Abuse the Clown

"Statistics show that seven out of ten people find clowns repulsive," Barry Williams says. "Yet clowns continue to dominate western culture."

If Barry seems to have an unusual interest in clowns, that's because he is one. But unlike most clowns, Barry does not perform in a circus or any other typical clown venue. Over the past few years, Barry has been performing in his own one-man show, "Abuse The Clown," which he describes as "clown performance art."

Barry agreed to meet with me at his south side Chicago loft apartment. Although I'm well aware of his reputed infatuation with clowns, I assume that it must be some sort of joke. Apparently not, for when Barry answers his door, he is dressed head to toe in full clown regalia. It looks as if he's been wearing the same outfit for at least four straight days, but he makes no mention of it.

"So I suppose you've heard some wild things about the show," he casually remarks as we made our way to his lounge area. I say that no, I haven't. I just know the name. Barry didn't miss a beat. "Well sure, that makes sense," he says. "Most people don't talk about it. It's a very personal experience."

"How's that?" I ask.

Barry just smiles at me. "If you have to ask," he says, "you'll never understand."

- - -

Ever since Barry was a boy, growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, he wanted to be a clown. And when he left high school in the mid-eighties, he got his opportunity. He auditioned for and was accepted into the prestigious (in clown circles) Barnum and Bailey Clown College. Barry claims to have graduated at the top of his class, but was not hired for the circus because of "political differences."

"They were threatened by me," he confesses. "I was experimenting with different ideas in the art of clowning. I didn't fit into their mold. They're a bureaucracy. They fear change."

In 1990, Barry moved to Chicago, where he continues to live to this day. He supported himself with a variety of small time clowning gigs: mostly children's parties and singing telegrams. In the meantime, he continued his studies of clown history and theory.

"There's a lot of radical thought going on about the place of the clown in contemporary society," he tells me, as he thumbs through a large book titled, simply, Clowns. "They have been with us since the beginning of recorded history, and continue to thrive to this day, although in different forms."

Barry explains to me the roots of clown development, from the early jesters and harlequins to modern day practitioners like Jerry Seinfield and Bill Cosby.

"They still have an undeniable effect on us," he says. "They point out the faults of the world, and ourselves. They discuss a lot of issues that most of us don't want to deal with. But because they do it in a funny way, we're more prone to listen to what they have to say. In a way, clowning is the most powerful forum for social criticism in the world."

And that, Barry insists, is exactly why they are evil.

I look at him, wondering if that was a punch line. He just stares at me, his face a blank slate, giving nothing away.

"Are you serious?" I finally ask.

He jumps up from his chair and begins dancing around the room, laughing and pointing a finger at me. "Ha-ha, ha-ha," he sings. "You suck! Ha-ha!" And as suddenly as he had started, he stops. He sits back down and continues our discussion.

"How did you feel when I did that?" He asks.


"You didn't like it, did you?" He snaps back. "Of course not! Who likes to be laughed at? No one! And why should we? Don't let the clown laugh at you. You laugh at the clown!"

He gives me a reassuring look and motions for me to respond. I'm uncertain how to proceed, but he is so adamant that I feel like I have to do something. I stand up and dance around the room, laughing and pointing at him.

"Ha-ha," I say, half-heartedly. "You suck, clown."

He applauds and stands up to pat me on the back. "Good man," he says. "There now, doesn't that feel better?"

I nod as enthusiastically as I can, hoping for the best.

"You gotta show the clown whose boss," he says. "And he won't bother you ever again."

- - -

By 1992, Barry's finances were all but collapsed and he was desperate for any clowning position he could get. When he heard about a major clown convention that was taking place that summer in New York, he decided to attend in a last ditch attempt to find full-time employment. What he found instead was a harrowing experience that changed his life.

"Bozo was there," he says, almost reverently. "We had all gotten together for dinner after one of the lectures, and somehow I got a seat right next to him. He was amazing. Didn't even take his goddamn makeup off. That man was a clown. It was his only identity.

"So I got to talking with him and found him to be, well, a generally unpleasant fellow. He always had to be the top dog, the one in control, the guy dishing out the insults. And that's when it hit me. Here was Bozo, the king of all clowns. And he wasn't happy and caring. He was a vicious, backbiting, intimidating bastard. And if Bozo was like this, the embodiment of all that we clowns hope to be, what does that say about the rest of us?

"It changed my whole perspective of what it means to be a clown. I began to see that it's a living representation of everything that plagues us. The clown is born from our insecurities and anxieties. But instead of healing us, it laughs at us. The clown of life is the clown in our souls. It is our Ids, our self-conscious, mocking us for our faults. It is everything we hate because it hates everything we are."

"But if clowns are so bad," I ask. "Why are you a clown?"

He laughs at my naiveté. "Because I am a clown. Don't you get it? We are all clowns. Or rather, we all have the clown in us. The difference is that I've accepted it. I've let it take me over. And, hopefully, I can use my disease to help others cure themselves. That's what 'Abuse The Clown' is all about."

- - -

When Barry returned to Chicago, he set to work immediately on what would become the piece de résistance of his entire philosophy. He decided that to effectively thwart the mocking of the clown, the mocking must be turned back on him. His brainstorm was to create a performance art piece that did just that: allow an audience to vent their hostility on a sneering, giggling clown.

"I strongly believe that most insecurities come from accepting the clown's taunts," he said. "We have to learn to say 'Hey, fuck you clown! I'm not gonna take that shit! I'm going to give you a piece of your own medicine!'"

Not having seen the show myself, I ask Barry for a few more details on exactly how it works. His description left me with a bit of a chill, though out of admiration or alarm I'm not sure. "I come on-stage and start laughing at people. You know, the usual clown shtick. And then when I've really worked them up into a frenzy, I invite them to tell me differently. And they do. The rest of the show is basically a brawl, where everybody gets a chance to beat the shit out of the clown."

One may not realize at first just how literal Barry is. Over the years, he has taken his concept to even more extreme and volatile levels. He allows participants not only to laugh at him, but also to abuse and humiliate him. They are given and encouraged to use stones, bats, buckets of waste, and whatever they happen to bring to the show with them. Barry admits that the premise asks for trouble.

"It can get out of hand," Barry says. "I've had a few people get a little crazy on me. And I've ended up in the hospital a few times. But it's worth it."

Even though "Abuse The Clown" has been in existence for just over two years, it has yet to find a legitimate theater space. It has been turned down by virtually every theater in town, from major venues like Steppenwolf to garage theaters like Cafe Voltaire. But Barry refused to give up, and has been performing the play in his loft apartment.

"In some ways, it makes for a more unique performance," he says. "It separates the show from the safety net of drama. This isn't fiction going on here. You're kicking the snot outta this clown in his own home."

But Barry is quick to concede that he would jump at the chance to perform in a real theater. "It'd be nice to have a stage manager and a lighting guy and stuff," he says. "And I'm pretty sure the money is better."

And speaking of money, how does he support himself these days?

"Oh, I find a way," Barry says. "I temp now and then. And a lot of people have been making generous donations. They like what I'm doing and want to help me continue to do so. Some of my most violent audience members are also the biggest contributors."

And what about medical costs?

"I try to avoid hospitals. I like to rely mostly on the natural healing process. Besides, making the clown suffer is what this is about."

About the author:

ERIC SPITZNAGEL has written for a lot of magazines and web journals. Here are some that you may have heard of: Playboy, Spy, Harper's, Might, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Monkeybicycle, Eyeshot.net, Dezmin's Archives, The Nose and Salon.com. He's written four humor books, a few of which are still in print. He's pretty sure that A Guy's Guide To Dating (Doubleday, 1998) is still available at Amazon.com, and he's seen The Junk Food Companion (Plume, 1999) in the occasional used bookstore. He used to live in Chicago, where he taught comedy writing at the Second City theater and performed with such sketch groups as Marlboro Country and Fancy Ketchup. He's also written several plays which were produced by kind people with access to storefront theaters. His personal favorites were "Nothing Cute Gets Eaten" and "Romeo & Juliet Died For Our Sins," if only because he thinks the titles were kinda clever. After leaving Chicago, he briefly lived in Jacksonville, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the woods of northern Michigan. He currently resides in Sonoma, California, with his wife, though he still isn't entirely sure why. He's more afraid of you than you are of him.