Edward Knight Knows, Is There REALLY a Clown Shortage Coming to America?

Edward Knight Knows, Is There REALLY a Clown Shortage Coming to America


Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is coming to town. Soon the area around the Barclays Center in Brooklyn will be filled with elephants on their daily constitutional, school children grateful for a day away from the Three Rs and animal rights activists protesting. But for how much longer can such idyllic times persist when the papers and blogs are telling us there is a coming shortage of clowns. If you buy the official party line, young people just aren’t stepping into the hugely oversize shoes of the retiring clown population. If this keeps up, America will run out of clowns. Well, America, relax, because I can show you, the coming clown shortage is merely hype.

The clown scare (not to be confused with coulrophobia, the fear of clowns) started with a piece in New York’s Daily News. In an exclusive, Natalie Musumeci got the party line from Clowns of America International President Glen Kohlberger: “What’s happening is attrition. The older clowns are passing away.” Mr. Kohlberger blames the youth of America. “What happens is they go on to high school and college and clowning isn’t cool anymore. Clowning is then put on the back burner until their late 40s and early 50s.”


And there is some truth to this. I looked through the class catalogs of all the Ivy League colleges and the entire University of California system. I don’t mind telling you I was stunned to find that there is not a single institute of higher learning in that sample that offers even a certificate in Clown Studies, let alone a graduate program.

As it turns out, Ringling Bros. runs its own training program — creatively called Clown College (and I am so glad they chose not to spell it with a “k” — that would lack dignity). Last year they had 531 applicants for their two-week course. Fourteen got a place. I don’t think either of the colleges I attended were that exclusive. Moreover, three of those students didn’t get job offers with Ringling Bros.

As a student of economics, I immediately thought that there just wasn’t any money in clowning outside the clear plum positions at the circus. Yet that same Daily News story cited Cyrus Zavieh, the president of New York Clown Alley (which has 45 members, or so they claim), as saying a clown can earn $300 for a single birthday party. I know lawyers who don’t bill $300 an hour. No, it isn’t the money.

Instead, I have concluded that there is some horrible flaw in American culture that makes kids want to be accountants rather than clowns.


I checked the situation over in Britain, and our cousins don’t seem to have that problem. Bluebottle, the secretary of the U.K.’s clowning organization Clowns International and who is also known as Tony Eldridge, told The Independent, “There’s no crisis here. The figures are fairly static. There’s never been that many clowns in Great Britain. We’ve always had around 250 to 300 members.”

The stability of the figures is encouraging; however, I must quibble with the figures. There are over 600 members of the House of Commons and the clowns represent a working majority. Throw in the programmers at the BBC and the people who call “trainspotting” their hobby, and you easily hit 1,000.

Indeed, I think the industry figures are low all around. The World Clown Association, the umbrella group for all the clown organizations, had its membership at around 3,500 in 2004 and just 2,500 today. Surely the legal profession around the world has 100,000 or so members who qualify as clowns as well as lawyers.

And that’s how globalization fits in. America doesn’t need to make clowns anymore when it can simply import them. I’ve seen the Moscow Circus, and say what you like about the Russians; they make a damn fine clown. Just as baseball found a new market and a bigger talent pool by looking to Latin America, so too can clowning by finding payasos in Mexico, Colombia and Costa Rica and letting them have a shot at the big leagues. Surely with populations of more than a billion, China and India have a surplus of clowns. We may have to get used to vodka or tea down the pants instead of seltzer, and maybe the pie in the face won’t be America apple pie but some kind of torte, but we must change with the times.

In loving memory of Chuckles the Clown: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

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