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Wednesday, May 20, 2015


I consider it to be one of my principal functions as a blogger to educate young readers and overseas readers about American politics.  Today, I will explain the meaning of "clown car" for those who fund the term somewhat puzzling.  

Way back on my youth, long before there was a Cirque du Soleil, circuses toured the country by train, setting up their tents in an empty field and offering the folks in rural and small town America a glimpse of spangles and tights and high wire acts and certified wild animals.  There were a number of small tents for side shows, girly shows, houses of mirrors and really scary horror shows, but the main acts were displayed in the big tent.  In the middle of the tent was a wooden ring, inside which the performers would strut their stuff.  Barnum and Bailey's circus was so packed with acts that their big tent featured three rings, with acts going on in all three simultaneously, making it a real challenge for the spectators to decide where to look.  Hence the phrase "three ring circus."

Every circus had a complement of clowns -- men and women dressed up in funny costumes with big floppy shoes, red fright wigs, and padded bellies, who would warm up the crowd by clowning around [as the phrase came to be used].  One of their popular shticks was to hit one another with sticks that made a loud splat when used -- hence the term slapstick for that sort of humor.  There were even a very few clowns -- Emmett Kelly was the most famous -- who were so popular that they became featured acts.  Whenever disaster struck -- an aerialist falling from the high wire, a lion tamer getting mauled -- the clowns would come rushing into the center of the tent maniacally distracting the audience until the mess could be cleaned up [hence the title of Stephen Sondheim's song "Send in the Clowns."]

One of the most popular bits was the arrival of the troupe of clowns at the beginning of the show.  A very small car would chug into the middle of the center ring.  The door would pop open and a clown would roll out onto the sawdust, hop up, and wave to the audience.  Then another clown would get out of the car.  Then another.  And another.  And another.  A seemingly impossible number of clowns of all sizes, shapes, and costumes would somehow get out of that little car, which would then chug noisily off stage.

This is the image that has now morphed into a cliche for the horde of men and women who have announced, or have flirted with announcing, or have threatened to announce their candidacy for the Republican Party's nomination of President of the United states.


Chris said...

Bernie Sanders did an AMA on Reddit yesterday. An AMA is an 'ask me anything' QA session online. Here it is:

Jim Westrich said...

As I know you would appreciate an aside into space and class I wanted to add an interesting angle on the history of the 3 ring circus that I had heard somewhere many years ago.

Barnum went to 2 and then 3 rings undoubtedly to increase the spectacle and show. However, I believe part of the reason for the expansion of the "show" was to keep the lower class types at the show from moving up and crowding/mingling with the "good' box seats.

With one ring there were often times when those in the cheap seats or standing room at the back could not see anything and desperately moved up to see. The three rings spread out the action and made it easier for those in the peanut gallery to at least see something.

Jerry Fresia said...

This is quite interesting. Now, does this knowledge come from research, or were you able to actually witnesses this American spectacle? And I wonder, how did the circuses of Europe and the rest of the world differ? Jim's reporting is intriguing as well.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jim, thank you! I love it.

Jerry, I would never rely merely on third hand accounts. :) I think the last circus I saw was about 40 years ago, when my boys were young, in Springfield MA. [In the same venue in which I actually saw the Harlem Globetrotters.]

Docteur Lariviere said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Docteur Lariviere said...

How interesting that you attack only the clowns of the Republican party, although I am sure you are not merely a dogmatic party hack! You seem to be a champion of mass democracy, but appear too "educated" and "cultured" to tolerate the vulgarity and ignorance that always lights the way in a mass democracy. I wonder what form of dialectic could resolve that contradiction for you... Perhaps a judicious application of Freud's concept of neurosis could do the trick? I, however, will leave you with this quote to consider: "All political parties today have in common a dema­gogic character and the intention of influencing the masses; be­cause of this intention, all of them are obliged to transform their principles into great frescoes of stupidity..."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. Another troll hiding behind a phony Internet name. If you really want to be insulting, try signing your real name and telling us who you are. I have no patience with cowards.

Docteur Lariviere said...

I reserve the right to preserve my privacy. Everything I said contained substance, and was without derision. Your accusation of me for my legitimate exercise of my right to a decent and appropriate pseudonym is a convenient way for you to avoid facing the (perhaps small) contradiction I brought to light. Let's agree to discuss issues, and not indulge in empty ad hominem attacks. ...So then, is it not a contradiction for an elitist to complain about the stupidity of democracy, and moreover, for that elitist to be strongly, if not dogmatically, allied with some version of a populist left-wing ideology?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

well, you can reserve the right to your privacy if you choose, but then you can look elsewhere for someone to spar with. No thank you. So move on. There is nothing for you here.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

well, you can reserve the right to your privacy if you choose, but then you can look elsewhere for someone to spar with. No thank you. So move on. There is nothing for you here.

Docteur Lariviere said...

Thank you for your forthright and frank reactions to my question. For even a red-herring is often revealing of an answer.