A Defense of Clowns

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Joaquin Phoenix’s murderous clown in the film “Joker” has stirred up serious concerns about violence this fall. And for many people, the role of a clown as supervillain bolsters a long-held conviction that double-faced clowns are evil.

But I’m here to offer a defense. As the mother of a child with special needs, clowns helped lighten the mood for my son and me in the hospital when we most needed a laugh.

Of course, I recognize not all clowns are there for the giggles.

I was 8 when I first saw Stephen King’s “It” and was wholly unprepared for the creep-fest that would ruin clowns for me for the foreseeable future. It was cable television at 4 in the afternoon on a school day. I was pretty sure the clown was that guy I’d seen in the movie “Clue.” What could be more innocent? But the Tim Curry laughing in the sewers with razor-sharp teeth was not my Tim Curry. When Georgie lost his arm to Pennywise in the storm drain, I dropped my Pop-Tart and flipped channels, but it was too late. The damage was done.

It’s not as if clowns were totally innocuous to me before that. The media at large hadn’t done them any favors. Bozo and Ronald McDonald were pasty-faced enthusiasts who performed their shtick with evangelical fervor. And Krusty from “The Simpsons,” while hilarious with his burnt-out skepticism, wasn’t exactly the class-standard. As for those jokesters in “Dumbo,” anyone who bullies a baby elephant is no friend of mine.

It wasn’t until I was undergoing fertility treatments that clowns began to crawl back into my good graces. I was in research mode, reading anything and everything I could on the treatment process, because if I couldn’t control my procreation, I might as well study up on it. At one point, I stumbled upon a study regarding the effect of humor in reproduction rates after in vitro fertilization. When clowns came into the clinic, telling jokes and passing out fake flowers and generally distracting women from their frenetic worrying, it helped. More women had successful embryo implantations after a visit from the clowns.

It was a tiny study and a tiny chance, but I latched on to this notion of humor as medicine and clowns as therapy. The clinic where I had my own embryo transfer did not provide clowns for hire, go figure, but I settled for the next best thing — Steve Carell. If clowns tend to offer a slightly obnoxious, but benign form of entertainment, then I couldn’t think of anyone better than Michael Scott from “The Office.” I streamed several episodes on my phone before the transfer. The one with the dinner party I watched twice. And I got pregnant with my first son. I don’t know if it was the laughs that did it, but they certainly didn’t hurt.

I later read that patients in nursing homes also benefited from such humor, showing a decrease in symptoms of dementia over the 12 weeks the “elder-clowns” paid their visits. This makes sense. To lose yourself in humor is also to find yourself again — the part of you that recalls, on the most fundamental level, the joy of a joke.

I would revisit the clowns again in the year following the birth of my son, Charlie. He was a medically complex child and would need to undergo several surgeries in the first few years of his life. As a result, he clocked a lot of time in the hospital. And though the children’s hospital tends to be much cheerier than its adult counterpart, with sea animals on the floors and stars on the walls and murals of rain forests and jungles in the hallways, it can’t disguise the fact that your child is here because he or she is not well enough to be home. The environment takes its toll. I spent a great deal of time pacing those star-lined halls.

As we waited in pre-op in late 2012 for his first major surgery at 7 months old, a man in a clown suit and red nose skipped down the hallway with bubbles and toy cars. Batman and Ironman and a few others were there too, but my son cared nothing for capes or masks or superheroes doing karate. He wanted those bubbles. He wanted to honk that nose. He didn’t need an avenger, just someone to make him smile.

And for a few minutes before the most terrifying medical procedure of his life, I held him in my lap and helped him wave at the clown. When he grinned and laughed, I forgot for a moment what was ahead. Visits from clowns have been known to lower anxiety in kids before surgery. But in this instance, the clown helped provide a welcome distraction for me, too, in those last minutes before I would have to let my baby go.

This distraction, it seems, is a major part of the clown appeal, which is why organizations such as Healthy Humor exist. Healthy Humor’s Red Nose Docs is a collective of artists, musicians and actors who visit children’s hospitals. They perform tricks, play music and act, well, like clowns. Their mission, to “alleviate the stress, fear, sadness and isolation of the hospital environment for young patients and their circle of caregivers,” is a much-needed one. My son needed healing. But both he and I also needed the relief of silliness.

The clown provided what the doctors could not. This also explains the success of Patch Adams, the doctor Robin Williams portrayed in the 1998 film by the same name. Dr. Hunter Adams, known as Patch, is a physician first, but also believes humor is the key to healing. He diagnoses patients and wears the red nose. And he still does to this day, running the Gesundheit! Institute in the mountains of West Virginia.

I’m never going to be able to erase Pennywise from my psyche (thank you Mr. King), and I was not first in line to buy a ticket to “Joker,” but I’ve come back around to the clowns — at least, the silly kind.

There’s an innocence to their gags — the flower that squirts water, the never-ending scarf, the honking nose. They don’t require anything from us but a chuckle. The simple joy of that is often underestimated. It’s free therapy.

Our culture values a certain level of cynicism in its humor, and I am the first to admit that I love a nice, dry wit. But sometimes you need a bumbling clown. You need to be entertained in a way that isn’t a social critique or parody. You need humor that is a distraction from life rather than an arrow back to it. And clowns, for better or worse, are always up for that kind of laugh.

Jamie Sumner is the author of the middle-grade novel “Roll With It.” She lives with her family in Nashville.