Clowns Aren't Cool? Fewer Young People Don The Polka Dot Pants

Say it isn't so! The group Clowns of America, International announced a decline in membership. NPR's Scott Simon talks to professional clown and award-winning Broadway lyricist Murray Horowitz.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Let's send in the clowns. Oh, wait - they're fewer than they used to be. This week the Clowns of American International announced that their membership is down since 2006. The same is true at the World Clown Association, which says that fewer young people are choosing to be clowns. Now, this is NPR, of course, so we turn for expert analysis to a rubber-faced American. Murray Horowitz, who is both a former NPR executive and professional clown. And no, not all of NPR executives are clowns. Murray is also a Tony award-winning Broadway lyricist, including the show "Ain't Misbehaving" and he was once a professional circus clown. He joins us in our studios. Murray, thanks so much for being with us.

MURRAY HOROWITZ: I suppose I should say thank you, Scott, even with the cheap clown jokes.

SIMON: Did you like the rubber-faced Americans?

HOROWITZ: Rubber-faced American was OK but, like, not all NPR executives are clowns.

SIMON: We all think we're being so original, right?

HOROWITZ: That's true.

SIMON: Exactly. So, what's happening, Murray?

HOROWITZ: Well, you know, I think, just like copper and grain, I mean, I think there are shortages that arise every once in a while in important human commodities. And this is kind of a replay, to me, of when I became a clown. In the late 1960s, a lot of the real great master clowns were getting old and dying off. And so the Ringling Brothers show started the College of Clowns, which lasted until, I think, 1997. And I was in the second class.

SIMON: You think people maybe react differently to clowns.

HOROWITZ: Yes, absolutely. And to all of who are - and even though I don't do it anymore, I mean, it's like really once a clown always a clown. Once you've been a real performing clown you realize you've tapped into something big and universal and eternal. It's a frustration to us because clown, which was a word that used to be associated with joy and laughter and happiness, now has a lot of negative connotations to it. You know, you got characters like Crusty the Clown on "The Simpsons" and there are members of Congress.

(LAUGHTER)

HOROWITZ: By the way, isn't it amazing this year I think there's a record number of members of Congress who are retiring at the same time there's a shortage of clowns? What doesn't work here?

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I'm reacting almost reflexively with regret and woe over a clown shortage. But I'm wondering, I mean, you know, there are not as many shepherds as there used to be. Is this just - to my knowledge - is this just something we have to...

HOROWITZ: They certainly are in my living room.

SIMON: I guess. Is this just something we have to accept, the condition (unintelligible)...

HOROWITZ: No, not at all. You know, it's not as much work as there was. I don't think circus is quite the phenomenon that it was before. Circus has taken on a different tact because now people think of Cirque du Soleil, which doesn't have any animals in it, in which, as often as not, the clowns aren't really funny. They're not out there doing gags. But, as I said, clowning is something really universal. And as long as there is human folly, there is going to be this figure. Clowns exist in every culture, in every epic of history; there's always been this figure of the clown who kind of bears the sins of the community on his or her back. And so as long as there's human folly, there'll be clowns. I don't think we're going anywhere anytime soon.

SIMON: I mean, is there something that we can do as a society to increase the number of clowns? Is there a government program, is there a foundation grant? What, I mean...

HOROWITZ: This joke keeps repeating itself. Yes, you can keep going to the polls and electing the officials - no, no. We can - I'm sorry. It's just you laid it out there, you know?

SIMON: I did. I know. It would be against your nature to just let it go, yeah.

HOROWITZ: It's true, it's true. We can laugh at ourselves a little bit more, not take ourselves so seriously, you know. And the more you can laugh at yourself, the more you're qualified to be a clown. I mean, clowning is something we all need in our lives. And some of us are better at it than others.

SIMON: Murray Horowitz. And I don't care how many operas you write, you're always going to be a clown.

HOROWITZ: You know, if, God forbid, I were elected president of the United States, the best thing on my resume will still be he was a clown in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.

SIMON: Murray, thanks very much for being with us.

HOROWITZ: Thank you, Scott.

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