A Q&A with The Kalashnikov Clowns about the national clown paranoia

Oct 17, 2016 at 2:57 pm
photo by Tony Dixon Photography
photo by Tony Dixon Photography

With the recent clown sightings across the country and the paranoia that's followed it, we spoke to Kalashnikov Clowns founding member Steven Hughes about the public anger, and the idea of "killer clowns" being rooted into the American psyche.

LEO: You have spoken out against the mounting paranoia in the U.S. surrounding the ‘killer clown' sightings. The public has responded with a violent response to those dressed as clowns including reports of people shooting at clowns and angry mobs searching for clowns, as well as a stabbing death of a 16-year-old Pennsylvania boy in a clown mask. Why do you think the anger against clowns in public is so strong?

Steven Hughes: In my opinion, clowns inhabit a unique part of our cultural real estate, residing in the same neighborhood as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Superman, all sacred staples of childhood that tend to conflict with societal norms. Unfortunately, these days clowns are living on the wrong side of the tracks. Although modern clowning has it roots with Joseph Grimaldi in the Victorian era, clown-type characters have been noted as far back as ancient Egypt. Clowns appear in China 3,000 years ago, Medieval England and the even Native American tribes have trickster, clown-type characters. When you distill a clown down to its essence, a misfit, he/she never does anything right. Frustration and confusion make up the roots of this character, and that can go in a lot of different directions. Clowns have a central quality of being apart from humanity, like a cartoon character. There is an old clown saying: It’s funny when clowns get hurt. This is because of that separation, it may lie in the makeup, or the costume but that separation exists, is why clowns are both funny and scary.

Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of over 150 weapons including the AK-47, allowed himself to be a contradictory personality as well,  saying that his heartache was 'unbearable' knowing his weapons killed people, but also adding ‘I’m proud of my invention but ... I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — for example a lawn mower.’ So, perhaps there is room to embody two opposing theories at once. Your own troupe seems to push the 'dangerous' clown stereotype; the word Kalashnikov is synonymous with the Russian-made military assault rifle, and the clowns in your troupe drink and play Russian roulette; and one clown in your cast, Bubble-ishus, is described as a 'busty mash-up of Tammy Faye Baker and Vladimir Putin,’ two names that carry an air of darkness and deceit. Would you say that while you are speaking out against the backlash against clowns in America, you could also be continuing the theme of danger associated with clowns?

We chose the name Kalashnikov Clowns for two reasons: One, we wanted an easily identifiable name of Russian origin, and, two, because the project was creatively designed as a disruption to the cultural norms of Ronald McDonald and Bozo the clown. Creatively, the Kalashnikov clowns are designed to fall into the grey area, not absolute good, but in no way near psychotic. Our clowns are only a danger to each other. The elements of darkness and deceit exist but each clown is a complex fully-developed character with a past and present — they have hopes, dreams and agendas. Plus all violence winds up trickling down to my character, Simcha.

Serial killer and clown John Wayne Gacy, who killed over 30 people in the 1970s in the Chicago area,  as well as Stephen King's ‘It’ and the recent popularity of ‘American Horror Story: Freak Show ‘with John Carroll Lynch as Twisty the Clown, have helped reinforce America's paranoia of clowns. Would it be fair to say that ‘killer clowns' are now firmly rooted into the American psyche, therefore somewhat unavoidable in your profession? 

Killer clowns are deeply rooted in the American psyche. We Americans created them, and they are definitely a vibrant, colorful flavor of clown. They just do not a have a place in our troupe. When taken in context, as a performance piece or in a Halloween Parade, they have their place, but to limit an art form to that can be so broad because you do not like one flavor is wrong. It’s like saying: I hate all music because kazoos sound terrible. Clowns can be funny, scary, silly and even emotional. Clowns can even make you think. What we have found is that clowns have become out of touch. People do not know what clowns are anymore. We spend a lot of time explaining what clowns are to people, so we try to just get out there an set an example.

The Kalashnikov Clowns will be performing at the Cure Lounge to celebrate their first anniversary on Nov. 4.