Sex Death And Ronald Mcdonald


“You should always be trying something new. The first time we hit a new mall, I run into the toy store and look for anything I can use. For example, I found a great big toy plastic golf club, and I attached a ball on a string to the end of it. Every time you hit the ball with the club, it pops back and wraps the string around you. It’s a good routine. You’re getting frustrated because the ball isn’t going where you hit it. You’re getting wrapped up in the game.

“Clowning is exaggeration and metaphor. You find what’s most real about an action and isolate that element. And exaggerate it. And you find a way of acting out, not just what’s real but what would be real if what was going on in a person’s head suddenly started happening, not just in his imagination but in the physical world. People don’t laugh at the silliness of what you’re doing but at the trueness of it.”

“There are three different types of clowns,” said Jimmy Johnson, who joined the circus a number of years ago —he wouldn’t say how many—as a wardrobe groom with Ringling Bros.

“White-face clown, character clown, and tramp clown. Each clown develops his makeup and style from his own personality. It takes time. Traditionally a new clown doesn’t use color on his face for a few years. And every face is unique. Your makeup is protected by an unwritten law, a sort of copyright.”

The white-face clown, his skin the color of bone and his painted grin as fixed as the rictus on a skull, seems to be beyond any emotion except hilarity. Ever since I was a kid and was terrified by the first white-face clown I saw, by his bloodless and unchanging appearance, I always have imagined white-face clowns to be imitations of death, which, if personified, would have the same pitiless, never-wavering smile as though it found all of life to be a greatly amusing joke. Most clowns on children’s television shows, in children’s literature, and in popular iconography are white-face clowns. Ronald McDonald is a white-face clown. They cozy up to the audience, invite trust, promise by their attitudes to mediate between the audience and the acts in the three rings, and, in doing so, seem to me even more like representations of death, which no doubt will ingratiate itself into our confidence in similar ways.

The character clown usually has a flesh-tone face with features exaggerated by makeup. The egg-headed scholar and the fireman with green hair are character clowns, and they do whatever comic acrobatics are in the show, because, as Jimmy Johnson explained, “The white-face clown is too dignified and the tramp clown too old.”

The tramp clown is a hobo in baggy pants. If a white-face clown’s face is a mask of comedy, a tramp clown’s face is a mask of tragedy, his mouth painted in a perpetual frown. He usually plays the seats and works alone, wandering into the audience or spending five minutes elaborately trying to rid his shoe of an imaginary pebble.

“Otto Griebling was one of the greatest tramp clowns,” said Stinson. “He’d sit on the end of the ring with his finger caught in a bottle, trying to work it free. After a while, even though there’d be all sorts of things going on in all three rings—animal acts, trapeze acts, teeterboard acts—everyone in the audience would be staring at him. He had cancer of the larynx, and he had to have his voice box removed. I saw him a few days before the operation. I asked him how he was feeling. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter; I’m a pantomime clown.’”

THE ACROBATS TAKE RISKS for us. The clowns are ridiculous for us; they are our scapegoats, humiliated in the big top so we may feel the humiliations we endure outside the big top are not so terrible. In ancient Rome the clown was called alapus (he who gets slapped).

“You have to care about people to be a clown,” said Jimmy Johnson. Jimmy, getting dragged out of a miniature pickup truck by a cop, mimics in a broad way what we feel—our annoyance, our fear, our obsequious camaraderie with the patrolman—when we are pulled over to the side of the road and ticketed. He is doing for us what every jester—from the first-known court clown (a Pygmy kept by Pharaoh Djedkare Izezi of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt) to Lear’s fool—did for his king: telling us things about ourselves we don’t want to hear.

The skit ended, and Jimmy Johnson walked out of the big top. As he passed me, he said, “It’s hard work, and it seems harder when you realize all you have to do to get a laugh is to drop your pants.”


THE NEXT MORNING I WENT INTO THE mall to buy three baseballs to practice juggling. Crowds milled past the pinball arcade, a twenty-five-cent Indian-scout rocking-horse ride, a raised platform with a microphone (a bally without a sideshow), and shops selling peanuts, popcorn, hot dogs, cotton candy, candied apples, and trinkets. The mall was a permanent midway, more crowded at ten o’clock in the morning than the circus’s midway was even before a big-top show.