Among the indignities the clown routinely endures, the theft of his Ralph Wiggum antenna topper barely registered. Until a few weeks earlier, a foam miniature of the imbecilic Simpsons character, mid-nose-pick, had crowned the antenna of the clown’s Toyota Yaris. Then some joker had taken it, and now the car, though small and red and still hinting at foolishness, was missing the finial touch that nudged it into clown-car territory.
Not that there was any mistaking its owner’s occupation, as he stood behind the Yaris in a parking lot in Vallejo, north of San Francisco, on a mild evening not long ago. He wore a black top hat encircled by a purple ribbon, and a spritz of graying hair frizzed from under the brim. His nose was a red sphere, his face had an ocher tint, his cheeks were rouged, his eyelashes mascaraed, his lower lip underscored with black greasepaint. The sleeves of a polka-dot shirt ballooned out of a mauve vest, and suspenders kept a pair of baggy turquoise pants from puddling around the clown’s enormous, bulbously toed shoes, which had been cobbled from alternating patches of black and white leather. If you looked closely, as he popped the hatch to retrieve a bubble-gum-pink suitcase filled with props, you could see that his right index finger was torqued leftward from tying tens of thousands of balloon animals.
It is an occupational injury but a wound of honor, too. Anyone can throw on makeup and bill himself as a clown, but few are willing to go through what it takes to truly become one and bear the costs of that commitment. These include the kinds of reactions he has to deal with, like right then in the parking lot.
Two couples in their 20s were walking past, giggling, and one of the men was speaking.
“Hello, sir!” the clown said.
The man gestured toward the woman he had his arm around and said, “She’d like a hug.”
The woman shrieked, recoiling, as her boyfriend tried pulling her toward the clown.
“ ‘Oh, I hate clowns,’ ” the clown said in a falsetto pantomime, waving his hands above his head in mock panic. “ ‘Ahhhhr, they’re scary! Ahhhhr!’ … How do you think I feel when I look in the mirror?”
The couples laughed, and the clown did, too, but he didn’t really think it was funny. The whole scary-clown thing had gotten out of hand. Clowns now live in a world where everyone seems to hate them, or profess to do so. One of the remarks the clown hears most often, while driving, is someone in another car yelling — the words are always the same — “Fuckin’ clown!” It surprises and dismays him every time.
One day earlier, Boswick, as the clown is known, stood in his office a floor below his apartment in the Inner Sunset neighborhood, on the south side of Golden Gate Park. He wore jeans and running shoes and an unbuttoned plaid shirt over a black T-shirt. Small patches of floor were visible amid a clutter of costumes and props and other clown detritus, which included an orange TV set; a pink chest of drawers; jester shoes with bells; a shelf full of Mad-magazine books; letters from publishers rejecting Boswick’s proposed Kid’s Guide to Snotty Comebacks; three whoopee cushions (he was running low); a photo of Boswick with an elephant at the Circus Circus casino in Las Vegas; a unicycle he’d forgotten how to ride; an old pair of clown shoes made by someone no longer alive; and a fish-shaped bag full of balloons in 17 colors, including lilac and periwinkle. “I get really anal,” Boswick said. “I want to have a lot of colors.”
There is still nothing Boswick would rather be doing, 27 years after he became a professional clown. Back then, clowning had seemed just the thing for a child of divorce who remembered “watching my parents argue when I was 4 and getting their attention by doing something weird and funny,” who had gymnastic ability and thought it was a hoot to deliver a well-executed pratfall, who liked to juggle and had awoken one morning in college with the name Boswick on his tongue and finger painted it across his dorm-room wall. Later, when he was accepted at both the Dell’Arte physical-theater school and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, he chose Ringling largely because of the joy he felt when he opened its acceptance letter and confetti spilled out. In those days, clowns, far from being the butt of jokes, were still touchstones of American childhood. Adults cherished youthful memories of Red Skelton and Bozo. Clowns featured prominently in the launch of a new circus, Cirque du Soleil. The craft of clowning could be deemed worthy of a MacArthur grant.
Boswick approached what he did with an artist’s sincerity. During a six-month tour of Japan with Ringling’s The Living Unicorn show (featuring a hybrid Angora goat named Lancelot who had a solitary horn projecting from his head), he’d thrived on the energy of the big top. If Boswick experienced any negativity, it came from colleagues. Once, as he was practicing juggling while standing on a friend’s shoulders, another clown had walked past and said, “Save it for the ring.” “There was a very jaded quality, like, ‘I’m going home to get drunk,’ ” he said. “That struck me. I don’t get being jaded.”
But within a few years, Boswick saw something begin to change in the way the public thought about clowns. Some of the blame went to John Wayne Gacy, the prolific serial killer who had moonlighted as a clown named Pogo and later sold clown paintings from his cell on death row. Stephen King’s novel It, featuring the demonic Pennywise, lodged the idea of the evil clown more firmly in pop culture. The internet rendered it contagious. BuzzFeed regularly posts items like “Insane Clowns Are Haunting Southern California” and “21 Vintage Clown Photos That Will Make Your Skin Crawl.” The possessed clown doll that had a cameo in the original Poltergeist was front and center on the posters for the film’s reboot this month, and in September, Ten Speed Press will publish When Clowns Attack: A Guide to the Scariest People on Earth.
It’s true that a clown’s exaggerated face, both lifelike and not, is uncanny — one could argue it’s inherently disturbing. There’s also a cultural wariness, given the past decades’ illumination of pedophilia, of men in masks touching other people’s children. And professional clowns believe that the proliferation of untrained ones hasn’t helped. “As with any art form, there’s a lot of lousy clowns and mimes out there,” says Steve Smith, a former dean of the Ringling Bros. Clown College who is now creative director of the Circus Center in San Francisco. The same whiteface that may look great from the nosebleed seats at Madison Square Garden can produce sensory overload in a small gathering of children. “There are these huge organizations that turn out a lot of people with good intentions but who have no barriers and will scare the hell out of you,” Smith says. “If you’re facing a 3-year-old, don’t hover over them, get down on your knees. If they scream, go away.”
Though Boswick and other clowns allow that some children are genuinely afraid of them, in their experience most are not. Instead, they see clown fear among adults as a lazy pose, a jokey affectation that has become easy to adopt as clowns fade into irrelevancy and the number of people who’ve seen one in real life dwindles. “It’s a designer phobia, really pretentious,” says Sparky, a clown who lives a block away from Boswick. “I can tell a person who has a clownaphobia right away if they have it; 99.9 percent are phony. I’ve met maybe two people who have it. If they have it, they apologize profusely. The other ones go, ‘Oh, clowns are scary, that’s spooky.’ ” Boswick’s good friend Funnybone, who has worked in South America and Asia, says, “You go to another country, that concept of being afraid of clowns is nowhere. When I worked in Japan, I wore full clown makeup. It really is just something that’s happened here.”
Boswick isn’t hung up on the innocence of clowns. While some of his peers have gone as far as to protest unflattering portrayals — most recently, the amateur group Clowns of America International denounced American Horror Story: Freak Show’s Twisty, a disfigured and brain-injured kidnapper and murderer — Boswick is a fan of It and impersonated Twisty for an AHS-themed Halloween haunted house for a South Bay tech company. “I love scary clowns, and I think it’s all part of the big universe of what I do,” Boswick told me. He himself invented a character for a nightclub gig, Nasty Ass the Clown, who walks around chomping on a Tiparillo cigar, tying balloon animals out of condoms, growling, “Hey, nice tits!,” and telling off-color clown jokes.
Still, the denigration of clowns has had real-world consequences, and Boswick, like other children’s entertainers, has been forced to adapt. In the early ’90s, after seven years as a traditional whiteface clown, he switched, as nearly all clowns outside the circus now have, to less obtrusive makeup with a flesh-tone base. For his many appearances at libraries, Boswick has made putting on his makeup part of the show. For birthday parties, he now, like Funnybone, explicitly markets himself as wearing “kid-friendly makeup.” And among the list of “hints” he sends schools in advance is: “If there is a child that is afraid of clowns, let them watch Boswick from a distance. I promise, they will join the other children.” As parents booking children’s parties increasingly request clowns without makeup or, worse, magicians, Boswick has lately been trying on a new makeup-less character with a sort of 1870s-steamboat-gambler look, and he’s been boning up on his sleight-of-hand skills.
A real clown, as Boswick sees it, can survive the stripping away of makeup and costume and balloons and juggling and magic; an irreducible nub of clownness will remain. It’s a kind of comedic physicality combined with an unshakable commitment to the reality of the character’s world. Like Einstein’s insane person, he’ll do the same thing over and over expecting a different result — assuming a chair will be beneath him, even though it wasn’t last time. Boswick’s favorite example of a non-obvious clown is Stephen Colbert, at least as he was on The Colbert Report: The suit and tie and combed hair were “a little too perfect,” and he never, ever, broke character.
But Boswick still struggles with the trend away from makeup. Wearing the clown nose “just works so much better for me,” he said. Recently, bare-faced at an 11-year-old girl’s birthday party, he teased her about her “boyfriend” — boilerplate Boswick shtick — and then apologized for not checking to see whether her Facebook page listed her relationship status as “It’s complicated.” “The dad’s like, ‘Hey,’ ” Boswick said. “I’m like, Oh, yeah, this joke is coming off weird, oh, wow … With the makeup, half my show is Harpo Marx stuff, chasing grandmothers around and flirting and making jokes. The other day, doing those jokes without makeup, I was half-creepy. A friend of mine said recently, ‘Maybe you’re being lazy with the comedy.’ I said, ‘No, I just feel so much more free with makeup.’ Without makeup, there are a lot more rules I have to follow. As the clown, I can break all the rules.
“I want respect, and I don’t want respect,” Boswick continued. “I want respect for who I am and my résumé and how hard I work, how many classes I’ve taken, and at the same time I think respect for clowning is the dumbest thing in the world. Why would you have respect for clowns? Clowns are the ones who’re making fun of the world. If you respect the clown, the clown’s doing something wrong.”
On a recent Saturday morning, David Magidson walked into his bathroom but nothing came out. “Stage fright,” he said, reemerging into the hallway in his apartment. He’s still unjaded. He knows what a big deal it is for parents to hire Boswick. He knows the stress of wanting to throw a successful party and how important it is to them that their children are entertained and feel loved. And so he still gets nervous before every gig, including the three he had lined up that afternoon.
Magidson is a 52-year-old husband and father of two boys, which makes him a rarity among the clowns he knows, few of whom are married and none of whom have kids. He’s also the owner of a rambunctious dog, Dewey DeGrasse Tyson, who wouldn’t stop jumping on him as he morphed, beneath his peeling bedroom ceiling, into Boswick. He started by pulling on one of his more than 30 pairs of Simpsons boxer briefs — “ ’Cause you have to be funny all under” — and a pair of knee-high candy-cane socks. His belief in character integrity extends to wearing real hats and clothing with actual pockets. “Amateur clowns have lots of pockets that don’t work and cute flowers. I’m like: No. They pin on their hats. I’m like: Nope, not for me.”
As Magidson put on his face, standing before a mirror in the chartreuse bathroom he shares with his wife, he applied the same philosophy, painting his own nose red before gluing a red plastic clown nose over it. In this he was following Ringling tradition, as well as forestalling inadvertent glimpses of the man behind the makeup. “Kids will say, “You’re not a real clown.’ It’s very strange. How do you answer that one, ’cause what is a clown?”
Boswick steered the Yaris south toward San Jose. Even when he’s driving, he tries to keep a smile on his face, but this effort is sometimes derailed by his devotion to Howard Stern’s radio show. “When there’s swearing and stuff going on, and I’m going through a toll booth or getting gas, and it’s roaring out my window, I’m like: God, I’ve got to turn this down, I’m a clown.” Entering the parking lot for his first performance of the day — 4-year-old Izabela’s birthday party at a Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos — he called her mother, Shelley, to let her know to prepare the kids for his arrival. Boswick has learned, over the years, that the show begins before he enters the room, and the tip sheet he always sends in advance contains hard-won wisdom like “Feed the children before the show” and “Don’t give noisemakers to the children.” He likes there to be a sense of anticipation when he appears.
Immediately upon entering, he called the children, who had been jumping in a bouncy castle, to gather around him. “Come closer,” he said, and they did. “No, back.” They retreated, giggling. “No, closer. No, back.” And so on, and for the next hour he performed the remarkable feat of holding the attention of a group of 4-year-olds and making them laugh for much of that time. Boswick’s act consists in large part of behaving like an idiot. He mixed up the kids’ names (Hannah became Harmonica and Hanukkah, Izabela became Is It a Bell?, Shaya became Shia LaBeouf), their sexes (“This boy is a girl?”), their relationships (“This is your husband?”), their ages (the 4-year old was 14? Forty?). He got angry at misbehaving inanimate objects (a top hat that kept falling off, juggling clubs that dropped to the floor or hit him in the head, balloons that snapped back on him or flew away before he could tie them off). He performed a few bona fide magic tricks that caused the kids to gasp, and he was liberal with potty humor, coaxing the kids into sitting on whoopee cushions, making flatulent balloon noises and waving away imagined gas clouds, confusing “blue” with “poo,” pretending to throw up, and putting a diaper on the birthday girl’s head.
A lot of this is Clown 101, and a good bit of it is Boswick. “Boswick,” Boswick told me later, “is bringing out my own insecurities and making them big. Pointing out the top of my head in shows, having the kids call me Baldy. My hair is a big deal. I’m not sure I would have become a clown if I had normal hair. It’s near bald, which I hate hate hate hate hate, yet love love love love love as a clown.”
In Izabela’s show, there was a fair amount of good old circus skill at work — the magic, the juggling, and balloon-tying, which went on for more than half an hour at the end — but a significant part of Boswick’s artistry is how he manages the room. He made the kids the stars of his show (“It’s a pet peeve of mine, people don’t get how to use an audience volunteer”), threw the occasional bone to the adults standing around (quipping about Christopher Guest, “shvitzing” and “upstaging,” and trying to cha-cha with a grandmother), and above all demonstrated a canny grasp of child development. He knows that most card tricks are beyond the ken of little brains that don’t understand the difference between a heart and a spade, and also that within just a few years, his audience will roll their eyes at the same magic tricks that dazzle them now. He knows that there is no joke, with the 4-to-7 crowd, that can’t be beaten further into the ground.
“You were great, sir,” Izabela’s grandfather told Boswick after the show was over. “You really got the kids entertained.” Boswick hears variations on “Everyone loves a clown” from 70-somethings all the time. They, and their young grandchildren, are alike in not cracking wise about clowns. (They are perhaps the only ones innocent of shareable slideshows about creepy clowns.) Izabela and her peers appeared to either love Boswick or otherwise find him somewhat disquieting, frequently hilarious, and impossible to turn away from. Throughout San Francisco and its surburbs, Boswick has superfans, who show up regularly at his library shows. “In certain circles, he’s a celebrity,” his wife told me. “Most of those people are between 4 and 6.” Fern Charles, who is 9, first had Boswick at her 4th-birthday party. “I think he was very vulnerable, that’s the role he played, and I think that appealed to my daughter,” said Fern’s mother, Kristin. Fern has since had Boswick at her 5th-, 6th-, 7th-, 8th-, and 9th-birthday parties, too. “She said: ‘I want Boswick to be at my parties until he’s no longer a clown,’ ” Kristin said. Fern has no awareness of a world in which clowns are anything other than lovable, but her parents know that not everyone shares her attitude. “We warn people who haven’t been to one of her parties that Boswick will be there,” Kristin said.
After saying good-bye to Izabela and her friends, Boswick took advantage of the JCC bathroom to wash his hands. “ ’Cause kids skeeve me out quite a bit,” he said. “The older I get, the more I’m becoming, like, OCD, which is really weird, because look at what I do, what I’m around.” The kids touch everything. They lick the balloons. They spit on the cake when they try to blow out the candles. Back in the car, Boswick rubbed some off-brand sanitizer on his hands.
Though the show was by all measures a success (Shelley, Izabela’s mother, would later send Boswick a gushing email), Boswick tends toward self-criticism, and as he ate a postshow sandwich in the Yaris, he was already nitpicking. The party music, weirdly dirgelike at times, had been an energy killer; the layout, with adults standing distractingly behind him, was diffuse; his new plastic nose, pressing against his face, was making his actual nose run; and the kids hadn’t eaten beforehand, so he had to rush the show at the end. One thing he did like was how the mother had taken a lot of pictures, over his shoulder, of the kids’ reactions. He thought he might add that to his tip sheet.
The next gig, a house party in San Jose for the birthday of a 7-year-old boy named Chase, began inauspiciously. Before Boswick had even entered the house, a mother in the backyard told another mother that she “never liked clowns. They freak me out.” The party was a collision of eras, the clown a quaint throwback figure amid an array of oppressively themed action-movie paraphernalia from Costco (Transformers cake, Transformers piñata, Transformers goody bags). While Boswick’s act kept the kids laughing, a little blond boy named Anthony kept hijacking the show, at one point grabbing Boswick’s leg and not letting go for several minutes. As Anthony held on, he buried his head between Boswick’s legs, thus treating the parents to an extended display of a middle-aged man in makeup clomping around with a young boy’s face planted in his crotch. A mother in the front row looked aghast, her face frozen in a wince.
A little girl asked Boswick if he’s “a real clown,” which he suavely deflected with “You found out” (one of hundreds of rejoinders from Hey Quit Clowning Around!, his self-published book of “funny comebacks” for entertainers who find themselves in such situations). By the end of the show, though, the clowns-freak-me-out mom was laughing as hard as anyone, and Boswick’s favorite part was the leg-hugger. “That’s just magical stuff, ’cause he was so hilarious, and that’s when you get to be a clown. It’s like, What’s the clown going to do? Is he going to get mad?”
Boswick’s final show of the day, up in Vallejo, proved the most challenging. He is practiced at handling the varied subcultures of the far-flung Bay Area. He’s used to dealing with Berkeley parents with delusions of gender equivalency. “I’ll hear a lot, ‘Well, my kids, the boys don’t care about weapons and things.’ And you’re like, ‘Uh-huh.’ Boys are boys. They want to beat each other. When you make balloon animals, they want swords. They want guns. They want AK-47s. They get really specific. And girls want flowers and pink, unless they don’t.” But tonight’s show, a big one for a Filipino family in a VFW catering hall, was chaos from the get-go. A DJ was playing loud dance music, there was a face painter competing for the audience’s attention, a huge spread of food anchored by lechon asado beckoned, a 49ers banner hung disruptively near to his head, and the kids were overtired and aggressive.
Boswick had noticed lately that he’d been getting a lot less work from the Filipino community, and he wondered whether the scary-clown meme had “infected” it, too. But as he drove back to the city he was mostly upbeat. “What was really nice about the middle party today, and I guess the early one, too, is I was able to give them live entertainment, a live show, a very specific thing — theater for children, for families, designed to their event and their place — and that’s pretty cool.”
Magidson didn’t start out with big dreams to tie balloon poodles for the kiddie set. “I remember telling my roommate I wanted to be a clown and saying I didn’t want to be a birthday-party clown — I wanted to be a stage clown, a theater clown,” he said.
But Ringling wasn’t for him — the pay was awful, the lifestyle family-unfriendly — and his theatrical work never took off either. Kloons on Ice, his three-person clown troupe that had nothing to do with ice, didn’t make it past the fringe-festival circuit, and the two other members ended up leaving the business. He was making some money as a children’s entertainer, but he was reluctant to define himself as one — “It’s sort of frowned on, what I do” — and the ambivalence held him back from being more successful.
When he turned 30, in 1993, he considered giving up clowning altogether. He had gotten married, and his wife was pregnant, and he seriously thought about getting certified to become a schoolteacher. But then he took a series of workshops at Landmark Forum, and they helped him face facts: He’d been waiting for a career instead of making one happen. He took the plunge and bought an ad in the Yellow Pages; as the only San Francisco clown with Ringling on his résumé, he started getting a lot of work.
The economics of clowning are tough. After 9/11, the going rate for a show dropped from $300 to $250, which Magidson often discounts as low as $175. And of the 250-plus shows he does a year, a significant fraction are for charity in places like hospital cancer wards. He made around $30,000 last year.
Although he’d prefer to spend his time exclusively clowning, he has taken all kinds of work over the years to subsidize his income. He worked for a Filipino fast-food company, Jollibee, dispatching other entertainers to its Bay Area franchises. For a time, he had a contract booking balloon-makers into a particular Red Lobster restaurant. Some of the jobs have nothing to do with clowning. He recently trained with a company called iCracked to fix iPhones with broken screens, and he’s considering driving for Uber.
Magidson’s middle-class anxieties come into conflict with his aversion to authority, and he doesn’t always think things through. A sideline as a substitute schoolteacher got sidelined after he was discovered to have been filming an irreverent YouTube series, Hey Mr. Sub!, in vacant classrooms. (He was escorted from the building.) At a Clown College reunion years ago, he performed a stand-up set, including a joke about organizing a summer picnic for NAMBLA — “We need a bouncy house, we need a clown, we need balloons” — that became notorious. Another time, he was approached to appear on Wife Swap. He thought it would be good for name recognition, until his wife said: “That’s unseemly.” “I cringe a lot,” Magidson told me. “I don’t cringe at my clowning. I cringe at David.”
The constant dispute in Magidson’s head, between the voice that asks “What am I doing with my life?” and the one that says “This is what I am called to do,” reflects a frustrating synchronicity: He is maturing into something the world no longer seems to want. The better he gets, the more he has to slum it as a non-clown entertainer: a strolling juggler at a software-company event, say, or a balloon-tier at a mall-kiosk wireless-service promotion. “You do need to do what you need to do,” he told me. He’s been a pirate, a jester, a vaudeville juggler, an elf, the Easter bunny. For a long time, he wouldn’t do Santa at Christmas, but six years ago, he caved and he has since done it a lot — it’s lucrative, and he enjoys it. He has been steadfast in his refusal to do face-painting, an oft-requested service, because he views it as a technical skill having nothing to do with a character. A few months ago, for the first and last time, he did Spider-Man. He felt ridiculous crawling around in the outfit, and the character made no sense — he was a Spider-Man who tied balloon animals.
Even when Boswick can focus solely on being a clown, he is hyperaware of his place in the entertainer hierarchy, quick to take offense at the haughtiness of magicians and at the snootiness among clowns from San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory, whose ambitions lie more in the direction of Cirque du Soleil than the local birthday-party market. He can be snooty, too, about the Shriners and other retirees for whom clowning is a golden-years lark. “I look down quite a bit on the amateur clowns,” he said. “I can’t help it.”
Any number of times, Boswick has thought he was on the verge of striking it big. A DVD he made, Here Comes the Clown, got library distribution but never really took off, though he still occasionally gets phone calls from strange parts of the country. (Usually the calls go like this: “ ‘Is this Boswick?’ ‘Yup.’ ‘Are you really Boswick?’ ‘Yup, that’s me.’ ‘Is Phoebe the Duck there?’ ‘She’s out back.’ And then they just hang up on me.”) With his friend Pat in the Hat, he created a business called Clowns4Less, which he hoped could scale his income by creating Boswick-trained cheaper clowns who’d pay him a royalty, but then the internet removed all barriers to entry and the market was flooded by self-styled clowns at the same low rate. He imagined that Hey Mr. Sub! might inspire a sitcom. Last year, he and Funnybone and Pat in the Hat were up for a possible reality show on TruTV that would focus on them and on Boswick’s longtime feud with his clown neighbor Sparky.
Sparky and Boswick had a friendly relationship until the launch of Clowns4Less, which Sparky felt was a direct attack on his livelihood. “I called them Scabs for Less,” Sparky (né Brian Wishnefsky) told me. “We’re still suffering for it now, having to compete against schlockmeisters and hacks. Boswick said: ‘Well, it’s just business.’ I said: ‘No, it’s like shitting in your own bed.’ Neither one of them were rocket scientists, that’s all I can say.” Sparky acquired several confusingly similar URLs, including Clown4Less and ClownFourLess. “I covered all my bases. I couldn’t believe how dumb they were. It was like clown wars. Then I bought Boswick’s URL. He’s got Boswick.net. I got BoswickTheClown.” Sparky and Boswick eventually reconciled, but they were prepared to restage their conflicts for TruTV’s cameras. The cable channel ended up passing on the show.
Magidson still feels bad about the sacrifices his family has had to make. He can’t pay for a vacation that requires getting on a plane. His wife’s job, as a manager at the theater where she and Magidson met as young box-office workers, supplies their health insurance. A generous in-law contributed the down payment for their house. Their younger son, Dustin, attends the progressive, private Urban School, in Haight-Ashbury, courtesy of a sizable scholarship, and Magidson’s mother helps with the college tuition for their elder son, Duncan.
Having a clown for a parent has its advantages, of course. Since most of Boswick’s work is on weekends, he was able to be an unusually present and available father during the week. Throughout his sons’ childhoods, he always made a point of hiring live entertainment for their birthdays (bird and reptile and science shows, though, not clowns or magicians). And there was no shortage of playfulness in the Magidson home. When Boswick’s wife, Diane, arrives home from work, her husband and sons are invariably sprawled across the floor, playing dead. She steps over them. “The thing with clowns, the jokes don’t change all that much,” she told me. “It was funny the first two or three times.”
It’s not that Diane, who Boswick calls Zelda Washbucket when referring to her during a show, can’t be a good sport. At their wedding, she went along with the plan for her and David and their attendants to simultaneously turn to face the guests wearing clown noses. But after nearly every guest at one of her post-marital birthday parties brought her a clown-related gift (clown candlesticks, clown picture frames), she announced a ban on “clown crap” and allows only a single clown item — a painting of father-and-son hobo clowns, given by her uncle — to hang in their living quarters. She described marriage to a clown as “living with someone who always wants attention.” Sometimes he will come home, undress, and run around in his makeup and underwear. “And that is why people are afraid of clowns,” she said. “This is not a good look.” Diane’s sister is married to Boswick’s old Kloons colleague Woody. “My poor mother,” Diane said.
Duncan and Dustin never knew a world without clowns. They appeared as little clowns in their father’s videos and helped him with his theater shows, Dustin handling sound and lights and Duncan taking tickets. Duncan went through a phase of being mortified by what his father did and insisting he not tell anyone. Boswick agreed not to volunteer the information, and he also agreed to fully recline the driver’s seat, lying out of view, if he ever came to pick Duncan up from junior high while he was still in makeup from a gig. Once, he made the mistake of getting out of the car, sending his son into a fury that lasted a month. “Yeah, when I was a little kid, I was kind of bitter about it all the time,” Duncan told me. “I’ve come to accept it.” Now, it’s a fun fact to reveal to new friends, who tend to find it fascinating. He’ll show them YouTube videos of his dad in costume. Halloween is Duncan’s favorite holiday, and he described the easy access to costumes, makeup, and expertise in applying it as “probably the greatest thing about having a dad who’s a clown.”
Dustin, now a high-school junior, has never been as bothered by his father’s job, though he usually describes it as “children’s entertainer.” “Whenever I say ‘clown,’ people will say it extremely loudly, and I’m like, ‘Stop it.’ And then people who do know will say it loud just to bug me.”
Last year, Boswick had an experience that made him feel better about what he does. He went to his second Clown College reunion. It was in Florida — attended by around 275 graduates, plus circus fans from around the state — and this time he skipped the NAMBLA jokes. “People were like, ‘Are you going to do that thing you did last time?’ ” Instead, he volunteered to clean up between acts, and whenever there was a lull, he’d come out dressed as Boswick and intersperse his little routines while he cleaned. “Every time, I got about 32 seconds, but it killed. It was like coming home: Wow, this is what I trained for, this is what I’m good at.”
I joined Boswick and Funnybone and their friends Super Gigi and Sandra Leathley one night for dinner at a restaurant in Haight-Ashbury. Boswick and Funnybone originally met when they figured out years ago that they had both been receiving discomfiting calls from the same lonely latchkey kid, a girl named Regan, and they spoke on the phone to confer about it. They later became such good friends that Boswick paid for Funnybone to do Landmark, which is also where Boswick first met Super Gigi, who specializes in strolling characters with names like T-Ruth the Funky Psychic and Audrey Heartburn. Sandra, a face painter, had booked Boswick into a bunch of Santa gigs this past Christmas, and he was buying her dinner to express his gratitude.
The group naturally gravitated toward shoptalk. Sandra had only one gig the coming weekend, doing glitter tattoos. She talked about having to sign NDAs for some of her Silicon Valley clients. Funnybone passed around his iPhone 6 with a video of the large stateroom he’d been given while performing on a recent three-week South American cruise.
Boswick related a dream he’d had the night before of appearing on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart as a clown correspondent, and he told a story about the time he was chased in his car while wearing a clown outfit. Boswick and Funnybone talked about the confounding rise in negativity about clowns. “I never used to like clowns,” Sandra admitted, recounting a traumatizing early Ringling experience in which a clown ran up to her and shot his flag gun. “My brother hated clowns,” Boswick said. “Before caller ID, you’d get calls — ‘I’m going to kill you,’ ” Funnybone said. He and Boswick laughed.