Bill Irwin is friendly, funny, and, at 65, surreally boyish. He’s the sort of guy you could take home to Mom, and the next thing you know, she’d be saying, “Why can’t you be more like Bill?”
And yet, he is loathed, despised, and feared.
Bill Irwin is a clown.
He is also an actor, a writer, musician, MacArthur genius award winner, father, husband, baseball fan, and even a regular on Sesame Street. But put all of those qualities in the balance, and those who hate him would tell you it’s not enough.
Absolutely nothing outweighs the clown thing.
The funny thing is, Irwin agrees: “I hate clowns, too. I know a lot of ’em personally, and there’s very good reason to hate ’em,” he says, sitting in his dressing room at New York’s Signature Theater where he’s approaching the end of a successful run of Old Hats, the brilliant revue—a master class in clowning, really—that he stars in with fellow (and equally peerless) clown David Shiner and the (also funny) singer /songwriter Shaina Taub and her band.
OK, he’s kidding. Mostly. “It’s a real phenomenon: yeah, coulrophobia: the fear of clowns. I’ve been thinking about creating a piece under that name. It’s a made-up word, my computer underlines it in red: ‘That’s not a word.’ But it is, or at least it’s a real thing to some people.”
His coulrophobia sketch is still in the note-taking stage, but after our interview he sent me some of what he’s written for it so far:
“The disagreement among lexicographers and etymologists as to the derivation, the history—indeed, the existence—of this term is confounding … Yet the NEED for such a terms, the need for coulrophobia’s place in our lexicon, is undeniable. The phobia—the aversion—to clowns so clearly, so undeniably, so markedly exists in our culture.
“To wit: the astonishing frequency with which speakers at large will, in conversation, choose to describe the virulence of a childhood fear—and subsequent—of clowns (and its genesis and development) AND will further assert the perfect justice of this fear—and its attendant loathing—and the degree to which such has marred childhood…
“And there will further, with this recounting, often be implied, if not declared outright, a case for retribution—a call for repayment of anguish—with, equally often, the inescapable implication that any practitioner of the clown’s craft should be held culpable. Now. This moment. Held responsible for that moment some years or decades past in which ‘a clown’ placed ‘a hat’ over the head of the speaker—or somehow otherwise totally ‘creeped’ him or her ‘out.’”
At least part of this is drawn from personal experience. “We used to have a photo of me in full clown makeup taken when my son was 5,” Irwin said that day in his dressing room. “And when he was 17 or 18, he said, ‘Yeah, that thing used to scare me. I hated that photo.’ So it is scary, clowning is scary to people.”
Federico Fellini concurs at the beginning of his documentary The Clowns, which opens with a small boy watching a circus tent go up in his hometown and who later attends a performance. His mother takes him home weeping while we hear Fellini on the soundtrack: “The clowns didn’t make me laugh. No, they frightened me. Those chalky faces, those enigmatic expressions … Those twisted, drunken masks … The shouts, the crazy laughter, the absurd, atrocious jokes … they reminded me of other strange and troubled characters who roam around every country village.”
And yet, Fellini came to love clowns enough to make a whole movie about them and their disruptive, subversive shtick. If he was scarred as a child, he certainly got over it.
Nowadays, of course, it’s almost chic to loathe those greasepainted buffoons. As Benjamin Radford says in his new book, Bad Clowns, “fear of clowns seems to come up almost as often as discussions of clowns themselves.” Ironically, Radford himself doesn’t put much stock in coulrophobia, noting that studies have shown, for example, that most children do not fear clowns and also pointing out that after several generations of Stephen King evil clowns, John Wayne Gacy, every election cycle’s GOP clown car, and all those killer clowns from outer space and elsewhere, “There is nothing at all odd, pathological, or unreasonable about fearing a clown chasing you with a gun or a meat cleaver.”
For his part, Irwin cheerfully embraces the term (except on his tax form, where he enters “actor/writer” under Occupation—why try the patience of the IRS?). “Shiner and I, we use the word clowns,” he says. “Sometimes people use words of opprobrium, but they use them willfully to sort of comment on the opprobrium. So we call ourselves clowns because of the, um, cultural disdain for them. We’re making fun of it even as we’re embracing the heritage.”
That hasn’t stopped those critics and fans who are uneasy about the C word from substituting other appellations. Irwin and Shiner have also been called performance artists and new vaudevillians, among other things (but not, mercifully, mimes). Irwin’s learned to live with that.
“We’re forever encountering these labels. I used to be called a post-modern clown. But now post-modernism is a quaint notion, too.”
Before we go any further, it’s necessary to explain to the reader what he or she is missing: Irwin in motion.
To talk with him is to watch a man who doesn’t know how to be still. He’s got a face like rubber and a torso and limbs to match, and when he talks, he moves, he illustrates, he counterpoints words with hand gestures, raised eyebrows, a drawn-down mouth. It’s almost like two people talking at once, or watching two translators translate each other. Or maybe this is just what it’s like to talk with a born clown.
“What I love is the comedy of the body,” Irwin says. “It’s a little highfalutin’, but you can even say pre-verbal comedy. People laugh differently at stuff that isn’t brought to them via the spoken word. It’s from a different place, it’s a different quality of laughter. And the craft is different in that, if you’re doing comic dialogue, you have to get the line in and wait for the laughter to die, assuming there is any, and then fit the next line in and wait for it to register. But with comedy of the body, when it’s working right—that’s a wonderful place you work toward, you don’t always get there—laughter comes without the last laugh having died. But that’s only a superficial difference. I really think it’s a different kind of release, watching the body being the subject of comedy.”
Paradoxically, even though he made his reputation with clowning, starting out with the innovative Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco in the ’70s and then creating the stunning Regard of Flight on Broadway in the ’80s, most people probably recognize him as an actor—on film (Rachel’s Getting Married), or television (The Good Wife, Sleepy Hollow, Third Rock From the Sun [as a dog]), or Broadway (George in the ballyhooed revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).
He’s an excellent actor. But once you’ve watched him clown on stage, it is as a clown that you will always remember him. In Old Hats, he’s created routines for himself that could only be done today (a businessman at war with his iPad). But there are other moments where he and Shiner dig so deeply into clowning’s bag of tricks that you realize that you are seeing something positively ancient brought to hilarious life in the here and now.
At the beginning of the show, for instance, they engage in a combative display with two top hats, each outdoing the other by tossing, rolling, retrieving, spinning their hats—almost everything you can do with a hat besides just putting it on your head—but even as they’re cracking you up, you realize that you’re watching a routine that in its essence is probably as old as, well, hats themselves.
Irwin himself makes a sharp distinction between acting and clowning: “I love to think it’s the same craft, but like in different sports—football, baseball—it’s different muscles, different ways of thinking. There’s pure athleticism, but as you pursue it down different game paths, you become a very different kind of athlete, your imperatives are different. Acting is all about relating to the people on stage with you, even in plays that break the fourth wall. Clowning for the most part is the opposite. If somebody in the audience sneezes, I can count on it, I don’t even have to look at Shiner, he’ll have his handkerchief out. It’s all about all of us in the room together.”
Irwin is preparing a one-man show blending the prose and the stage work of Samuel Beckett, another man who clearly understood and respected the subversiveness and pathos of clowns. I saw a workshop version several months ago in San Francisco, and over the course of a performance that lasted less than an hour and half, I saw Irwin transform himself not once but several times, from a man talking about his love of Beckett to a performer inhabiting Beckett’s characters and finally to a clown outright. The last transformation was the most magical, because it involved a series of ever smaller and more ridiculous hats and ever bigger and baggier pants and shoes so huge that they almost dared you not to laugh. Irwin wasn’t changing costume so much as he was climbing into ever bigger costumes without shedding the last set and in the process climbing into a realm where no mere clown could go, nor any mere actor. In front of our eyes, he was turning himself into a fool, but a profound fool—funny, of course, but heartbreaking, too, and yes, more than a little scary.
It is perfectly possible, of course, to read Beckett and miss the humor, because there are few if any gag lines in his scripts. You have to see them performed to understand how funny they can be. But that raises another question: How does any comedian know something is going to be funny until it’s tried out on an audience?
Irwin says it’s a matter of faith: “You can so often be wrong, and you don’t really know until you get in front of people, but often you have the sense that if you do this and this and this, the laugh is here. It’s a faith, and an idea, and that’s part of the joy when a big laugh comes. Mike Nichols used to say that getting a laugh is not just ego gratification (although it is), it’s that the idea I had, yes, they agree!”
Yes, we’re all in the room together. Send in the clowns.