Not That Kind of Clown
Tails and Robo offer insights into clown culture and the masked pranksters haunting city streets and social media
Over 60 guests decked out in full clown attire watched Tails walk down the aisle in oversized purple shoes and a lavender wig. She cradled a bulbous balloon flower in place of a bouquet as Robo waited for her at the altar, looking dashing in an eye-catching rainbow-striped tailcoat. Two clown-like figures made entirely of balloons stood as sentries at the doorway, and the wedding party carried pink, purple and white balloon flowers. After the ceremony, the newlyweds fed each other wedding cake; miraculously they avoided smudging their face paint. Sparkle, Cupcake, Tiny Bubbles and songwriter Jeannette Harris serenaded the group with the original song “Clowns in Love,” and later dozens of clowns dipped and twirled the day away on the dance floor. Robo proposed in clown, and Tails said yes in clown. It seems only fitting that they would tie the knot in clown, too.
Sally and Jack Court met at a clown convention 15 years ago. Known to many Connecticut children as Tails and Robo, the pair has been clowning together since 2002. When I spoke with Jack, he greeted me energetically — “Hi Lily! It’s Robo!”— and then burst out laughing at having identified himself with his clown name. And yet, both he and Tails used their given names and clown names interchangeably: “Okay, handing the phone over to Tails,” or “Sally wants to say something!” Now based out of Southington, Connecticut, Tails and Robo identify as birthday party clowns but will entertain at anything from corporate to-dos and country clubs to schools and hospitals. Their clowning skills are wide-ranging, including but by no means limited to juggling, magic, music, face painting and balloon sculpture. Lucky party guests might even catch ventriloquist Robo chatting up a puppet.
Jack and Sally offer an inside look at the vibrant culture and tradition of clowning, which was appropriated by the masked pranksters that haunted city streets and social media this fall. On average, Jack and Sally receive about 10 call per week from hosts looking to hire them as a duo or individually. But as photos of creepy clowns swept social media and the news cycle, the pair found themselves fielding fewer calls.
The killer clown fad began in South Carolina, where children reported that masked clowns had tried to lure them into the woods. Suddenly, the creepy clowns became a national phenomenon, with pranksters appearing across the country and sometimes even getting arrested. When they first heard about the case in South Carolina, Robo and Tails didn’t pay much attention. But when malicious clowns started to make appearances in the Northeast, they began to worry about what it would mean for their livelihood.
Only a half-hour drive from the couple’s Southington home, New Haven faced threats from anonymous clowns on the Internet this past October. Posts surfaced on Instagram featuring snapshots of creepy clowns with threatening messages directed at the city’s schools. In response, New Haven Public Schools Director of Security Thaddeus Reddish asked public school administrators to ban clown costumes and other “symbols of terror” this Halloween, calling on parents to discourage such outfits as well. When I asked the school system’s Director of Communications Mercy Quaye for an interview, she told me that school officials are no longer entertaining interviews on the subject to avoid adding to the hysteria.
Following the New Haven incidents in October, Sally’s phone did not ring for three weeks — an unprecedented and “totally bizarre” silence, she said. Since then, she has performed at some events, but many clients have asked her to refrain from dressing as a clown in an effort to avoid scaring guests as well as out of fear for her own safety in public. “It was strange,” Sally said, as she told me about a woman who had asked her to come in street clothes. “She was afraid for me.”
Still, with the exception of the strange three-week silence, the pair continued to clown around Connecticut even during fall, their slow season. In my initial conversation with Robo, he admitted almost apologetically that the creepy clowns really haven’t been too bad for business; Tails already has gigs lined up for December. And really, it makes sense that clowns like Robo and Tails would not suffer crippling losses because of this unsettling fad. Because the pair already adheres to the European school of clowning, which is characterized by lighter makeup relative to the American style, it hasn’t been a problem when clients ask them to tone down the clown in light of recent events.
Unfortunately, not all professional clowns have had as easy a time as Tails and Robo. In mid-October, a Clown Lives Matter march was canceled because the organizer received death threats. Lines have blurred between party clowns — professionals trained in circus arts at academies, conventions and camps — and the pranksters gaining fame through the media. When I reached out to a New Haven clown, she declined to be interviewed, differentiating between people with masks and professional clowns. The more media attention given to the sinister fad, she pointed out, the longer her business will suffer. She wished the media had given more coverage to “real clowns” at the outset.
Tails and Robo also took care to delineate exactly how creepy clowns and real clowns differ. In contrast to masked prowlers like the two sighted on Yale’s campus last month, many professional clowns are organized, educated and certified. Jack founded a clown organization in central Massachusetts, and though they are now unaffiliated, both he and Sally used to be members of clown clubs. Called “alleys” by those in the business, Robo told me that these clubs are named after the alleyways where clowns of old slept while high-ranking circus performers like trapeze artists enjoyed the luxuries of hotel-living. While some circus clowns and clown educators have a bit of a superiority complex, sometimes writing off birthday party clowns as “town clowns,” Sally maintains that all types are generally friendly towards and mutually respectful of one another. Sally and Jack are also proud members of Clowns of America International and the World Clown Association. The two have attended countless clown camps and conventions where they compete in a wide array of skills, from juggling to balloon sculpture to ventriloquism to unicycling.
The World Clown Association website’s newsfeed was notably bare of any references to the creepy clown phenomenon for weeks after the fad first came to light in late summer. Headlines posted in October read “Minnesota Clown Camp Big on Silly” and “Clown Hall of Fame Faces Water Damage and Needs Your Help.” On Oct. 31, the WCA posted a podcast originally broadcasted on VoiceAmerica Variety Channel featuring current WCA President Randy Christensen. He discussed what clowning means to him and “the sad backlash” of the creepy clown phenomenon on real clowns. Curious about the website’s glaring absence of creepy clown-related articles predating the Halloween post, I typed the word “creepy” into the site’s search bar. A single undated article popped up, presumably published before the outbreak given its lack of references to the fad. As one might expect, real clowns were combating distortions of their image long before the creepy clowns came out in force this fall. “A Figment of Your Imagination,” written by Christensen, stresses the importance of parental influence on children’s perceptions of clowns. He argues that if parents project fear of clowns onto their children, the children will associate fear with clowns and become afraid. He writes, “When a person says, ‘Clowns are scary!’ I often reply, ‘I understand that some people portray horror clowns, but those aren’t clowns. Those are horror characters. I’m not that kind of clown. I’m the happy, friendly, funny clown.’”
The WCA website is up-to-date and active, listing educational opportunities and posting photos of “Junior Joeys,” preteens who attended the 2016 clown convention. But according to Jack and Sally, the professional clown community in Connecticut is aging. Jack, 80, is planning on retiring in the near future. In her mid-60s, Sally is booking as many gigs as ever, but she doesn’t see many young clowns attending conventions anymore in the Northeast. The art form seems to be faring better in the Midwest, but still she observes a general decline in the United States, unrelated to the scare factor of the creepy clowns.
Clown culture can seem pretty niche to nonclowns, so many Yalies might be surprised at the prevalence of clowns around New Haven and the University itself. Robo cheered up young patients in the Yale-New Haven Hospital for about a year, and he entertained kids back in his home state at the UMass Memorial Medical Center as a member of a “clown care unit.” Members of the Yale Aerial and Circus Arts Collective practice clown-like skills such as juggling and balancing, and the drama school offers a class called Clown. In its end of October issue, The New Yorker interviewed Yale professor Christopher Bayes, who teaches clown arts at the Yale School of Drama as the Professor Adjunct of Acting and Head of Physical Acting. He emphasized the importance of “play[ing] the mask” as a dramatic art form as opposed to “just hiding behind something” as prankster creepy clowns do. According to Bayes, the popularization of the creepy clown idea in the United States can be largely attributed to Stephen King’s horror novel It.
In his New Yorker interview, Bayes also likened Trump to a creepy clown, citing his notorious orange hair — “my gosh, look at that wig” — and how he can be simultaneously “malignant” and “attractive to some people.” Bayes isn’t the only one to make such a comparison: nearly every time I spoke with a friend or interview subject about the creepy clowns, the Trump parallel came up. Indeed, the killer clown fad occurred concurrently with the culminating moments of the presidential race, capturing a general feeling of unsettlement. In an article for The Guardian, Mary Valle casts the trend in a political light: “Emboldened, [killer clowns] walk the streets, bearing the possibility that we, as a nation, may be stepping off a cliff of denial into a valley of hatred, fear and fascism.” Regardless of whether one sees the killer clown spirit embodied in specific candidates, there is no ignoring the fact that these pranksters began terrorizing the nation at the height of election season. When I reached out to Party City inquiring into sales of clown costumes this season, a representative told me that the company does not comment on ongoing police investigations. But I was surprised and delighted by the personal twist she added at the end of her email: “Aren’t these crazy times? With clowns terrorizing the streets and a real life Joker running for president, we need Batman to save the day!”
But perhaps a superhero is not necessary. As Sally and Jack emphasized and re-emphasized, part of their battle comes down to distilling the distinction between creepy and artful, professional clowns. When asked what she would say to people now afraid of clowns, Sally replied: “I’d probably take a picture out and show them my face.” Indeed, it seems ridiculous to associate Tails and Robo with the creepy clowns that haunt the news cycle. As Sally put it, they are “the complete opposite of us. We’re cute!”