Underneath the greasepaint and the mop-top wig, one of America’s venerable professions is slowly decaying. Yes, it’s true: America’s clowns may soon go the way of the squirting seltzer bottle. According to The New York Daily News, America’s professional clowns are in crisis. The nation’s largest organization of practicing professional clowns has seen its membership slip from 3,500 to 2,500 in a decade. Of the 531 clown applicants to Ringling Brothers’ Circus last year, only eleven caught on under the big top. A number of reasons are cited for the decline of the American clown. As reported by NPR, one reason is coulrophobia—the fear of clowns—linked to sinister clown characters in major movies (e.g., Pennywise in Stephen King’s It, Heath Ledger’s blood-curdling portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight) and Pogo, the clown character of the real-life serial killer, John Wayne Gacy.
But the decline in clowning may be driven by larger societal trends. The simple, low-budget gags of the classic clown fail to wow today’s savvy children—who grow up with Hollywood pyrotechnics and special effects. Today’s atomized lifestyles are less supportive of local carnivals and other venues that provide steady work for clowns. And the apex of clown employment—the big top circus—is beset by rising insurance and fuel costs and opposed by animal rights groups, such as 2012’s Boycott the Big Top campaign. Many of America’s smaller carnivals and circuses are struggling to stay viable. A recent article in The Economist profiled the struggles of a famous Quebec circus, noting that other forms of live entertainment, including international performance companies and musical productions, now offer jugglers and acrobats, creating competition for the venerable circus and its clowns. But when the last cream pie flies and there’s no clown-face on the receiving end, we’ll have lost a particularly innocent source of laughs. Our ascendant entertainments—social networks, iPhone apps, Breaking Bad, and podcasts—will have some very big shoes to fill. // Michael Adelberg