I Am A Clown: 5 Truths You'll Wish I Didn't Tell You
We're starting to come to the conclusion that there is a seedy underbelly to every single job and industry in the world. "What about clowns that show up to children's birthday parties?" you say. "Surely they're not hopped-up on speed and having lots of nasty sex behind the scenes!"
Oh, how wrong you are. We talked with "Ken," a birthday clown for hire who assured us ...
Birthday Clowns Get Birthday Clown Sex
You wouldn't think that a child's birthday party would be a place where drunken adults would start surreptitiously throwing their genitals at strangers (or maybe you would; we don't know what kind of childhood you had). But as Ken points out, if said stranger is a performer in costume, they're playing to somebody's fetish. His company sends out male and female performers in pairs, and there's a pretty good chance at least one of the two is triggering a weird boner at any given moment.
Ken does double duty as a traditional clown and any number of costumed characters -- whatever the parents ask for (he's done superheroes, Dora The Explorer, the Cat In The Hat, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, etc.). So, while the kids run around in the yard, says Ken, the adults get drunk in the living room, and when the main performance ends, the grownups ply the performers with vodka and come-hither stares.
He recalls one time when his partner was dolled-up as a redhead Cinderella and a sloshed father cornered her and repeatedly demanded her personal number. Ken himself has had the pleasure of dressing as Mickey and having a grandmother grind against him. "You a real man in there, right, Mickey?" she said, as she pawed at the costume's folds, because occasionally things happen in our world that serve as compelling evidence that we are living in a parallel dimension to a more sane and just reality.
Performers go out in pairs -- one male ("Bobo," when it's a clown) and one female ("Bubbles") -- so they can keep an eye out for each other. But when they're not protecting each other from sexual advances, they're sometimes doing a little sexual advancement of their own.
"Clowncest is absurdly common," says Ken. These Bobo-Bubbles hookups often happen in the car, right after the show. "Because of our tight schedules," he says, "I'd say with confidence that costumes are mostly kept on. The guy's wearing the vest, rainbow plaid pants, and bowler hat, and the girl still has her rainbow polka-dot dress on and hitched up."If you've ever wanted to see what it looks like when nightmares breed, hang around a clown's car after a performance.
That's why those dozens of clown-car performers are always grinning when they pop out.
With that specific scenario in mind, Ken's company makes every employee sign a (frequently violated) contract barring them from bumping bike horns with their show partner. They don't want some child innocently stumbling after Baloo and Elsa for an autograph only to discover them punishing the upholstery of a Toyota hatchback.
Your Clown May Very Well Be High
"I take Adderall and Vyvanse, plus any other stimulants I can get my hands on, like it's candy," says Ken. "Most clowns I've spoken to personally have clowned on Adderall more than once throughout their careers." They feel they have to. A bunch are actors between gigs and have other jobs like waiting tables, adding up to 50 to 70 hours of work a week, sometimes on top of classes. "We don't sleep! We simply don't have time to sleep. And coffee doesn't cut it after a certain point."
Speed, says Ken, brings out the best in him as a performer, and we see absolutely no reason to doubt someone self-reporting what they're like when high. "It really comes out in the sing-alongs," he says. "I'm a quiet guy by nature, but when sped, I'm singing at the top of my lungs to the limbo song, to the cha-cha slide, and I'm the loudest person singing along to the chicken dance."
During the magic show, his general routine is to act stupid, because children find stupid adults hilarious. On speed, Ken's "stupid" routine is cranked up (pun intended) to a degree that in all honesty is probably alarming to the parents in attendance.
For instance, his "rabbit out of the hat" bit involves first pulling out an obviously fake stuffed rabbit, letting the kids be disappointed, then pulling out the real one as a surprise. On speed, the whole thing gets turned up to 11; he implies the bunny has probably died.* "On the first pass, I say I LOST bunny foo foo while playing hide-and-seek, and play up the fact that it's been days since I last saw him, and brought them a foam bunny to play with instead. On amphetamines, I run through the whole show with the volume and outgoing-ness of a TV show announcer mixed with the slapstick of Jerry Lewis and all three Stooges combined."
So what happens when the drugs wear off? "Fuck, I just wanna go home," Ken says. "Stupid kids."
*Speaking of bunnies, at least one animal did in fact die in the process of waiting to be pulled from the hat (or, in that particular case, a box). " shrugged and said, 'Just turn it around in the box and let the kids pet it. They won't know the difference.'" She was right, says Ken. The kids had no idea they were stroking a dead animal.
The Cotton Candy Machine Is A Death Trap
The most innocent parts of the clown routine can often be the most injurious, both to performers and to kids. Balloons, twisted into swords, are the absolute safest play-weapon out there. Soap bubbles are similarly harmless. However, if you have a bunch of kids running around popping soap bubbles with their balloon swords, and then one kid pokes another kid in the eye with a soaped-up balloon, it's going to burn like shit. Ken himself has fallen victim to this Joker-esque combination of delightful party favors and dangerous chemicals. "It hurts like hell," he says, before going on to tell us about the time he lost control and started screaming at a group of kids after they stabbed a wad of soap into his cornea.
The cotton candy machine is more insidious. Kids want to help with everything Ken does -- soap bubbles, balloons, whatever -- but when they ask to help with the machine, he says, "Don't stick your hands in there; you'll lose a finger," and that is in no way an exaggeration.
The inside of the machine is intensely hot. Its rotors spin thousands of times a minute. It's like the demon laundry machine from The Mangler. One time, Ken let his finger inside, and the rotors ripped it open. He screamed, and his partner covered for him while he ran away to patch himself up. The candy kept spinning out, now with his blood mixed in as pleasing scarlet swirls against the usual pink. We imagine situations like these might be worse for repeat business than finding two gasping costumed characters desperately fucking in the backseat of a car.
That said, sometimes the cotton candy machine is all Ken has to depend on as far as sustenance during a performance. Shifts run 10 to 12 hours, and it's inexplicably common for party hosts to deny the clowns a share of the birthday feast. Consequently, there are days when he eats nothing but cotton candy. At the time of writing, he has three cavities that need filling.
And then there is the other lurking danger, and this one involves lawyers ...
The Character Costumes Are Blatantly Illegal
We mentioned earlier that part of Ken's job is to dress up as famous characters. You might have noticed we neglected to call these real-life cartoons "licensed characters." That's because Ken's company doesn't license any of them. They instead operate through a time-tested process known as flagrant copyright infringement. "I once had to do Harry Potter," he says, "but because we didn't actually have a Harry Potter costume, they gave me a vampire costume and told me to work with it. I whittled a wand out of a stick and borrowed my partner's makeup kit to fashion a scar."
And, considering that Disney has pushed legal action against daycare centers that use Mickey murals and Winnie The Pooh carvings on the graves of stillborn babies, you shouldn't count on them sitting back when a company illegally uses their characters and makes money in the process.
Disney and Warner Bros. have sued birthday entertainers (from companies even smaller than Ken's) for $2 million per costume, which is exponentially more than Ken's company could ever possibly earn by using one of the characters. As with most lawsuits, the figure has more to do with scaring the crap out of everyone than with actual damages.
Ken's company hasn't been sued yet, but there's always the possibility. "The main issue would be losing this job, which I could roll with," he says. "There's other companies out there, and I could set up my own small clowning business if I needed to."
Yes, Some People Are Utterly Terrified Of The Performers
There is science behind most people's fear of clowns. A painted clown's face is one of the classic sources of the uncanny valley effect. The chalky skin, huge-ass eyes, and frozen smile are just slightly off from what humans are supposed to look like, so the revulsion center of our brain instinctively kicks in. A clown also looks kind of like a rouged-up corpse, rictus grin and all. Because the uncanny valley response likely evolved to keep us away from human corpses (our caveman ancestors wouldn't have lasted long if they just hunkered down to have sex with comparatively easily subdued corpses instead of propagating the species), this explains why clowns are some of the most feared creatures to exist in nature.
Ken's company gets around the fear of the painted face by dispatching all of their clowns without makeup. They have hats and striped clothes and giant shoes, which are all terrifying for different reasons, but they don't use traditional clown makeup at all. The company also sticks to young performers (once you hit 27, you're fired) and sticks to slim performers (fat's funny, but fat's scary). They also stick to white performers, Ken points out, other than the couple Latin girls and one Egyptian on the huge roster. "These measures are done both to keep the kids from being scared," he explains, "but also to keep the parents from being scared."
This all works perfectly well with little kids who haven't been conditioned to fear clowns. Unfortunately, the approach does jack shit for adults and teens who grew up with Pennywise and John Wayne Gacy. And there's not much you can do in a single afternoon to change minds.
One time, a mother asked Ken to introduce himself in advance to her older niece, age 17, because she was terrified of clowns. He went up to her before the party and said, in a normal voice, "There's nothing to be scared of. I'm a regular guy, just as you're a regular girl. I'm just dressed goofy." Her friends gathered close and urged her to shake his hand ("TOUCH THE CLOWN," we imagine them hissing), and he stayed there a couple minutes, trying to talk. But she was petrified and couldn't respond, because that's what a phobia looks like. So he unpacked his stuff and got the party started, and the elementary-school-aged birthday kid and their friends ran in, all laughing and completely oblivious to the fear we as a society have decided they should've been feeling.
Yet, in a bizarre twist proving that the universe has a galvanized sense of irony, the same little kids who feel absolutely no fear for clowns are fucking terrified of the character costumes. "Kids will regularly take one look at me and start crying, don't want me to hold them for pictures, don't want me to touch them." Elmo is cute on TV because he's little. Man-sized Elmo is a giant crimson predator.
You run into a different problem with older kids. They aren't scared of the character costumes so much as possessed by a singular desire to beat the shit out of them, "especially Lightning McQueen, Thomas The Tank Engine, or -- God forbid -- the Minion costume from Despicable Me." Oh, to be that age again: so innocent that you freak out over a mere six-foot-tall walking yellow pill who's high on speed and smells like sweaty clown sex.
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