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.

Dominic Loise

Dominic Loise is a bookseller living in Chicago, Il., with his librarian wife and three rabbits. He is open about and advocates for mental health awareness in his writing. Before coming to Brink Literacy Project, Dominic was the Store Manager at Open Books, Chicago’s first literacy nonprofit bookstore. He was also on the planning committee and created virtual sessions for the Ray Bradbury Experience Museum.

Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.