12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Clowns

Getty Images
Getty Images

They made Egyptian pharaohs laugh as early as 2500 BCE. In ancient Rome, they were known as the stupidus, or fool. In the 20th century, they became synonymous with the red-nosed archetypes pushed by Bozo and the omnipresent Ronald McDonald. They’re professional clowns, full-time jesters who forgo subtlety in pursuit of making the audiences at birthday parties, parades, and hospitals forget their troubles.

Lately clowns have been frowning more than usual, thanks to the negative press around the creepy clown scare of 2016. For thousands of painted faces, however, clowning is an art. Mental Floss spoke with several professional fools—and we mean that in the most affectionate way possible—about their trade language, finding the right pair of giant shoes, and why some of them opt for insurance.

1. CLOWN SHOES ARE EXPENSIVE.

Don’t be fooled by the cheap, flimsy clown shoes you find in Halloween costume shops. A proper pair of oversized shoes needs to withstand hours of walking, jumping, and performing, all while maintaining a snug fit around the entertainer’s human-sized feet. “A pair of clown shoes costs anywhere from $200 to $500,” says Bebop the Clown, a performer based in San Antonio, Texas and former education director of the World Clown Association (WCA). “In order for you to clown properly in them, they need to fit. If not, they can really hurt your back.”

2. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN TRADE LANGUAGE.

Like the carnival workers they sometimes collaborate with, clowns have developed their own industry shorthand. “It’s all hidden terminology you can’t really find in books,” says Benjamin Domask, a clown based in New York City. “A ‘Joey’ is a term for a clown named after Joseph Grimaldi, one of the first clowns to dress up in face paint.” There’s also the blow-off (punchline), the clown stop (a short performance), and “bump a nose” (a.k.a. “break a leg”). A cluster of clowns is known as a “giggle.”

3. THEY HAVE CLOWN CONVENTIONS.

As with any trade, clowns like to congregate to exchange tips and look at the newest in clown industry advancements. “We have conferences with exhibitors and vendor rooms,” Bebop says. “There are often a lot of magicians there offering tricks [for sale].” Conventions are also home to courses in clowning, from balloon-tying to training as a “caring clown” for hospital visits. At night, clown parties feature clown socializing, complete with a red (nose) carpet.

4. YOU CAN THANK THE CIRCUS FOR CLOWN PHOBIAS.

As a student and teacher of clown history, Domask has an idea of what initially brought on bouts of coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, in the general public. “In the 1800s, as circuses got bigger and bigger, clowns needed to up their game,” he says. “They needed bigger movements, and thicker face paint, so audiences in seats further up could see them. But it’s like when a stage actor appears and is still wearing all that make-up. Up close, it’s really creepy-looking to have all of that caked on.” Clowns playing private engagements use fewer layers of paint, but the apprehension over unsettling circus clowns remains.

5. THERE ARE SEVERAL SUB-CATEGORIES OF CLOWN.

One of the first things students attending classes hosted by the WCA find out is that there is no one required clown uniform. According to Bebop, there are a few different ways for a person's "clown character" to manifest: “The Harlequin, or white-faced clown, is the classic and the highest,” she says. “There’s also the Auguste, or the buffoon type. Then there’s the hobo or tramp, and then a character-type clown.” The Auguste might wear pink as a face paint base instead of white and is more bumbling than the Harlequin; the character-type clown might be an existing persona, such as a baseball player or referee, but inside a clown suit. The differences become apparent, Bebop says, when clown duos work together. “One might be the whiteface and one might be the buffoon, taking the pie in the face.”

6. THEY KNOW HOW TO READ EACH OTHER.

According to Domask, veteran clowns can develop a certain expression in their eyes that becomes immediately recognizable to other clowns. “It’s a kind of look we develop,” he says of the non-verbal cue. “You can read a clown’s comfort or emotional state." In addition to expressing mood, Domask says, the look can reveal whether the clown is up for some dual clown-performance. "If two clowns meet, you can tell if the other wants to play around.”

7. THEY HARDLY EVER BREAK CHARACTER.

Once a clown is suited up for a performance, it can be difficult to relate to people as a “regular” person. As a result, Bebop says that clowns tend to turn even the most mundane daily activities into a mini-performance. “Once you put the nose on, you lose the luxury of being a person,” she says. “You can’t walk up to a group of people waiting for an elevator and go, ‘Gosh, travel sure was awful.’” Instead, Bebop will do something like passing out “tickets” for the elevator, then “collecting” them as people board.

8. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

It’s true: Some couples enjoy the presence of a clown during their nuptials. “I’ve done a couple of weddings, including one same-sex couple that had a Mardi Gras wedding theme,” Domask says. “They hired me to perform during the reception.”

9. PARADE CLOWNS NEED SPECIAL SKILLS.

While clowns can engage in mischief pretty much anywhere, performers who elect to join street parades need to put a little more thought into their act. “We call it ‘paradability,’” Bebop says of clowns best suited for that kind of engagement. “Someone might have the idea to carry a steering wheel around. How heavy is the steering wheel? Is it going to be hot out? Is the gag feasible when the parade is three miles long?”

10. THERE’S CLOWN INSURANCE.

Although he’s never had to make use of it, Domask does have variety performers' insurance in the event that he has a clowning mishap. “A lot of companies offer it,” he says. The World Clown Association provides it as a perk for members, offering up to a million dollars in coverage in the event a child has an allergic reaction to face paint or property damage occurs, among other potential misadventures.

11. THERE’S AN AUDIENCE AGE CAP.

Clowns can be found just about anywhere, from children’s hospitals to nursing homes. But for your average birthday booking, Bebop says that particularly juvenile clowns can spare themselves a lot of grief by limiting their audiences to ages seven and under. “Bebop as a character is five years old and my market is seven and under,” she says. “When I get calls that ask me to go perform for a bunch of 12-year-old Boy Scouts, I say, ‘Okay, here’s another number to call.’ A 12-year-old will eat Bebop alive.”

12. THERE’S A WAY TO GET A GUARANTEED LAUGH.

Sometimes, audiences will resist the charms of a clown, and no amount of balloon-tying, face-painting, or pratfalls will cut it. In that instance, Domask says he keeps one go-to move in his arsenal. “I just stick my finger up my nose and pretend to pick it,” he says.

All images courtesy of Getty Images.

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12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”