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Send out the clowns. August 14, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found clowns, puppets, and marionettes terrifying rather than funny, lovable, or endearing. I can much more easily relate to Alice Cooper’s epic “Can’t Sleep, the Clowns Will Eat Me” and Chucky as horror-movie icon than the idea that these monstrous pseudo-people are supposed to be harmless. I feel the same way about traditional nutcrackers, as in “The Nutcracker Suite,” too, with their huge, clacking jaws and teeth.

I realized as an adult that my fears were actually well-grounded. Clowns across history and throughout cultures—at least until the age of circuses—were originally created to humiliate, mock, and terrify, not to entertain. From the first appearance of clowns in mediaeval cycle-dramas to the Koshare clowns in Southwest pueblo ceremonies, the original role of clowns was to terrify and humiliate fair and festival attendees in order to draw attention to their shortcomings and bring them back to a sense of humility and obligation to their community and to their belief system. Nothing funny about that!

Ditto, in my view, the ghastly-looking puppet-marionettes, from Punch to Howdy Doody. The popularity of Punch, also of mediaeval origin, was twice punctured in modern times, first in the classic “The Wicker Man,” and again in the musical “Scrooge.”  Dressed as a clown with his nightmarish new-moon face, “Punch” is burned alive in the ghastly, shocking denouement of the original “Wicker Man.” (In “Scrooge,” the puppeteer is merely harassed by an oblivious Ebenezer Scrooge during the middle of a “Punch and Judy” performance.)

The topic of clowns and the like comes up every once in awhile, and I’m relieved to say that Alice Cooper and I aren’t the only people who find them frightening. But the puppet/marionette thing almost never comes up, so what brought it all to mind? I confess, it’s our friend Ben’s and my next-door neighbors, Bill, Fran, and Ollie (their beloved cockapoo). For some reason, this reminded me of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, a marionette show from the 20th century. I not only remembered the name, but remembered that one of the three was a dragon. So finally, I checked them out on Wikipedia, only to find to my surprise that their show had run and ended long before I was born and old enough to watch TV. Urk! Then how do I know their names?!

Ditto for Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, a ventriloquist/puppet act of almost unrivalled annoyance. I’d be willing to swear I actually saw this act on TV, somewhere, sometime. And frankly, I can’t blame Shari Lewis for annoying the hell out of me with the sickening ooey-gooey voice she contrived for her sheep puppet. In an era when every cartoon character shrieked at top volume in a falsetto soprano that should have broken the glass of the TV screen, the Lamb Chop voice was probably pretty low-key. But I hated it, and I hated all animation for that reason, and I’ve never managed to overcome that ingrained loathing. To this day, I’d rather eat broken glass than watch any form of animation. And if I see a clown, puppet, or marionette, I’ll still run and hide.

“Send in the clowns,” Judy Collins sings, ironically. No, please, send them out. And let them take their puppets, marionettes, and animation with them. Life is scary enough, and annoying enough, without them.

        ‘Til next time,