Reframing Clown Imagery: Anxiety and Bozo the Clown

Bozo the Clown reentered the public when David Arquette appeared on CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live at the beginning of this year. Arquette came out dressed as “The World’s Most Famous Clown” and presented hosts Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper with gifts such as oversized novelty combs. Arquette did an excellent job of holding true to Bozo’s mission of spreading kindness, even as Andy Cohen tried to get Bozo spill the tea on other clowns like Krusty. Arquette’s inaugural outing as Bozo showed that he is the right person to fill the famous oversized shoes and transform the current flood of horror-inducing images of clowns into traditional symbols of someone who keeps getting back up and enjoys the lighter moments in life, which is what I remember from The Bozo Show growing up.

On Christmas Day in Chicago, just a few days prior, I watched the rebroadcast of the recently aired Bozo’s Circus: The 1970s. Back when I was a kid, Bozo the Clown was a licensed property, and individual television markets had their own actors playing the main character, hosting live in-studio shows. In Chicago, Bob Bell was our main Bozo, and the show was huge. Rumor had it that there was a ten-year waiting list for the ticket raffle to be in the audience. I would get to see The Bozo Show but on the day my anxiety ruined my enjoyment. It wasn’t until looking at the recent relaunch of Bozo as an adult that I would be able to reframe my experience.

My neighbor Jimmy invited me and an older boy on the block, Tyson, to go to the show when his family got tickets in the raffle. I would have been in lower grade school at the time, and it was the seventies, so we dressed up to represent our families on television. I remember waiting in line when, suddenly, a producer was talking to Jimmy’s mom. She smiled and said we were going to be in the relay race segment but that Tyson was too old to participate. Instead of seats with a center view of all the action, the producer shuffled us far off on the end of the sound stage.

On top of that, Jimmy and I ended up being separated on opposing relay teams. We sat by the in-house orchestra in their white-with-gold-trim-John-Philip-Souza-marching-band costumes. I started sizing up the competition of the other relay racers. Soon, I felt the tightness of Sunday-church-dress shoes and wished I had worn sneakers. I wasn’t at The Bozo Show but in gym class. What if I lost the relay race for the team on TV? Everyone at school would be watching at home. I would never hear the end of it. My thoughts spiraled—soon everyone in Chicago would know, too, if I tripped up. It would probably play on a blooper reel. The relay race segment was at the end of the show, and I spent the whole airtime anxious about what might happen as I watched doomsday scenarios in my head instead of what was going on in the studio. I wasn’t enjoying something I had looked forward to experiencing for years.

In the end, the relay race was canceled due to a guest performance running overtime. But dealing with that same type of disappointment and anxiety would continue for me as the years went on. This became a tent pole moment in a lifetime dealing with anxiety.

I didn’t think about good aspects of the that day until seeing Arquette on New Year’s Eve relaying his message of Bozo and kindness. At the end of the show, Bozo led out the audience in The Grand March. Afterward, each kid in the audience had a one-on-one goodbye with Bozo and in that moment, Bozo teased me and Jimmy, which cleared away all my anxiety and disappointment. It was just one line, a reference to The Three Stooges but it meant the world to us when he said, “Uh, oh! Here comes Moe, Larry, and Curly” as Jimmy, Tyson, and I walked up to him. If I think back, I can still remember Tyson and Jimmy’s smiles at that moment. We were able to connect to Bob Bell as a performer instantly. It was comforting to know that Bozo watched the same TV shows we did, and in that moment, there weren’t other audience members, the camera crew, or the big sound stage. It was just us neighborhood kids and a clown. As an adult, reframing that one moment has helped turn around what was once a traumatic memory.

Bob Bell was able to read the room and give each kid a generous and genuine moment. Bozo was “The World’s Most Famous Clown” because the clown came first, not being famous. It wasn’t about who was Bozo in what market; it was about bringing entertainment to kids. I knew people who went into clowning to be famous first and were disillusioned because the circus life was hard and not how clowning appeared on Bozo’s television show. This type of performer found kids were too honest an audience to perform for and instead of learning to play with the reality of a clown in front of the kids, these performers were dismayed by the questions of young inquiring minds. The other type of performer focused on the negative side of the calling of clowning and only saw the makeup as a means to an end. They were never the type of people to pick themselves back up or spotlight serenity, blowing a dark cloud over interactions instead. While Bozo and the other clowns may argue and (pie) fight; he may fall down but he gets back up, brushes himself off, and gets back to work. The message of The Bozo Show was that life is tough (mishaps come from taking shortcuts) and it’s full of surprises (like a man in a gorilla suit chasing you—but you can get back up too.

Reframing my mindset also helped me focus on the day I went to the studio as an act of kindness by my neighbors. For kids our age in Chicago, anyone getting chosen in the raffle to go to The Bozo Show was literally receiving a golden ticket. Jimmy had siblings, and there were other kids on the block and at school, but he chose me. In that sense, I won the lottery of having a friend who looked out for me, and it was a betrayal of his friendship over the years to focus on the negative aspects of that day. Even though we were separated that day, Jimmy was always on my team whenever I felt anxious and helped me live a more adventurous childhood. We have fallen out of contact but over the years, I have found other friends who are there to catch me as they help me get off the metaphorical trapeze platform.

As Arquette said on New Year’s Eve, the image of clowns has recently been associated with being scary. I feel that anxiety and fear have enough resources on their side without adding a symbol of brightness and joy. To this day, I can see an image of Bozo, and it puts a smile on my face no matter what I have going on. So, I hope to continue to focus on showing appreciation for what others do for me and to give the good moments their time under the big top. Healing is not linear. In the past, before getting therapy, I would focus on the negative times. But by taking a lesson from Bozo, I can look at each past time and reframe my thoughts to see the brighter side of each memory. And, most importantly, pick myself back up.

If you grew up with Bozo the Clown too and want to check out the work David Arquette is doing, visit Empire Circus.

A Review of Activities of Daily Living by Lisa Hsiao Chen

Published April 12, 2022 by W.W. Norton & Company.

“I’m working on a project,” said Alice, the narrator of Lisa Hsiao Chen’s debut novel Activities of Daily Living. She quickly followed with, “The real answer is the project doesn’t exist. But calling it a project makes it a thing.” Throughout the novel, Alice slowly tinkers away at a vague, never-defined project highlighting NYC performance artist, Tehching Hsieh, all while caring for her steadily declining stepfather. Part family drama part art-practice exploration, the novel marries complex narrative arcs with tender musings and conceptualizations of what it means to create and exist.

If that seems like a lot to combine in a novel, you wouldn’t be wrong. This is not a book for someone after a casual read. Activities of Daily Living keeps its readers on their toes and constantly challenges their attention span. Timelines jump around, characters are introduced without context leaving readers to infer who’s who on their own, and yet, despite it all, the novel works.

Alice’s driving force is her project, yet the story really shines in the moments shared with her stepfather who is slipping more and more into dementia. The narrative plot that follows them (and occasionally her sister, Amy) is heartbreaking. It’s particularly heart-wrenching in the way it captures the realities of watching a loved one succumb to a disease they have no control over. What starts off as minor inconveniences quickly turns into Alice and her sister making significant decisions for the improvement of their stepfather’s health, regardless of the haunting awareness that he won’t get better despite it all.

It’s an experience that’s difficult to convey. Watching a loved one diminish is full of humor and frustration, but mostly moments of intense sadness. It’s witnessing someone become an entirely different person without their consent. While there isn’t a proper way to express that dynamic, Chen writes about the experience with clarity and pose. One of the more poignant moments of the novel occurs when Alice thoughtfully summarizes, “The demented person is also incorrect—they’re the same person but wrong—wrong because you know this isn’t the life they wanted: you end up being all wrong together.”

Equally as important to Alice and this novel is her exploration of Tehching Hsieh’s array of performance exhibitions. Her research into him is interesting but seems a bit removed from the time spent caring for her stepfather. It’s evident she cares deeply for this project—at one point going so far as to attend a conference Hsieh is speaking at in Venice. Alice seems to believe there’s a strong connection between herself and the artist, but despite the efforts on her part to research and live out moments of his performances, little work is done to develop the project. It poses the question of why include this journey at all.

Recognizing the purpose of Hsieh’s performance art is essential to understanding the why. Hsieh’s work largely deals with one-year performances—ranging from locking himself in a cell to refusing to come indoors—that focus on time and the many ways in which it can be interpreted. There are several moments in the novel when interviewers pester Hsieh for an explanation of his performances, to which he ponders about time much to the frustration of the interviewer and reader. There are moments in the novel where the connection between Hsieh, the project, and the declining health of Alice’s stepfather feels nonexistent or reaching. And while it seems best to reduce, remove, or even provide more “on the nose” connections between those elements, doing so might reduce the overall feeling this novel evokes. It’s strange and difficult to pinpoint the feeling that the mundane and boring moments of everyday life are the exact moments that mean the most—both to Hsieh and Alice. It requires conscious effort on the part of the reader to pick up on, but, if paying attention, it allows one to see how Hsieh’s approach to time and daily activities show up for Alice in the ways she cares for her stepfather.

As the novel continues to unravel so does Alice’s stepfather. We witness her stepfather transition from a man overbuying items at the store to a man unable to walk or tend to his own needs due to the implications of his worsening Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The novel tracks her stepfather as he bounces from hospital to recovery center to assisted living to memory care unit, each facility growing grimmer as her stepfather fades away. In these moments, we watch Alice facing the realities of who her stepfather has become, but also moments of her discovery with Hsieh. It’s an interesting attempt at a parallel to connect the different fractions of this novel. We jump from NYC to the West Coast almost as easily as one flips a page. One moment Alice leads readers through the rehab facility her stepfather lives, then Alice is walking miles out of her way to find a specific stretch of shoreline where a ship smuggling asylum seekers beached in the 90s. It’s a fluid approach to a narrative timeline that relies on philosophical, abstract storytelling instead of clear, concrete plot lines. Alice goes on a range of tangents, making references to famous artists that go on and on before she eventually circles back to whatever situation she’s facing at the time.

This novel is not an easy sell for readers. Activities of Daily Living explores the dichotomy of time and the ways in which the seemingly mundane are the moments that eventually hold the most value. While there are areas of this novel that don’t connect cleanly, the notion that one’s “daily activities” are the ones that hold the most value is beautiful. It’s a book that the more one reads the more one starts to ponder how they, themselves, might measure the power of daily living and the overall impact those moments have on their life—rather than the big, shiny moments we have come to believe define our existence.

An Interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade

The Five Wounds explores what it means to have faith, both in and outside of the church. In past interviews, you’ve mentioned your intimate history and conflicted relationship with Catholicism. Was it ever difficult to challenge religious themes so candidly in your writing? How can writers explore the deeply personal, like religion, while still letting their characters find their own way? 

As a fiction writer, I’m always exploring the deeply personal in my work: questions of family obligation, of longing to change one’s life, of connecting with others. I can’t imagine writing about themes that don’t feel personally urgent.

My novel engages with the cultural history of Catholicism in northern New Mexico and the foundational narratives—elements that are central to my understanding of a place that matters so much to me. I think it’s really important that we challenge these narratives, examine whose experiences have been written out of the narratives, and consider who these narratives benefit and who they hurt.

The Catholic Church’s role in the region—across the globe, really—is, of course, complicated. It provides community and sustenance and ritual, it’s the source of so much beauty and art and music—and it also served as an excuse for the forced subjugation of native peoples by the Spanish colonists, a legacy of pain that persists today.

These issues all get filtered through the specific needs and desires of the characters—Amadeo, in particular, because he’s turned to these traditions. Angel, on the other hand, doesn’t think much about Catholicism at all!

You were born in New Mexico and have spoken about feeling a sense of belonging there growing up. When building the fictional town of Las Penas in The Five Wounds, was it important to you to accurately depict the New Mexico landscape you’re so familiar with, or did you take creative liberties with the setting to better serve your story?

The beauty of writing about a fictional town is that you can take all kinds of liberties! But it was absolutely important to me that my depiction of Las Penas be “accurate,” that a reader who knows the area might recognize it, if not in its particularity, in its broader strokes. So the history of Las Penas is much like the history of other villages in the region, and it shares traits with those other villages.

At the same time, it was important to me that the village not be recognizable as any particular village. I wanted the flexibility that writing about a fictional place allows, and I also wanted to make clear that the characters are fictional.

The main narrative of The Five Wounds is told in the present tense. For this story and others you’ve written, are there specific elements that help you decide on tense, or is present tense something you often gravitate to?

The past tense is definitely my default—it is, after all, the most common storytelling tense, the one we use when relating stories of our lives to our friends or the events of the day to our loved ones. But there was something about the immediacy and rawness of the story “The Five Wounds,” which the novel grew out of, that seemed to demand the kind of immediacy that the present tense offers. When I decided to expand the story, I toyed around with switching it to the past tense, but the story already felt to me like it was unfolding in the present.

How did your approach to revision look different when developing The Five Wounds into a full-length novel? How liberal are you when cutting content, and is there anything specific you look for?

Cutting is always a major part of my revision, whether I’m working in a short form or a novel. I know I write long, and I know as I’m writing that much of the material won’t make it into the final version. When I first started writing, if one of my readers said an element wasn’t working, I would try and try to make it work before, eventually, cutting it. Now, because I’m fortunate to have wonderful readers I trust, if someone suggests I make cuts, I make the cuts, and gratefully.

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned your love for backstory, a love that is evident through the delicate unraveling of your characters’ pasts throughout The Five Wounds. Does backstory naturally interject itself as you write, or do you find it helpful to map out its contents and placement beforehand?

I never map out anything—though often, when I’m in the thick of a tangled draft, I wish I did! I find myself slipping into backstory when I need it as the writer, when I’m trying to learn who the characters are and what brought them to the present moment. Often my own questions about a character arise when a reader’s questions might. Which does not necessarily mean that the reader needs all the information I discover in backstory! I typically write long drafts, and much of my revision process consists of cutting—weeding away everything that isn’t necessary so that the story can thrive. And much of what I end up cutting is backstory—material I needed to get to know the characters, but that weighs down the story’s forward motion. The key is to give only as much backstory as the reader needs without making it hard to find the path back to the present story.

You’ve said that the process of writing The Five Wounds was a bit trial-and-error, and that you hope to have a “roadmap” for your next project. Which approach would you suggest for budding writers practicing their craft, and how can writers avoid feeling restrained by an outline?

I don’t think I’ll ever be a writer who outlines before writing. I’ve tried it, and I know it works for other people, but it really doesn’t work for me. If I know what’s going to happen, then the mystery drains away, and I’m not as invested in the story. Once I’m deep in a draft, however, I will outline—I’ll map where I’ve been and where I think the story is going—but with the understanding that it is always going to change.

I advise budding writers to try both methods: outlining and writing into mystery. It’s only through trying lots of different methods that a new writer can figure out which process works best for them.

I see that you earned an MFA in fiction writing. Did you find your graduate school experience to be an indispensable step toward your later success with writing, and would you recommend that aspiring writers take part in a program like this?

At the time, the MFA was the right path for me for many reasons: it allowed me to devote two years to reading and learning and developing my craft; I found a wonderful community of fellow writers whose work I admire and whose feedback I am deeply appreciative of; and I found a mentor who changed the way I think about fiction. Being in an academic program also gave the pursuit a kind of legitimacy that was important to me at the time, and gave me a kind of permission—and it made it easier to explain to my family what I was trying to do! Having said that, though, there are so many paths to becoming a writer, and an MFA is just one of them. I definitely advise my students not to take out loans for MFA programs, because writing is financially precarious as it is.

You’re currently working as an assistant professor of creative writing at Princeton. Did you always see yourself teaching, or was writing your primary goal? Have you faced any challenges, or unexpected benefits, to balancing careers as both a writer and professor?

I love teaching, and I was a teacher before I was ever a published writer. For me it’s an excellent complement to writing. I get a lot of energy out of being in the classroom and I feel incredibly lucky to spend time with my students talking about stories. It is, of course, challenging to balance teaching and writing because there is never enough time in a single life!

For your next project, do you think you will move away from short stories and continue writing novels, or will both continue to call you? Do you find that you prefer one form of storytelling over the other?

I love both the novel and the short story form! I read both and I know I’ll continue to write both. And in fact I have two projects in the works now: a new story collection and a novel!