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Clown Cars

Written by | Posted on 03.10.2014

How many clowns can you fit into a car? As always, when it comes to alphanumeric questions, I like to turn to Sesame Street for answers. So, let’s press play on the video.

There’s our car – an AMC Gremlin, in fact – wheeling around some early-Seventies American parking lot. It stops. A door opens. And here come the clowns: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Ten clowns!

Which brings us to another question: how did they do it? It could just be a trick of the camera angle, with the clowns entering unseen through one car door and bursting into shot through another. But, hang on, isn’t this gag also performed in circuses, in front of real-life audiences? You may even have seen it yourself. A car pulls into the ring before disgorging its cargo of five, ten, twenty clowns… or more. Which means that it can’t be camerawork.

Most people put it down to trapdoors, but the truth is more remarkable: the clowns really fit in there. And they’ve been doing so since the 1950s, when this “clown car” routine was first developed by Otto Griebling at Cole Brothers’ Circus. Griebling was a clown himself, and one of the most innovative of all time. At the first performance of his new routine, he and twenty-five other clowns emerged from the vehicle.

The way Griebling managed it was to strip out most of the interior of the car. There are no seats, aside from a box for the driver to sit on. There are no barriers between one section of the automobile and another. There are fewer motorised parts. Just cover up the windows with some paint; toughen up the suspension, so that the car doesn’t sag from the weight of its screwball occupants; and add handles for the clowns to pull themselves out with. Then it becomes a question of how many clowns can be contorted into the available space. One writer has expressed this in a series of brilliant, if not entirely scientific, equations.

Except that’s not the whole trick. To maintain the illusion, the clowns need to step out of the car as though they’ve… well, just stepped out of a car. It wouldn’t do for the audience to see one dragging himself, gasping and crumpled, from the floor of the vehicle to its door. The act, like so many in the circus, needs to appear smooth.

This requires, in the first place, a degree of agility: a clown may have to adjust, in a few merciless seconds, from being buckled up in the trunk to leaping into the spotlight. But it also requires a certain stoicism. Clown cars, an insider told the New York Times in 2001, don’t use air-conditioning as that would leak water on to the ring, which could then cause the circus animals to slip. “Those animals are valuable and the circus isn’t going to risk losing a $100,000 investment just to keep a clown from sweating a little.” And so the clowns sweat a lot. All twenty or more of them, pressed against each other in a metal box, sweating under their greasepaint. Gross.

There are, of course, ways of limiting the discomfort. (A more spacious car is one of them, which might explain why many circuses seem to like the banana curves of the Volkswagen Beetle.) But, fundamentally, it’s all a trade-off. Either the clown get through the act faster, which makes greater demands of his agility. Or he slows it down, which increases the time spent with his red-nose deep in someone’s armpit.

And then there’s always the performance to consider: what’s more entertaining? To my eyes, there’s something special about the slower acts, such as in the video below. They elongate the simple pleasure of counting how many clowns there are. It makes each one matter more:

It’s funny how cars have become such a fixture under the big top. From the early days of motoring to today’s hypercool adverts, we’ve always been encouraged to regard them as status symbols. Yet clowns have always seen them as good for a laugh. Lou Jacobs, another of history’s greatest clowns, worked for years in the Forties to squeeze himself into a midget car. Nowadays, some of the most carefully tended vintage vehicles are those that splutter and collapse.

Yet Griebling’s car is the one that has left the biggest imprint on our culture. And we’re talking clown-shoe big. From Mel Brooks movies to the lexicon of political metaphor, this gag has done it all. So, here’s to the performers that bring it to us. And to the antiperspirants that keep them going.

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