Depending on who you ask, clowns are either harmless fun or the stuff of nightmares. But no matter where your opinion falls, there’s a lot going on beneath the face paint of this surprisingly old profession. There’s even a story behind the iconic red nose: It can be traced to a member of the Fratellini family named Albert, who originated the Auguste clown archetype—complete with the world debut of the bright red clown nose. Now make like a clown car and stuff as many of these facts in your head as you can.
1. THERE REALLY ARE A LOT OF CLOWNS IN CLOWN CARS.
It’s tempting to think the clown car gag is an illusion, but according to Greg DeSanto, executive director of the International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center, “There’s no trick to the clown-car gag.” He told Car and Driver that “there are no trap doors in stadium floors, and the cars are real cars.” Instead, the car is gutted of its interior, and all windows are painted over except for a peephole for the driver, who sits on a milk crate. "Then," DeSanto said, "it’s a matter of shoving in the clowns.” A compact car can fit between 14 and 21 clowns.
2. YOU CAN ATTEND GRIMALDI'S FUNERAL—AND DANCE ON HIS GRAVE.
was one of the world’s first circus clowns, and he made his biggest mark on the profession in 1806 with his rogue-meets-fool clown character. Pantomime clowns—a.k.a. Joeys—get their clown makeup from him. Grimaldi’s work is honored by his present-day peers every year on the first Sunday of February at the Holy Trinity Church in London. You can celebrate one of history’s greatest clowns, too, by heading to north London, where artist Henry Krokatsis installed musical tiles over his grave. Tap your feet to play "Hot Codlins," a tune Grimaldi was known for.
3. THE CREEPY CLOWN FAD HAS BEEN AROUND SINCE THE '80s.
Mysterious clown run-ins currently abound, but this isn’t the first time people have used clown costumes to frighten their community. In 1981, there were reports of men dressing as clowns and harassing school children in Boston. Later that spring, Kansas City kids reported being chased by clowns. Sightings have popped up in the news periodically ever since. The World Clown Association has had to contend with their profession being besmirched by these jokers, and they’re not happy about it.
4. CLOWNS MUST FOLLOW THE EIGHT CLOWN COMMANDMENTS.
Being a clown is no laughing matter, and Clowns of America International asks professionals to follow the Clown Commandments. They include "remember[ing] that a good clown entertains others by making fun of himself or herself and not at the expense or embarrassment of others," promising not to smoke or drink when in makeup or costume, and to "remove my makeup and change into my street clothes as soon as possible following my appearance, so that I cannot be associated with any incident that may be detrimental to the good name of clowning."
5. THERE'S CURRENTLY A CLOWN SHORTAGE.
With standards rising for clowning, and its popularity amongst millennials falling, clowning just isn’t what it used to be. The World Clown Association, the nation’s largest clown trade group, says membership is down about 28 percent since 2004. A lifetime career as a clown can also be daunting due to low pay and tough competition. In 2013, Ringling Brothers only had 26 clowns in its three circuses.
6. CLOWNING WAS ONCE CONSIDERED A FEMINIST ACT.
In 1895, The New York Times dubbed Evetta Mathews “the only lady clown on earth.” The newspaper was being hyperbolic (lady clowns Amelia Butler and Irene Jewell Newton were Mathews’s predecessors), but, as a female clown, the 25-year-old was a rare sight for her time, and her clowning was framed as an example of women’s emancipation. Mathews herself said that despite her circus family disapproving, she felt like she had chosen her big top career well. Being a clown meant fewer chances of being injured and more opportunities to write her own skits.
7. YOU CAN VISIT A CLOWN MOTEL NEXT TO A GRAVEYARD.
If you happen to roll into the tiny town of Tonopah, Nevada and prefer your motels on the spooky side, check into the Clown Motel for the night. A desert oasis made of pure nightmare fuel, you’ll find clown dolls and images everywhere you turn. Don’t forget to enjoy the view while you’re there, either: This motel is right next door to an early-1900s graveyard.
All images courtesy of iStock unless noted otherwise