Trolling Unplugged: Benjamin Radford on the Creepy Clown Craze

October 17, 2016

Halloween is almost here, and Target stores are pulling clown masks from their shelves. After the creepy clown craze made its way through Europe, the circus has finally arrived in the US with sightings in at least 40 states, 10 of which have now resulted in actual arrests. With more reports filed every day, the clown scare that’s taking the nation by storm shows no signs of breaking. Where are all these clowns coming from and why are these once-lovable jesters suddenly so terrifying?

Point of Inquiry welcomes writer, author and skeptic Benjamin Radford to discuss his new book, Bad Clowns. Radford’s research dives deep into the historical culture, pop culture, and counterculture of clowns in order to connect the dots to how we got here. Radford, deputy editor of the Center for Inquiry’s Skeptical Inquirer magazine, compares the clown phenomenon to the appeal some find in Internet trolling. Being a killer clown allows you to be seen without actually being seen; it’s the thrill of being a part of something big, a form performance art in which one’s identity is hidden from ridicule and consequence.

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Welcome to a point of inquiry and production of the Center for Inquiry, which aims to foster a secular society based on science, reason, skepticism, secular humanism. You can support the Center for Inquiry by going to the Center for Inquiry dot org slash membership. 

We would appreciate that. And you can follow the show at point of inquiry. Follow me at Josh Zepps. I didn’t even introduce myself. That’s who I am. If you are not a regular listener, Josh Zepps, you can find my other podcast Where The People Live, which is a witty political roundtable, especially relevant in these election times at WTOP. Underscore live today what is going on with clowns. There have been an increase in clown problems. I’m currently in Australia and even here the police in New South Wales, the most populous state, have been inundated with complaints about people being hounded and attacked by evil clown people. To figure out what’s going on. We’re gonna be joined by Ben Bradford, the deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a research fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is an actual paranormal investigator. From time to time, not the kind of paranormal Pandora that you sometimes see on ghostly TV shows. His new book is Bad Clowns, what he calls a mostly serious blend of academic scholarship, pop culture critique, folklore and urban legend, research, psychology and sociological analysis that had clowns. Ben, thanks for being on point of inquiry. 

Thanks for having me on, Josh. Good talk to you. 

What’s going on? Let’s just start with this latest spate of of, I don’t know, bad clowns across North America, Europe and Australia. What would what is this? 

What the hell is going on? Is it. It is bizarre. I have to tell you, it’s you know, I researched clown panics and scares before. 

This is this is certainly not the first time this has happened. In fact, you know, in my book, I talk about previous clown panics and clown scares, some of them dating back a couple years and in some cases decades to the 1980s. So there’s really nothing new about these sorts of clown panics, per say. I know that sounds odd, but what is new is the breadth of them. I’ve never seen a panic on this scale. It’s just it is astonishing. And, you know, as somebody who has researched this, it is it is surreal to watch this unfold in real time. 

But wait to call it a clown. Panic implies clown hand that it’s people who are getting an unreasonably panicked about the thrill about it and an unrealistic threat. I mean, it’s like, you know, which panic might be a you might call asylum, which rather which panic. This is, you know, just people spontaneously getting scared of clowns. This is people intentionally dressing up as clowns and doing aggressive things. 

It’s a mix of things, actually. 

That’s certainly part of it. Well, there’s a couple things going on. There’s not sort of one blanket explanation. There’s there’s a couple sort of moving interchangeable things that are going on here. First one is that, as you pointed out, there actually are real people, not just imaginary histories, real people dressing up in it as clowns and sometimes scaring people, chasing them, doing things like that. These are these are what in my book are called Stalker Clowns. And this has occurred for several years. Probably the most the most famous case was in October 2013. There was a guy in Northampton, England, who walked around his hometown of Northampton dressed as a clown. And he he had his his friend take photos of him and share them on social media. And in fact, they even set up a Facebook page for the clown. And this went viral, as you would expect it would. And there were soon copycats. And then there were there were other of these stalker clown sightings in Staten Island, for example, and also in California. And there was a whole series of them in France. So, again, we’re talking sort of copycats of copycats. And that’s part of what we’re seeing now, is that that’s one reason that you’re seeing them in New South Wales. Just a couple days ago, I was interviewed by a radio station in Sweden and there were recent reports in Stockholm. Of these things. And so a lot of this is driven by the social media and news media. People see these these creepy clown videos and photos and they go viral, of course. And some people, not many, but some like, hey, I could do that. And I, I have a mask on the back. So. So that’s part of what’s going on is the prevalence of social media and sort of what’s called social contagion. These ideas get out there. And part of it is what what folklorists call Ascencion. And ostentation is basically the acting out of a legend or what some people may call like legend tripping. And what happens is that people see these sorts of weird stories in then in the median being reported in the news. And they want to sort of participate in that. They want to they want to play a role in the sort of unfolding narrative. And one way that people do that is, is by dressing as a clown, scaring people. But the important thing to remember about these stalker clowns is that they’re not actually trying to seriously injury anybody. I mean, they’re not trying to abduct children. They’re not trying to kill people. They’re not trying to do great bodily injury. They’re basically their whole purpose is to scare people and to B.C. It’s performance art. They want an audience. They want to be seen and have people freak out about it. 

I mean, that’s I guess there’s a big spectrum, right? 

Because I have been researching this a bit. And I know that in parts of Australia, for example, last week, as of the time of this recording, a 23 year old guy was actually charged in Australia for going up to a woman in a car with an ax and in a clown costume at three thirty in the morning at a fast food outlet on a freeway. 

So, yes, you know, this is this is bordering into the territory of of sort of hooliganism that gets to the point of genuine physical intimidation, even if it doesn’t result in violence. 

Absolutely. And you know that that’s certainly true. And there’s been by last count, last time I checked, there’s been about a dozen people here in the states and elsewhere who’ve been arrested for doing things like that, for menacing, for loitering. I mean, part of the problem is that the police departments across the country and elsewhere are struggling to do to deal with this, because, of course, in many places it’s not illegal dressed as a clown. 

You know, you can do that for Halloween. That would certainly be that’d be a problem for professional clowns if we would say you’re not allowed to dress as a clown. Right. 

So which is why police departments are having sort of dig deeper into their into their to their laws to find things they can charge them for. So menacing or loitering or intimidation, things like that. But again, you know, it’s important to distinguish between, you know, the idea that there are groups of people who dress as clowns who intend to seriously injure or kill or murder somebody or abduct them. And the answer is that that does not exist. There there have there there are no reports of that. If the question is, however, out of keep in mind, we’re talking about dozens and dozens of copycats all over the place in different cities, different countries, and out of so many copycat, inevitably, somebody is going to get punched. Somebody is going to get, you know, maybe stabbed or something. I mean, there’s you can’t have that many copycats, especially, you know, scary, especially in the context of scaring people and not have somebody injured. So it’s important to sort of not conflate. Yes, there was an injury, but that’s not necessarily because people are dressing as clowns to to to harm people. But even here in Albuquerque, I mean, where I live just a couple of days ago, there were reports of two teenagers. There were dressing as clowns and running into the road at night to scare people. And, you know, you keep that up, you’re going to get hit. And so, you know, it’s it is is certainly possible that people are going to be injured. In fact, here in the states, in Greenville, which is where Greenville, South Carolina, where which is where it actually began about six weeks or seven weeks ago. There were reports that I read the I read a police report. He was talking about how people in this building were behind which there were woods. The childhood rumor was that there were evil clowns living in the woods. Some people actually fired weapons and guns into the woods at night where they thought the clowns were. And I mean, thankfully, no one was was hurt or injured. But, you know, in this sort of situation, there can be injuries. And so, you know, I’m I’m far more concerned about the public’s overreaction to these rumors and stories than I am about, you know, somebody dressing as a clown to stab somebody. 

Yeah, I mean, I did see that at Penn State, hundreds of students had formed a mob to chase down clowns who had been scaring people on campus. And there’s a professional clown known as Snuggles, whose real name is Jordan Jones, who started a hashtag movement. Hashtag clown lives matter to try to create a positive review. 

And I’m reading that the that the East Coast ambassador for Clowns Canada, a guy named Milo T Clown, you know, says, you know, these people are not clowns, these DiGRA serious clowns. But that Maiolo t clown is his name is Michael Bullshit. This is according to the press. We all know the press never lies. 

But, I mean, the I think it’s a good point that you raise about the backlash being worse than the disease, because in a sense, this is a kind of a problem of of profiling. Right. I mean, it is it’s not totally crazy to to draw some kind of analog, perhaps to Black Lives Matter. Autumn Muslim profiling and so on. It makes it very difficult for people to actually engage as clowns. If if there’s this this reputation. But take us back to the history of clowns and their fractious relationship with evil. Because, I mean, that’s something. Errantly like this is the this is the stigmatized group for which I have the least possible sympathy out of Muslims, African-Americans and clowns. 

I’m going to the closet the very bottom of my potential list, because they freak me out even when they’re good. How have they generally been perceived? 

Your empathy has no bounds here. Here’s the thing. 

So it was interesting when I was researching my book, I had one of my goals in writing the book and researching it was trying to figure out. Well, we’ll. When did clowns go bad? Because, you know, we there’s all these scary evil clowns in pop culture. There’s course that the DC Comics villain, The Joker, there’s Penny Wise, the Clown from Stephen King’s novel and later TV mini series says, Yo, Krusty the Clown and Homey the Clown, all these all these nefarious evil clowns. And yet, you know, when I was growing up, I mean, there was Bozo the Clown. And of course, Bozo has been around for four decades before that. But the default clown was the happy clown. And so it was it was odd to me to trying to what happened? What the hell happened. So when I was researching the history of clowns and specifically the dark side of clowns, because, of course, you know, clowning itself is a respectable occupation, despite what some people say, there has a long and storied history. And, you know, I there’s, of course, many, many books on the history of clowns. But I wasn’t really so much interested in that. I was interested in sort of picking up the threads, the sort of sinister elements that run through the clown character. And so what I discovered was that it’s a mistake to ask when clowns went bad because clowns were never really good. Clowns have always been very ambiguous characters. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad. Sometimes they’re making fun of themselves, making you laugh. Sometimes you’re making fun of you and making other people laugh. And so if you trace back the history of the clown, I do that in the first couple of chapters in my book, you find that the clown, again, has always been has always been ambiguous. And sometimes they’re doing good numbers, doing bad. The clown has always been a very selfish figure, which is odd because of course we think of clowns giving. But the clown character is an archetype has always been a trickster figure. And as is, by the way, Satan, the devil is also trickster figure. And so as a as a powerful entity that sort of separate from us and yet has these new quasi supernatural powers, obviously we know that Real-Life clowns, you know, there are humans underneath that makeup and and all that. So we we all know on a rational level, of course, we know that they’re not supernatural, but clowns definitely have an element of the mystical or the supernatural about them. Right. They they do magic tricks for 15 years that our friends can can pop out of a car. They have flowers that squirt water. They they’re they’re sort of pseudo quasi mystical aspects of the clown. And so, you know, when you look at the early versions, the clown, for example, the the court gestures or the Harlequin figure from the comedian Artie, that the traveling theaters, you find that, you know, they were always ambiguous characters and they would make other people laugh and they would. There was no going attack you. And another early clown that really personifies this is Mr. Punch of the Punch. And Judy shows which you’re probably more familiar to British audiences and former colonies than here in the States. 

Not that we’re not a former colony, but you and you guys did away with the ad with the mother country in a way that we did. So we Delany’s haven’t quite gotten around to yet. 

Yeah, well, you’ve been working on it. You’re working hard. But yeah, I mean that the the Miss the Punch and Judy show has been beloved in England for 300 years and it features a a sadistic wife beating Infanta Sidel clown named Mr Ponche, who’s got a hook, nose and Redcap and he’s of course, a puppet. And the whole Punch and Judy story is beloved by children and adults alike. But at the same time, he’s you know, he’s this uses horrific, humorous blend of good and evil. And that’s that’s one of things that makes these these evil clowns such a compelling character, is that there’s that internal tension. You know, what are they? I mean, what’s what’s a good clown story? Right. A clown goes to a party, does some tricks, makes a balloon animal goes. 

So what’s a bad clown story? Right. Clown gets drunk steps of nuns, you know, starts a fire and goes on. 

Which one do you one read about? 

Well, I mean, what was so I’ll just unpack the genesis of clowns, because there are a couple of things going on here, right? There’s the mystical side of things. But I just want to qualify or rather clarify is was there ever a time, a place where clowns were built wearing the same sort of category as Father Christmas and was something that peoples that people somewhat believed in at certain ages of their life? Or have they always been? Has it always been understood, even by kids, that these are essentially people putting on a show? 

That’s that’s actually a good question. I think that from my research, it’s always been more of an archetype. I mean, it’s always been a clown, a an authority figure. A young lover. I mean, it’s always been sort of one of those one of those essential archetypes. And of course, these archetypes like roles in the play. They are performance. And anybody can, in theory, play a clown or any of the other ones. So it’s much more of a role than a person. You know, Father Christmas is more is both a role and a person, but it’s very it’s very, very personified, of course. Yes. We know exactly what would Kringle looks like. And of course, there’s much more variations of the clown. But I think that essentially, again, what we find is that the we we engage with clowns not as sort of an overarching archetype, but instead with specific clowns. So people love scary clowns, but specific scary Konza. It’s people don’t really discuss evil clowns. Overall, there’s it’s Krusty. It’s Pennywise, it’s it’s John Wayne Gacy. It’s some some version of the evil clown that really latches on it and is meaningful to them. 

That’s interesting. So is there something I guess I’ve always thought that the reason why there’s a correlation. Why clowns can be considered scary and why there’s a correlation between clowns. And I guess evil is because of their unremitting goodness and positivity and kind of plastered on mask of happiness. Right. There’s something there’s something slightly unnerving about. I find this also I don’t condescend to very religious people, but, hey, this is a secular show, so let’s do it. You know, I’ve been I’ve traveled through Egypt and met fundamentalist Muslims at the Al Aqsa mosque and the kind of beatific, beaming, happy, kind of clueless visage that you have on your face when you’re absolutely convinced of your own righteousness. Is it unsettles me in exactly the same way. Like, I think we like humans to be complex and we like humans to be insecure and we like humans to be nuanced. And the moment we encounter something that is almost hysterically positive, you know, it’s like the it’s like the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door. There’s just something not quite right. 

Yeah, I think there’s something to that. 

The clown character, I mean, cute course. Keep in mind that not all clowns have painted on smiles. Many of them do, but. But not all of them do. And so and and furthermore, not all clowns wear makeup. I mean, many European clowns, for example, where. No, where. No makeup at all. So there’s lots of variation within the clown archetype. So, you know, what has happened is that even though there is this original, again, sort of ambiguous sometimes goods, bars of dualistic Janosz faced figure of the clown, the kind that is most familiar to us certainly here in the West and in America, is again that the happy, smiling, you know, Bozo the Clown, Ronald McDonald type clown. And so that has sort of become the default clown we recognize. So when we see these clearly evil clowns, such as the ones that, you know, Stephen King wrote in Pennywise and other ones, there is this notion that they’re somehow turning the good clown on its head in some way as they are. But in fact, what they’re really doing, whether they realize or not, is sort of harkening back to the earlier version of the clown, which were more sort which had more of a sort of dual sinister side to them anyway. And so it’s actually when I was looking at the history clown, I mean, one of the one of the early contributors to this notion of the duality of the clown character, like happy and sad and scary and funny and threatening and endearing is Charles Dickens, Charles Dickens. He wrote a book called The Pickwick Papers in 1836, I believe. And Dickens had one of the characters is now called a clown and a very Dickensian character, of course. And the the clown was, you know, would when the lights are on, go out there and put on a makeup and make people laugh and bring joy to people’s lives. But when the lights go down, when the clown goes home, he’s depressed, he’s infirm and is struggling with personal demons. And that actually in Dickens got that idea actually from a Real-Life clown named Joseph Grimaldi, who was a very famous British clown of that era. And he was a Real-Life well-known clown at the time. And he also, like Dickens Dickens’s clown, had this dual side to them. So Grimaldi was a tragic figure in many ways. He was well-known. He was reasonably wealthy, but he was also he had injuries from years of pratfalls on stage and he had a sort of tragic life. I think his his wife had died. So, again, this is part of where we get this notion of we see a clown doing something, performing somewhere, and we is clearly one sided representation. I would there’s they’re putting on a very specific, literal and figurative face. And we know the behind that mask is something else. And we may be afraid to know what is what’s behind the mask. Every wiped off the makeup. 

You mentioned some European clowns not using makeup at all. And I mean, I think that’s interesting. It doesn’t tie specifically into. Bad clowning, but that the clown metaphore or the clown archetype has become a way in, you know, in the best circuses and in the best incarnations, most talented incarnations of clowning, not the not the nine year old’s birthday party version, but the sort of more grown up version of really just expressing incredible physical theatricality, you know, telling quite subtle and beautiful stories. You know, you can you imagine the sort of the the most modern French style cloning’s. And it’s it’s incredible feats of either acrobatics or really, really nuanced, subtle, misanthropic tales. 

Do you have any thoughts about what kind of part of the overall mosaic of clowning that that piece of the jigsaw fits into? 

Well, I think you’re right about that. I mean, terms of, you know, the different versions of the clown. And what people are familiar with. 

I’m obviously, you know, when we obviously Stephen King was not playing off, you know, the right of French existentialist French clown like, you know, my life shit. Exactly. I wipe off the makeup and I eat it because that’s what my soul is like. I mean, that’s not where he’s going with this. 

I mean, so it’s it’s his you know, the clowns that this soru are most prominent, certainly in pop culture here in America are you know, they’re the garish ones right there. The the in your face, not existentialists, but just, you know, the the scary clowns or the the the sharp teeth. And, you know, quasi magical powers and God knows what else. So, you know, I think that that’s part of it. What’s interesting to me is when I was was looking at all the different variations of the clown character, and I I hadn’t expected that when I began writing the book, you know, I could think of a handful of clowns off of my head, of course, but I was fascinated by his release or dig in and tease out the different threads of the clown’s character and their their lack of accountability. You know, clowns, for example, they the appearance, certain socially proscribed roles. And so they can they can act in ways that would be unacceptable for anyone else to do who wasn’t in that context. In some cases in that clown costume. So clowns have this really interesting, nuanced role in society is as a truth teller, as a trickster figure, as a as a as a sort of release for anxieties and also, of course, as a generator anxieties. There’s just so many interesting nuances to it. And that’s that’s part of what drew me to the book. 

It’s interesting that you say that, that they are both the cause of and the solution to anxieties that they have this kind of weird dual role. You know, we all know about court jesters, you know, hundreds of years ago who were the only people who could criticize a king. And at a time when criticizing the king would get your head chopped off. The jester could do it. Exactly. And, you know, nowadays, you might say, oh, Jon Stewart, he’s a clown. You know, he speaks truth to power or whatever in the best sense of the word or he did before he retired. How does that is that is that a contradiction or am I thinking about it the wrong way? Or is is clowning just capacious enough to be able to satisfy anything that you happen to want it to be? 

No, I think I think you’re exactly right. You know, the again, going back when you look at it from a folkloric and mythological point of view, that’s exactly what what we see in in the figure. You know, Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He has a great quote that actually begins my book All. It’s just two sentences all read. It says. Universal was the casting of the antagonist, the representative evil, in the role of the clown devils, both the lusty thick heads and the sharp, clever deceivers are always clowns. And he’s exactly right. You know, you have because the clown is a trickster figure and the trickster figure is inherently a versatile one. That is so, you know. And that is part of the reason that the clowns and in particular are evil clowns, oddly enough, are so widely beloved. And I know it sounds weird to call them beloved, but they are we love seeing the we love seeing Heath Ledger as the Joker. He is he’s the quintessential Batman villain. We love Krusty the Clown. He’s one of the best characters on The Simpsons. We love we love these evil, scary clowns. And some people even love creepy, real life killers like John Wayne Gacy. Not a not admiring them, which is in terms of, you know, there’s a whole fascination with serial killers. And so part of the reason is that the clown is is a very versatile figure as a trickster figure. It can be it can symbolize rebellion. It can symbolize deceit. It can symbolize the clown. Can be mischievousness. The clown could be wisdom. So whatever angle you want to take on it, that will work for the clown figure. So it’s. It is very versatile within the trickster figure mythology itself. 

It’s interesting that you mentioned the Joker and Heath Ledger, because I’ve felt quite I’m a big film buff and I’ve thought a lot about the difference between the original joker in the Michael Keaton vision of Batman, as played by Jack Nicholson and the Joker played by Heath Ledger. 

And I wonder whether or not the difference between those two. So the former is is sort of a conventional sort of James Bond villain style person who wants to have lots of gadgets and toys and wants to dominate the world in but in a in a kind of sane, orderly way that makes its own internal sense. Whereas the Heath Ledger joker is someone who is basically a terrorist, who just wants to say the whole thing and doesn’t really care how he achieves it and has it sort of represents chaos. 

And I wonder whether or not that piece of clowning is what we’re seeing ascendent in the latest kind of clown scare. It’s almost like I mean, when people are just running around spooking people in clown costumes, they’re not they’re not really honoring any part of clowning. 

Other than the chaos part of clowning. Right. Do you think that’s something that’s that’s at the fore at the moment in our thinking about clowns? 

That’s actually really insightful thought. I’ve been interviewed by 30 or 40 people on the subject of the last couple weeks, and that’s probably one of the better questions. 

I’m also an inquiry. We don’t want an inquiry. You got to hear folks. No, I think that there’s something to that. 

You know, when you look at the when you look at the figure and you know where they go with it, you know, they’re clearly the clown that we’re seeing is the more chaotic one. Right. Again, we’re not we’re not seeing the the Jack Nicholson version of the Joker that’s being replicated. 

That’s right. And we’re not seeing people being people walking along the street being squirted by squirted with water out of clowns who have red. 

Right, who have roses. You know, they’re not creating mischief in convinced in ways other than slightly. Yeah. Chaotic. Sort of scary. Yeah. And the whole thing down sort of ways. 

Yeah. I think there is some truth to that. 

But I mean the other thing to keep in mind is that almost all of these are copycats. And what are they copycatting. They’re copycatting somebody else who put on a clown costume. Maybe it was Pennywise, maybe some other clown or just you take your pick. There’s lots of countless creepy clown costumes. And what they’re getting out of it is a couple of things. They’re getting they’re getting attention. They’re getting it because clowns are performers, even even bad clowns. 

Even these these prankster clowns ride these these people are not going in their backyard at two o’clock in the morning, just, you know, with no one around, they there. Their goal is to get attention. Their goal is to get a reaction. Their goal is to is to mix things up. And so I think that sort of chaotic elements of the clown figures is definitely coming through. And actually, I you know, in last chapter of my book, I, I make the argument that Internet trolls are a modern version of the evil clown because they sort of they have many of the same same characteristics, you know, the desire to to cause stress and to to troll people and to be chaotic and to tell people, you know, don’t be so serious. Right. Why so serious? In fact, one of the icons of Internet trolls is Heath Ledger’s joker. And the idea is that people are you know, people online are taking things too seriously. And it’s all just a big joke, you know? Don’t don’t don’t get mad if we make fun of you in racist, sexist, horrible ways. So, I mean, that that part of it comes through. But I think, you know, in terms of the copycats, I don’t think that when somebody puts on a clown mask because they were inspired by a viral TV clip or, you know, a photograph. I don’t think they’re sort of thinking through the. I don’t think they should. No, but I. But I think that I think that is that’s part of the that’s part of the tradition they’re drawing from. 

Yeah. Well, I mean, how much of what we do do we actually analyze versus just sort of absorb from air, from ambient from our culture. It’s interesting that you mentioned trolls. Yeah, that’s a really, really interesting point in the final chapter, because the like think of, for example, the most notorious at the moment of the ultraright pranksters, Malave Anapolis, who was the second person ever to be banned from Twitter for the trolling that he and his followers date of Leslie Jones, the start of the Ghostbusters movie. 

He is a flamboyantly gay British brought BART reporter who stages stunts such as going to the most Muslim neighborhood in European cities and being carried down the street on a throne by shirtless men who are kissing each other in order to rob his homosexuality in the face of homophobic and presumably misogynistic conservative Muslim communities as a statement of liberal values against immigration and so on. He’s a Trump a Trump guy. That’s a very bizarre, clownish kind of thing. And I hadn’t really made the link yet between that and the archetype of the clown. But the evil the bad clown, I think, is finding self-expression quite a lot on on the ultra right these days in the in that in that way. Yeah. 

Yeah. It rings true. I, I would totally agree with you. 

I think that’s exactly right. In fact, one of the one of the chapters in my book I think is Chapter 10 is basically about activist clown. 

Yeah. I wanted to ask you about that as well and specifically about. Yeah. You mentioned, you know, this meme of Obama as the as the Joker, as the Heath Ledger joker. Can you just unpack that for us a little bit? 

Yeah, that’s that’s actually one of the one of the sort of surprising nuggets that I came across in researching the book. I honestly hadn’t I hadn’t heard about when when it occurred. And I was just sort of just bizarre. But what you found was that in 2009, there was a mysterious poster that emerged I think was a London freeways, if not if I’m not mistaken. 

And it was a photo of Obama or image of Obama that was had been what’s called joke arised and not not just joke arised in that it had, you know, face paint applied to it, but specifically the Heath Ledger joker, which is, of course, probably the best known of the film versions of the Joker, the DC villain, and including the sort of the wide mouth, the the dark, dark, sullen eyes. And it was just bizarre. No one knew what to make of it. It just appeared in the poster and sort of street art that you might see from, for example, Banksy or Shepard Fairey or someone like that and immediately caused an uproar. And these posters emerged in Los Angeles and elsewhere and people didn’t know what to make of it. Conservatives and Democrats like Poke’s and Democrats alike were up in arms and they didn’t know was this a racist image? And it certainly had elements that and it was just just this coopting of the Joker image as Obama as the Joker. And underneath it was the word socialism. And it was this sort of provocative, ambiguous street art, something that no one could really, really quite figure out. And eventually they tracked it down, figured out where this has come from. It turned out that it was a it was a university senior who as as a just as a personal project to test his Photoshop skills, had joke arised Obama. And he’s not the only one. In fact, many people had joke raised kittens. And, you know, Marilyn Monroe and you you name it, it was that was sort of a fun fad at the time. And it just so happened that this person had had used Obama’s image. And it just it just it just went viral. Then, of course, you know, as it turned out, what happened was that somebody unknown to the creator and it wasn’t intended to be a political statement. It was not I mean, it was not intended to be anti-Obama or pro Obama. It was just something that someone done and somebody had taken that image that he had created and added the word socialism to it and made a meme out of it. And then it began appearing as propaganda, ambiguous propaganda, as propaganda in Los Angeles and elsewhere. And so that was one of the interesting threads that I that I picked up in talking about the activist clowns that want to get beyond just, you know, Ron McDonald haters and and, you know, these other creepy clowns to sort of look at the ways that people have co-opted the clown figure to serve a. Her social agenda, and I think you’re exactly right. I mean, that’s really I think it’s insightful to sort of see the parallels with with Milo and the other the other actions which are clearly clown, like Ben Radford’s book is called Bad Clowns. 

You can follow Ben at Beatty. Redford. Is that correct? 

That’s me. Ben. Thanks for being on point of inquiry. Great story. Thanks for having me. It’s been fun. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.