Down Clown : The Indicator from Planet Money Clowns and clowning have been suffering from a chronic branding crisis for decades. Can they fix it?
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Down Clown

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Down Clown

Down Clown

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

There is an iconic scene in what Cardiff and I feel to be a very iconic 1988 movie called "Killer Klowns From Outer Space." And in this scene, there's this obnoxious bully hanging out with his motorcycle gang and his girl. He's in a dark alley. And he's approached by this creepy-looking clown. And the bully starts making fun of the clown's bike, and then he wrecks it, not understanding that this is a killer clown from outer space. And the clown, in response, puts on these boxing gloves and starts jumping around. And the bully says...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE")

MICHAEL HALTON: (As Slug) What are you going to do, knock my block off?

VANEK SMITH: (Screaming).

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

And he did. The clown punched the bully's head right off his shoulders.

VANEK SMITH: Off his shoulders.

GARCIA: And the head landed in a garbage can.

VANEK SMITH: Bloody head.

GARCIA: Yeah. The bikers all fled. It was terrifying.

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

GARCIA: And also, how on Earth did I get to see this movie as a kid?

VANEK SMITH: I don't know, but I saw it, too.

GARCIA: "Killer Klowns From Outer Space" came out in 1988, just a couple of years after the publication of the Stephen King novel "It," also about a murderous clown, and which itself followed the terrifying, scary clown scene in 1982's "Poltergeist." The 1980s were not great for the public perception of clowns.

VANEK SMITH: There have been many examples over the decades of a movie or a book or a cartoon portraying clowns as creepy, frightening - you know, kind of the last thing you would ever want near your children.

GARCIA: Nowhere near your kids.

VANEK SMITH: But it was not always like that. Clowns were a really popular and beloved part of the Ringling Bros. Circus when that circus still existed. And they were, you know, really often hired to perform at kids' birthday parties.

GARCIA: I had a clown at one of my birthday parties.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, did it have balloons?

GARCIA: It was totally fine. It had balloons. It did magic tricks. It was great.

But, yeah, clowning has been in decline. And most of us are kind of familiar with the idea that if something gets a lot of attention in popular culture, it will become more popular. But clowning has had the exact opposite experience. Its deteriorating perception has made life really hard for the people who practice it as a profession or as a calling. And it's been suffering from a kind of chronic branding crisis that has lasted for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARRIE JAMES BIGNOLD'S "BIG TOP PARADE")

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR from Planet Money. And today on the show, we talk to a clown - one who takes the job of clowning very seriously. And she tells us how clowning has been basically forced to evolve through the last few decades, and how the clowns are trying to fight back against this reputation for creepiness and murder.

TRICIA MANUEL: People don't understand. They think clowning is just slapping some makeup on and going out there and acting silly and getting away with it, where it's just so much deeper than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARRIE JAMES BIGNOLD'S "BIG TOP PARADE")

MANUEL: My name is Tricia Manuel, and I am a professional clown and costumer.

VANEK SMITH: Tricia has a couple of different clown characters that she does, including Pricilla Mooseburger. This is what Pricilla Mooseburger looks like.

MANUEL: A beautiful, pink, curled, beautifully coiffed wig. My costume - I actually got the idea for that costume from one of the Munchkins in "The Wizard Of Oz." I wear Elizabethan ruff. I have aurora borealis rhinestones glued to my face in a couple of places.

VANEK SMITH: I think you should consider aurora borealis rhinestones on your face.

GARCIA: I didn't actually understand most of that. But put together, it makes for one very cute clown.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. It's a really pretty clown.

GARCIA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: It's a really pretty clown.

GARCIA: Tricia runs the Mooseburger Clown Camp, which is an annual training camp in Minnesota for people who want to learn how to be a clown. It lasts six days. And back in its peak, more than a hundred people would enroll every year. And Tricia has a kind of touchingly earnest view of what it takes to be a clown.

MANUEL: Being a real clown is putting aside all your baggage and going out and being your true self, your happiest self, your most joyful self.

VANEK SMITH: Tricia has these really fond memories of the glory days of clowning. Back in the '80s, she started her career in the Ringling Bros. Circus, and then she switched and became an event clown.

MANUEL: When I started clowning in the '80s, if you were a clown, you were a rock star. You put your makeup on, and people were like, come here, come here. I want to take your picture, or if you were in a parade - that's what drew me to clowning.

GARCIA: Things have changed a lot since then, and not for the better.

VANEK SMITH: Not for clowns, anyway.

GARCIA: No. Official data on clowning is hard to come by, but there's evidence that demand for clowns has fallen a lot, and fewer people are interested in becoming clowns. Membership in the two biggest clown associations has fallen. And last year, the big Ringling Bros. traveling circus closed down because not enough people were going to see it.

VANEK SMITH: This is so sad. It's like the death of the child in all of us. Working for the circus has always been kind of the elite clown job, like clowns get full salaries and benefits. But those jobs have basically disappeared.

Most clowns are now event clowns that do birthday parties and visit nursing homes to cheer people up. And this used to actually be a really decent side hustle paying hundreds of dollars per event in a lot of places. But Tricia says that clowning has become more of a volunteer activity - a lot less commercial. And Tricia blames falling commercial demand pretty directly on that pop culture moment of clowns being portrayed as monstrous and really creepy.

MANUEL: It started with the creepy clown movies - you know, "Killer Klowns From Outer Space" - and then it just evolved. And then with the "It" movies. "It" made a huge impact.

VANEK SMITH: I watched "It" so many times. I mean, that Pennywise character, with its weird crooked teeth, is just seared into my brain.

GARCIA: Never seen "It," never going to see "It." But...

VANEK SMITH: Don't see "It."

GARCIA: And it's not just "It" and "Killer Klowns From Outer Space," but also more recently, the band Insane Clown Posse.

VANEK SMITH: Juggalos.

GARCIA: Yeah. The cartoon characters like Krusty the Clown in "The Simpsons," and most recently, The Joker in the "Batman" movies.

VANEK SMITH: And this has been having a big impact on how real clowns do their jobs. It even started posing a safety risk a couple of years ago when there were all those reports of creepy clown sightings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's a trend spooking the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hordes of clowns trying to lure children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The hysteria has swept across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Not everyone is down with the clowns.

VANEK SMITH: People were saying that they'd seen groups of people dressed up like evil clowns who were coming to, like, attack and steal their children. Evidently, nothing like that was actually happening. It was an example of mass hysteria. And it was something that had clearly been influenced by pop culture.

MANUEL: All the calls I got were people needing to just vent and say, oh, my gosh. We've been told to stay home. We're afraid to go out. We're afraid to go out in public. We're afraid we're going to get beat up. We're afraid they're going to call the police on us.

VANEK SMITH: Tricia also runs a store for clown costumes, and she says her business really struggled during that time. And she also says the negative depiction of clowns is forcing clowning to reinvent itself. Clowns are using less makeup now. Tricia wears a lighter costume. Clowns also, on average, are older than they used to be, and they include a lot of retired teachers who want to keep working with kids.

GARCIA: But Tricia is not taking the decline in clowning lying down. She thinks clowning needs to better understand what it can do about its creepy reputation. And sometimes, she sounds less like a clown and more like a consultant, or...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, no.

GARCIA: ...A clown-sultant (ph).

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter)

MANUEL: Starting at Moose Camp this year, 2018, we're going to start doing a survey to find out - how can we improve our education? How can we improve the way we use social media? How can we, you know, improve attracting people to clowning? I'm bringing in a professional facilitator. We're going to come up with ideas and an action plan, and we're going to promote these ideas on how to promote, protect and defend the art of clowning.

GARCIA: Tricia says that about 80 future clowns enrolled in her camp this year.

VANEK SMITH: That's pretty good.

GARCIA: Yeah. And most of them had never clowned before. And to be honest, it's hard not to wish her well in bringing clowns back into respectability.

VANEK SMITH: I know. What the killer clowns hath wrought - it seems unfair.

Can we hear your clown voice? Can Pricilla say hi to us? Is that possible?

MANUEL: (As Pricilla Mooseburger) I am just so happy to do this interview with you. We had a really good time, and I hope that I get to see you again because this was just really a lot of fun. And next time, I'm going to bring out my rubber chicken, Gladys, because she would love to meet you, too. I'm the chicken lady clown.

VANEK SMITH: We should get a rubber chicken for THE INDICATOR. Where's our rubber chicken?

(SOUNDBITE OF BRICE DAVOLI'S "THE NICEST DRAGON")

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