2 June 2016


Benjamin Radford. Bad Clowns. University of New Mexico Press, 2016.

According to the back-cover blurb of Benjamin Radford’s Bad Clowns it will “blend humour, investigation and scholarship to reveal what is behind the clown’s dark smile.” Certainly the first four chapters (roughly forty pages) supplied me with a fair degree of engaging scholarship.
Although my knowledge of clowns is scant, Radford managed to quote from sources I knew (The Fool by Enid Welsford, a marvellous book), Victor Strostrom’s haunting 1924 silent film, He Who Gets Slapped about the humiliation of a circus clown, (very sinister clowning), the Commedia Dell’arte, Harlequin, Punch (my childhood terror and delight of Mr. Punch is still intact) and the insightful writings of Marina Warner (a great expert on fairy tales and legends).
This familiar territory was skilfully engineered to sketch out a back history of the clown and its deviancy. Yet after chapter five all is dropped for excessive humour and plain reportage of clown incidents. Instead of a satisfying investigation we have excessive information gathering. This accompanies a listing of just too many types of bad clowns (fewer examples would have greatly strengthened Radford’s book).

From then on the book becomes unfocused with Radford unable to draw interesting conclusions from some potentially fascinating chapters (Bad Clowns in Ink, Bad Clowns of the Screen, Activist Clowns). All lack any persuasive analysis. Which is a pity for there are some very weird clowns in this book – one of the oddest being Crotchy, the masturbating clown, who performs on a TV show. 

Bad Clowns has comprehensive notes but insufficient comprehensive argument for its bad clown thesis. We know there are a lot of bad clowns, more imaginary than real, out there. But the book fails to communicate their influence on our psychology and society. Too much is left unanswered, with the book eventually grinding to a halt without a proper summing up.

“As long as they (bad clowns) are confined to fiction we delight in their mischievous antics and root on the buffoon bad boys – when they become real, well…that’s a different matter.”

 Is that all there is, then?

Bad Clowns fails to deliver on the idea and concept of the bad clown. Still it does contain some lovely colour photographs. And I did gleam a bit of early history of nasty clowning in an adroitly researched, fairly amusing but sadly un-analytic and inconclusive book. -- Alan Price.

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