makes me think of Jukebox the Ghost performing for the AV Undercover project. I was just listening to that again recently, and it’s also a good example of taking a slightly trashy pop song and performing it with the conviction that it can be a good song. It’s less polished and less artful than that “Royals” cover, but also very good.

10

oldster 03.04.14 at 5:09 pm

You forgot to mention that the dude sings extremely well, which cannot be said of every clown. For instance, I was very disappointed in Marcel Marceau’s cover of Smokey Robinson.

Possibly my favorite part was when his hands involuntarily and frantically begin clutching at the bobble-pom-poms on his blouse. Best expression of overwrought operatic grief since Callas.

11

oldster 03.04.14 at 5:11 pm

Oh, and I realize that they have become the pet hipsters of the geriatric set (sc. Jim Fallows and me), but I strongly endorse the cover of “Royals” by Pomplamoose. I more strongly endorse their mashup of Pharrell’s two big hits, which is a significant improvement on both.

12

marcel 03.04.14 at 6:23 pm

This is also pretty cool, and I’d not have thought to look for it, much less found it, without this post. I’ve had it on endless loop since I got to my desk this morning. The versions by the pentatonix and steve appleton are my favorites.

13

Neville Morley 03.04.14 at 9:20 pm

I persist in the belief that all one really needs to know about clowns is contained in Jean Shepherd’s narration for Charles Mingus’ The Clown.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Szy-MHXDQQ

14

js. 03.04.14 at 10:04 pm

I don’t know—I still find the standard issue party clown get up to be fucking terrifying in a way that traditional masks/Kathakali style make-up aren’t. Can’t really explain why. And it’s not as if I encountered the two at significantly different points in my life.

15

Haftime 03.04.14 at 11:54 pm

All I know about clowns is their apparent difficulty dealing with Maxwell & his equations: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-agl0pOQfs

16

Matt 03.05.14 at 12:05 am

On the scariness of clowns, I turn to the wisdom of our greatest living philosopher:

“To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kind of scary. I’ve wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad.”

17

The Temporary Name 03.05.14 at 12:42 am

18

Atticus Dogsbody 03.05.14 at 1:26 am

nailing “Royals” so hard you can’t hear the real song in your brain anymore.

Thank you, Puddles. Nothing against Lorde or the song, but there was some serious TripleJ overplay with this one.

19

godoggo 03.05.14 at 2:18 am

bold italics

20

Belle Waring 03.05.14 at 2:41 am

Is that just, like, how much you’re feeling it with Puddles here godoggo, or what? And weren’t you changing your nym? I’m glad you didn’t, because I would have forgotten. Except you were going to be like: “God, a dog,” and that I would remember.

21

godoggo 03.05.14 at 3:58 am

Never changed my name. If you mistook someone else for me, you were mistaken. I should think this would all be checkable.

22

Plume 03.05.14 at 3:58 am

Belle Waring,

Thank you. That was really cool.

Masks and colors. I wonder if it’s the WASP inflection and infection of America that washed out those colors and made us a-feeered of masks and all. Ancient Greek statues having bright colors and so on, and so many houses in Europe being quite resplendent. We see the ancient greek stuff without the original glory, and our homes are bland in the sun. Worse in the rain.

Americans tend to surround themselves with vanilla all too often. It’s sadder than that clown.

I loved the two women on the left. Reminded me of my Art School days, when it was hip to look terminally bored.

. . . .

Mark English: Wittgenstein was Jewish, so it may have been a moment of self-loathing for him, which was tragically all too common among Jewish thinkers. Simone Weil was afflicted in the same way, as was Marx.

23

godoggo 03.05.14 at 4:03 am

Oh, I remember what Belle was referring to, the Spaniel Rabies thing. No, I changed my mind about that.

24

SL 03.05.14 at 4:32 am

Oh, I love that video. We had these Chinese temple dog statues when I was a kid that are terrifying–apparently they are supposed to be scary because there are demons that are way more scary and they have to fight the demons. Or maybe my mom just told me that to make them less scary. But yes, absolutely–the idea of covering one’s face is inherently scary.

25

roy belmont 03.05.14 at 5:15 am

wikipedia:

“Grock (January 10, 1880 – July 14, 1959), born Charles Adrien Wettach, was a Swiss clown, composer and musician.’
Called “the king of clowns” and “the greatest of Europe’s clowns”, Grock was once the most highly paid entertainer in the world.”

Anybody can put on face-paint.
It’s what you do with your face, and your body, after it’s on.

26

The Temporary Name 03.05.14 at 6:10 am

27

godoggo 03.05.14 at 6:35 am

Anyway I’ll go back to not commenting here momentarily but I’m thinking maybe the scariness of clowns has something to do with the Black Plague connection.

28

godoggo 03.05.14 at 7:25 am

Or not. Almost the only references to this I’m finding online are about a fictional play. I don’t remember where I’d heard it.

29

Mark English 03.05.14 at 7:26 am

Plume: I seem to recall that Wittgenstein was flabbergasted that the Nazis classed his family as Jewish, so – if I’m right – any Jewish self-loathing must have had very deep and complex (unconscious?) origins.

Also, I am only really puzzled about the ‘masked theater’ reference. Like – what is it that supposedly links liking masked theater to Jews? And why and in what way is masked theatre being seen (implicitly) as bad?

30

godoggo 03.05.14 at 7:34 am

maybe this
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yiddish_theatre

Yiddish theatre’s roots include the often satiric plays traditionally performed during religious holiday of Purim (known as Purim spiels); other masquerades such as the Dance of Death;

31

godoggo 03.05.14 at 7:36 am

Fine, maybe it will get through without the links.

Wikipedia page on Yiddish theatre.

“Yiddish theatre’s roots include the often satiric plays traditionally performed during religious holiday of Purim (known as Purim spiels); other masquerades such as the Dance of Death;”

32

godoggo 03.05.14 at 7:45 am

“Often satiric and topical, Purim plays were traditionally performed in the courtyard of the synagogue, because they were considered too profane to be performed inside the building. These made heavy use of masks and other theatrical devices; the masquerade (and the singing and dancing) generally extended to the whole congregation, not just a small set of players.”

I’ve been reading a bunch of Jewish history lately, and I don’t recall anything about that offhand. I guess I’ll take another look at the books sometime.

33

godoggo 03.05.14 at 8:02 am

OK, I’m embarrassed. Nah, actually I don’t care. Anyways, 12 pages on”The Purim Play And The Drama in Hebrew” here:
https://archive.org/stream/jewishlifeinmid00abra#page/260/mode/2up/search/purim+play

34

Belle Waring 03.05.14 at 9:05 am

I can easily imagine Wittgenstein objecting irritably to masked musical theatre of some clownish or overly popular–demotic–type. I didn’t know that any such existed, though, so thanks for telling me about that godoggo. But there’s no conceivable world in which Wittgenstein is not conscious, even in his anti-Semitic marginal notes, of ancient Greek theater. One assumes he was mentally appending “of the type now popularly seen” to “masked performances.” Like, is he hypothesizing that Jewish people would be particularly drawn to Noh? I can’t imagine he meant to imply anything like that. It was just a banal anti-Semitic thing to say, the old “Jewish people aren’t capable of the highest modes of thought or aesthetic appreciation” chestnut that was hella popular in the late 19th century.

35

Peter Erwin 03.05.14 at 10:51 am

Belle @7,

You’re right that noble villains, demon kings (Ravana!), and the like also have green faces — I think that’s the Kathi (“knife”) style of makeup, which you can distinguish from Pacha (“green”) by the presence of the curly red mustache painted on the face, along with the black-painted nose and the little white cone on the tip of the nose. (There’s a good comparison of the two styles here.)

Admittedly, the main memory I have of the one (shortened-for-tourists) Kathakali performance I saw in Kerala, about twenty years ago, was the explanation for the whole “heroes have green faces” trope. As the organizer put it: “Green is the color of life. Green is the color of Kerala.” (You have to imagine this being said, with lots of pauses for emphasis, with by a man with an impossibly deep and resonant voice, a bit like James Earl Jones but with a Keralan accent.)

36

Belle Waring 03.05.14 at 12:35 pm

I can totes imagine that, Peter. I also saw the three-hour version nearly 20 years ago. Maybe we were there together! My best friend since middle school went to India when she was sixteen, and when she got back she made me swear to go back with her, so we went backpacking as college students. Two girls alone was kind of a hassle at times. No, a giant actual danger occasionally. The trip generally was great, still. We took a 56-hour train ride one time. Gah. That was OK, though, because we were in an A/C first class car and met a hot guy whom my friend ended up going out with for a while, and he showed us around when we were staying at his place in New Delhi. Also, it was 45 degrees C when we were in Agra. It felt like you were tripping all the time. I couldn’t remember what being cool felt like, but I also distinctly thought, when I go somewhere else and this is over I’ll never be able to truly remember this heat. It was almost as hot when we were stuck in the women’s-only car on the way from Varanasi to the foothills of the Himalayas, to get cool somewhere. (These cars were a crap-shoot–sometimes they were empty and in any case less hassle, but sometimes it was sardines.) I had a fever, and I had given my bottom bunk to a pregnant woman with her toddler and was on the top (of three) bunks in the breathless compartment, sleeping fitfully and having nightmares about being a book in the library of Alexandria. I love sleeping on trains, but really, it was so awful. It’s funny when you go backpacking through Asia you can always tell who just got there from India because they are peculiarly thin and hollow-eyed yet fervent, and no matter what happens–your ferry sinks in Tonle Sap!–something worse happened to them in India. Their ferry sank into the outlet of a badly managed sewage treatment plant outside Goa.

37

MPAVictoria 03.05.14 at 2:54 pm

“Their ferry sank into the outlet of a badly managed sewage treatment plant outside Goa.”

Ha!

38

Pat 03.05.14 at 3:17 pm

39

Plume 03.05.14 at 6:14 pm

Mark English:

Purchased and read Ray Monk’s bio of Wittgenstein a long time ago. Just now am skimming through it for answers. I do note that his index is poorly done, as there is no topic for Nazis or Holocaust, even though these are mentioned in the text.

Wittgenstein knew himself to be Jewish and said so at times. Perhaps I misused “self-loathing” in his case. It might be more about his habit of self-abasement, as indicated here:

http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/02/004-ludwig-wittgenstein-confesses

Among Jews “genius” is found only in the holy man. Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented. (Myself for instance.) I think there is some truth in my idea that I really only think reproductively. I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking. I have always taken one over from someone else.

40

Plume 03.05.14 at 6:21 pm

Belle Waring,

Am sure you already know this, but Wittgenstein was highly influential among the language poets — posthumously, of course. Lyn Hejinian and Rosemary Waldrop being two of the most famous among them.

Any thoughts on that “school” of poetry?

41

Ed Savage 03.05.14 at 7:48 pm

Nothing scary about clowns to me…Old lady Doll s are another matter entirely. But I was hooked as soon as Puddles purposefully walkes onstage directly from center, And reached those white gloved hands out in a longing manner like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard” and gathers his lantern and valise up before storming offstage. Won’t see that shit at RB,B&B or Cirque de Whatever…oh no!

42

godoggo 03.06.14 at 12:56 am

Anyway, why didn’t my unclosed bold/italics tags carry over to the next comment?

43

godoggo 03.06.14 at 12:57 am

Why?

44

Belle Waring 03.06.14 at 2:23 am

Because of our kick-ass html safety measures, man.

45

Diogenes Onionpants 03.06.14 at 4:36 pm

Surely you did not just suggest that Scott Bradlee, pianist, arranger, and driving force of the Postmodern Jukebox, may be Satan? It hurts my heart to hear that. Satan should be so lucky.

46

Bill Benzon 03.06.14 at 9:24 pm

Thanks for the “Royals” link, Belle. Puddles does just fine.

Springsteen covers “Royals”, live – but, alas, the sound sucks.

47

JakeB 03.07.14 at 6:59 am

I just got to say that I think I like Postmodern Jukebox’s cover of “Blurred Lines” even more, in the sense of the increase of quality from the original version * the general goodness. Their version of “I Can’t Stop” is even better in one sense: aside from particularly grim night-thoughts, I haven’t felt the abyss yawning as horribly for a long time as it did when I saw the first part of the original video. Whereas the PJ version is just a lot of fun.

48

otpup 03.07.14 at 7:14 pm

You know, at times the chorus reminds me of the closing theme of the David Lynch’s Dune.

49

otpup 03.07.14 at 7:17 pm

50

Sissy Jupe 03.08.14 at 4:47 am

I love clowns! Masks are windows into chaos: this is not this, but is this, but isn’t … .

Janus, that old two faced bugger, father of all clowns?

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