JOHN CONROY is a Los Angeles-based writer, marketing & PR consultant, producer and performer. He’s written numerous published articles and essays and guest-lectured at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications. As the award-winning director of the Digital Entertainment division for Rogers & Cowan, John provided film, music, technology, and corporate entertainment public relations counsel for such clients as Napster and Microsoft. John regularly performs at the iO West Theatre in Los Angeles with the award-winning EXTRA-STRENGTH, Spin-Off Cinema, Rohan Will Answer and created the Twitter-inspired Top Twending Topics. He is also the House DJ and an improv coach. His extensive writing and comedy training includes The Groundlings, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City and Alexandra Billings.
Coulophobia is an irrational fear of clowns. Yes, this is an actual disorder, and yes, I really have it. On its surface this isn’t all that unusual; clowns are pretty creepy. But my fear of them runs deeper than simply finding them disturbing. Put me in the presence of a clown and you will witness a grown man suffer a psychotic break, sometimes hilarious, sometimes violent, always pathetic.
My fear of clowns goes back as far as I can remember – or so I thought. Mom and dad have dozens of photos of me crying at the circus, crying at birthday parties, crying on Santa’s lap (not a clown, but close enough). As an adult I’ve exhibited inexplicably bizarre behavior around clowns. Alison Connelly, who I liked very, very much, took me on a surprise date to the circus. She didn’t know. I was sweating, my eyes glued to the guys in floppy shoes. Halfway through the show the ringleader announced that one of the clowns had run off with everybody’s dirty laundry and must be hiding in the audience. Naturally the fucker comes down the steps next to our row and out of 2,000 people in the Big Top it sits next to me. I crawled into Alison’s lap, hyperventilating. Then I started to cry. She held my hands to my knees to keep them from flailing about. I was 25 years old at the time. That was our last date.
A couple years ago my writing partner and I were visiting friends in New York. Taking a break, we settled down on a bench in Central Park. It was a beautiful, warm spring day and I asked if I could get anybody Snapples. I wasn’t particularly thirsty, but my clowndar had gone off. I spotted one in a bright blue jumpsuit making balloon animals for some innocent, helpless children. It was on stilts. I had to get out of there. When I came back with the drinks I couldn’t spot the clown, but Dave had a sly grin on his face. As I handed him his iced tea I felt a tap on my shoulder. My blood froze. I turned my head and found myself face to blue satin knee. As my gaze slowly moved up, up, up I could hear the blood vessels popping in my brain. It was staring down at me with that perma-smile and black, dead eyes. Puffy-fingers wiggled as it slowly waved at me from above. The Snapples shattered on the ground. I stopped running when I got to 48th Street.
I’ve never understood where this came from. Then dad and I had The Talk.
“I can’t think of anything,” dad told me as we chatted on the phone. I forget how the topic came up. It doesn’t matter.
“It’s not the sort of thing I think I need therapy for or anything,” I explained. “I mean, it’s not like I’m around clowns every day. And I’m pretty good at avoiding them when I see one.” I was walking my bulldog puppy Archie, who could sense something was wrong. He felt a subtle tension through the leash. A faint quiver in my voice. My usual relaxed gait seemed to stutter.
There are two statements my father has uttered that caused emotional devastation. One was “I have cancer.” The other was during that conversation when he said, “Unless… nah.”
I stopped walking. “Unless what?”
“It’s nothing. Never mind.”
“Never mind what?”
“The jack in the box.”
My world turned upside down. I felt a moment of clamminess and then I threw up in the middle of Vermont Avenue.
As Dad spoke a long-repressed memory came flooding back to me. It was simultaneously familiar and alien, like seeing a videotape of yourself drunk at a party acting like a fool.
When I was a child I had this jack in the box that I hated. I hated the tinkling, tinny music as you wound it up. I especially hated the spring-loaded clown that would jump out when the weasel “popped.” On nights when dad would have one too many drinks he would do things to entertain himself like wind the jack in the box up to just before the “pop.” I’d be in my room or the hallway playing by myself with my Legos or Star Wars figures or blocks, lost in my own imagination and having a lovely time. Then he would sneak up behind me – even when hammered the man moved like a ninja – and pop the weasel so the clown would come out of nowhere from over my shoulder. Sometimes he would hide in my closet, jack in the box at the ready for when I would open the door to check for monsters. Other times he would crawl under my bed and make the damn thing go off right next to my head while I was reading a story. Daddy found this endlessly amusing.
I held the phone away from my ear and stared at it, trying to decide which expletives were going to come out of my mouth in which order.
Dad insisted that it was all in good fun and certainly couldn’t have anything to do with my modern-day suffocating fear of clowns. Repeated psychological torture perpetrated by a parent is just too cliché, especially when the activity in question was so hilarious. “I was always stunned by how loud you could scream,” he said, stifling a chuckle.
At Christmastime mom and dad sent Archie a care package. Among the bones and squeak toys was a carefully wrapped box with a note that read: “For my son, with all my love.”
It was the jack in the box.
I picked up the phone.
“Did you get my present?” asked dad, barely containing his excitement.
“You’re an asshole.”
“Merry Christmas to you too. We found it last week when we were cleaning out the attic.”
“Why didn’t you just set it on fire?”
“Where’s the fun in that? I thought maybe it would help you get over your clown thing. You know, face your fears and all that.”
“No, you thought it would be funny if I called you from the hospital.”
“Never,” he replied. “Okay maybe a little.”
I put the jack in the box on my desk and it popped. I should have expected the motherfucker to make sure it was primed for action as soon as I unwrapped it. Archie went berserk, barking and jumping and running in circles through the living room until he peed on the carpet. The bouncing devilish imp silently mocked him. The vicious circle of bad parenting had taken another turn.
Anyone who’s read my work, and certainly anyone who’s seen me perform, knows I have a dark, twisted sense of humor. While I’ve always known my dad influenced this more than anyone else, it’s painful to realize just how influential he was. But then again, comedy is born from pain. I’m reminded of my pain every day when I look at that jack in the box, because I get it. It is funny. Sick and demented and twisted, but funny. Just like him. Just like me.
John Conroy 2011
Published: May 11th, 2011