Mark Peters

Laughing Stock

The Power of Creative Juxtaposition and the Threat of Clowns

An interview with humorist Chuck Sambuchino

Posted Nov 05, 2015

As the saying goes, there are a few certainties in life: death, taxes, and being stabbed repeatedly by a clown.

The first two have no solution, but humorist Chuck Sambuchino provides sage advice on how to avoid the third in his new book When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. I talked to Chuck about why clowns are scary, what makes things funny, and how he became an expert on both. 

Mark: Who are your comedy heroes and influences? And, in general, what makes you laugh?

Chuck: I grew up watching a lot of movies and TV. This runs the gamut from South Park, to classic movie comedies such as Tootsie, to older shows such as Bewitched. (My dad forced me to watch the old stuff with him. Some of it is surprisingly good. Most of it is meh.)

I grew up reading and re-reading all the Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, and Far Side books over and over again. That was kind of the foundation of my sense of humor.

The things that make me laugh push the envelope into the absurd. One of my favorite comedians right now is Bill Burr, because he is always pushing buttons and getting in your face. Plus, he talks fast and doesn't slow down. 

Mark: Murderous clowns certainly fit with a taste for the absurd. How did you decide to write about them?

Chuck: I saw the movie It in 1990, adapted from Stephen King's novel. Pennywise the Clown crawled out of the shower and that was it. I cannot remember any movie that scared me so much growing up. For a decade, I could not watch that movie or even see Tim Curry as the clown and not break into a cold sweat. That was the beginning for me.

Recently, there has been an alarming increase in clown attacks, clown pranks, and clown scares. For example, in 2015, a clown wielding an axe attacked someone in a home invasion in North Carolina. I'm not kidding -- look it up. Then go to YouTube and search "Clown pranks" and be prepared to be terrified. Clown Fear is widespread and growing.

Someone had to fight back. I took the fight to garden gnomes before and now we're taking the fight to clowns. The book was my chance to give coulrophobes (those with a fear of clowns) a guide they could use and pass around. The book gave me a chance to explain basics that people need to know -- like, among many other things, how to spot a plainclothes clown, how to clown-proof your home, and how to battle them in street combat. 

Mark: I'm impressed by the thoroughness of your book. Your analysis of clown types, clown anatomy, clown tactics, etc., simultaneously makes me feel safer and more terrorized.

As a huge comics fan, I was psyched to see the Joker mentioned. How is he typical--or atypical--of the clown menace?

Chuck: The Joker is an over-the-top psychopath who thrives on chaos. A typical clown in the real world is more of a creepy drunk. 

Mark: OK, since is for Psychology Today, let's get mental. In reference to clown humor or not, what do you think is the essence of humor? Why do we laugh? What makes stuff funny? How many ways can I ask this question? You can skip that one.

Chuck: When I try to write funny, at the essence of my humor is one of two things: 1) truth, or 2) creative juxtaposition.

Pointing out the unspoken truths of life will always make people laugh. Let's say you're at a bar with friends. A snarky friend named Randy leaves to use to restroom. Then you say, "Does anyone else feel like we only keep Randy around because he drives us everywhere?" You've pointed out an unspoken truth, and it's funny. Stand-up comedians thrive on this stuff.

"Creative juxtaposition" means taking two things that don't belong together and putting them together because it becomes silly, and thus humorous. A simple example is the Pope on a skateboard. A better example is when the Pixar movies do outtakes at the end of their films. They take element 1 -- fake people -- and combine with element 2: film miscues. This makes no sense, and that's why it's funny.

At the heart of my own humor books is this creative juxtaposition. Taking something silly and harmless like garden gnomes and combining them with the threat of real danger. Element 1 + element 2 = funny. Clowns taking over the world fits the same bill.