David Larible profile

The Tampa Tribune, January 2, 2004
(Click to view or right-click to save PDF)

Born to clown

David Larible, a seventh-generation circus performer, has earned the moniker “Prince of Laughter.”

The Tampa Tribune

The funny wig, the floppy shoes, the greasepaint, the balloon animals — everything you know about clowns is wrong.

So says David Larible, and he should know.

As a seventh-generation circus performer, the 46-year-old native of Novara, Italy, has known clowns all his life. And for nearly 30 years, he’s been one.

Clowns — real clowns — are much deeper than a colorful costume and a juggling act, Larible explains, settling into the sofa inside his trailer. He’s at the Florida State Fairgrounds with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, practicing for the 134th edition of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

“It’s like me putting on a white coat and a stethoscope and pair of glasses … you’re going to see me a you’re going to think, ‘This guy’s a doctor,'” Larible says, tugging at the Brazilian soccer jersey he’s wearing. “But don’t put your life in my hands.”

Life, no. But when it comes to healing your soul, there may be no safer place.

“I consider clowning, if you do it in the right way, to be a form of art, like ballet,” says Larible, who won the prestigious Golden Clown Award (the circus equivalent of the Academy Award) in 1999.

Like any aspiring artist, a clown has to study the masters before forging his own creative identity. For Larible, that meant a few names not normally associated with clowning: silent film and vaudeville stars Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon, among others.

“That’s probably the most difficult part of being a clown,” Larible says, “but it’s like every form of art … the most difficult thing is to create your own style.”

Larible’s style is amiable, interactive and decidedly European. It’s also distinctive enough that a German circus magazine recently cited him as “the clown that is most imitated in the world,” Larible says.

His appearance is no less unique. Larible’s trademark houndstooth suit and cap, not exactly customary clown garb, is perhaps clowndom’s most recognizable costume.

It also was an accident.

“I wanted to have a gray costume — just gray,” he says. But “the gray material at the time … was too expensive for me.” The tailor offered him checkered material at a cheaper price, saying, “‘From far away, it’s going to look gray,'” Larible says, laughing.

The notion that the clothes make the clown isn’t the only common misconception Larible shatters.

“There is this legend about clowns being very sad in real life,” he says. “If you are a clown, you have to have a lot of joy inside of you. Because how can you bring joy to others if you don’t have joy in you?”

While Larible admits clowns “can have serious moments and sad moments like everyone,” he knows audience members “don’t want to know about my tragedies. They want to see David Larible the funny clown. And that’s fair.”

Larible doesn’t always care for the constant negative portrayals of clowns in popular culture (see accompanying story), but neither does he take it personally. “They’re not talking about real clowns. They’re talking about people who dress as a clown,” he says, emphasizing the difference.

“If you think about the Greek theater, you have the two masks, the happy and the sad. So what they like to do is to unite these two things,” Larible says. “It’s very cheap, it’s very easy.

“The problem is when you say “clown,’ [people think of] Ronald McDonald or Bozo. They never [think of] Chaplin, they never [think of] Keaton, they never [think of] the Marx Brothers,” Larible says.

“There are people who are scared of clowns and I have to tell you, they are right,” Larible says. “Because there are some clowns that are really scary. They scare me!”

With his impossibly gentle blue eyes and a bottomless supply of enthusiastic charm (he claims he’s exhausted, but you’d never know it), Larible couldn’t scare the pants off a nudist. By all appearances, he’s just an ordinary guy. That is, if a man who plays seven musical instruments and speaks five languages can be considered ordinary.

What sets Larible apart is his devotion to his craft.

“When you are a clown,” Larible says, “you don’t play the clown — you are the clown. … We are not actors.

“You have to have real passion … there’s a lot of sacrifice involved,” Larible says, noting he spends about 11 1/2 months a year on the road.

When they’re not traveling, Larible and his family (he’s married with two children) have made their home in Tierra Verde for the past eight years. (“I consider myself already a Floridian,” he jokes.)

Larible swears he still gets butterflies, especially on opening night. If not for his unquestionable sincerity, it would be hard to believe. The walls of his trailer are lined with countless photographs of Larible mingling with such luminaries as Robin Williams and Woody Allen.

Curiously, it’s the Hollywood celebrities who appear star-struck, their faces lit up with childlike wonder in Larible’s presence.

Must’ve been the balloon animals.

Quit Clownin’

Some people are scared silly by clowns, and popular culture helps fuel the fear.

The Tampa Tribune

As usual, deep thinker Jack Handey of “Saturday Night Live” fame said it most succinctly.

“To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kind of scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad.”

It’s a joke, of course. But for some people, clowns are no laughing matter.

Rapper P. Diddy (or whatever he’s calling himself this week) reportedly is afraid of them. So is actor Johnny Depp, who was quoted in 1999 as saying it’s “something about the painted face, the fake smile. There always seemed to be a darkness lurking just under the surface, a potential for real evil.”

In fact, coulrophobia (the 50-cent word for fear of clowns) is so prevalent, if you type “clowns” into the Google search engine on the World Wide Web, the most popular result is ihateclowns.com.

The site’s creator, Rodney Blackwell, agrees with Depp. “Maybe [clowns] want to hide from their past, hide from the own inner pain,” he suggests. Whatever the case, when Blackwell sees the greasepaint, he shudders at what might be hiding behind its rictus grin.

Mark Pezzo, an assistant professor of psychological science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, isn’t so sure. “I think that sounds good, but I’m not buying it,” Pezzo says.

Pezzo prefers an explanation more rooted in reality.

OK, so John Wayne Gacy didn’t help. But Pezzo believes coulrophobia is more likely the spawn of popular culture.

“I think it all goes back to the movie ‘It’ by Stephen King,” Pezzo says. “It scared the crap out of me, it scared the crap out of everyone I know.”

Indeed, clowns get a bad rap. Almost without fail, they’re portrayed as evil, lazy or stupid. But mostly just evil:

  • In the movie “Poltergeist,” a clown doll comes to life to attack a child.
  • In the “Spawn” comic books and movies, the Clown (a k a the Violator) is a demon from the 8th Sphere of Hell.
  • On Fox TV’s “The Simpsons,” Krusty the Clown is selfish, unscrupulous and cynical.
  • In the movie “Shakes the Clown,” the title character and all his clown friends are deadbeat drunks.
  • On Fox’s old “In Living Color” comedy show, the Damon Wayans character Homey D. Clown was a temperamental ex-convict.
  • The movie “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” is … well, it’s pretty self-explanatory.
  • Rap-metal group Insane Clown Posse wears grotesque greasepaint and performs songs about murder and necrophilia.
  • In the “Twisted Metal” video games, a psychotic clown named Sweet Tooth runs a futuristic demolition derby.

“I think we’re just classically conditioned from seeing all these movies,” Pezzo says.

And TV shows, comic books and video games.

Even Blackwell, whose Web site started in 1996 as a simple home page and now gets more than 50,000 visitors per month, admits “the flood of anti-clown images in the media” could serve as a Pavlovian provocation. He even traces his own phobia back to a scene in “The Wiz,” a 1978 adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. In the movie, Ross (as Dorothy) and Jackson (as the scarecrow) are chased through a subway by giant menacing clowns.

“The clown images in ‘The Wiz’ creeped me out as a kid,” he says.

As if Michael Jackson wasn’t scary enough.

Tribune reviewers eat anonymously. Rommie Johnson can be reached at (813) 259-7426.