“Quick, send in the clowns, don’t bother they’re here.” Steven Sondheim
Today’s journalism is a devil’s game, often too funny to report seriously. It’s not so much inspiration as waiting for the clowns to collide. This is what Steven Sondheim meant when he wrote “Send In the Clowns.”
He admitted to an interviewer back in 1970, the line “Don’t bother, they’re here,” was meant for all of us. “We’re the fools,” he said. “I would have called it ‘Send In the Fools’ but it was the wrong meter.”
“There ought to be clowns,” the song goes, and clowns exist in all fact and fiction. Our politics, our religion our social interaction are collisions in one form or another. True writers look for the pieces, the bent rearview mirror, the bumper, the family dog running in circles around the corpses.
When Hunter S. Thompson was covering the Pulitzer divorce trial back in ’83, he arrived at the Palm Beach courthouse late. All he found were discarded press kits.
Judge Carl Harper had already cited “flagrant acts of adultery and other gross marital misconduct” for awarding Roxanne Pulitzer less than $50,000 of her husband’s multi-million dollar fortune.
Now they were circling the wagons, hiding the under-aged girlfriends in backwater motels with enough coke to feed a Libyan army.
For most writers at the courthouse that week, enough blood had been spilt to disgust even the veterans. They were on their way home. The hard tales of cocaine abuse, incest, lesbianism and late-night séances could fill a dozen columns and still leave room for more debauchery in the Miami sun.
That didn’t satisfy Thompson. The Pulitzers played hard, but others played even harder. Now they were circling the wagons, hiding the under-aged girlfriends in backwater motels with enough coke to feed a Libyan army. As Thompson wrote in his piece for Rolling Stone, “…when the rich feel anxious and confused, they act like wild animals.”
Some writers write what they see, others what they feel. Thompson preferred to speculate, especially in a case revealing the kind of moral turpitude that would make a Bed/Sty pimp blush.
It was all clownish behaviour, but clowns get pretty frantic, and collisions don’t happen in isolation. Events tend to metastasize, growing with one’s own lack of morals and willingness to eat the pavement. They form further up the body and spread like a bad case of acne.
“The rich have certain rules,” Thompson wrote after the Pulitzer trial, “and these are two of the big ones: maintain the privacy and pipeline at all costs — although not necessarily in that order — it depends on the situation, they say; and everything has its price, even women.”
It’s the nature of clowns. We all have killer and complacent genes. Collisions are meant to teach us which is which.
“You can’t wait for inspiration,” Jack London once said. “You have to go after it with a club.” Some writers club their clowns before they’ve done anything, Thompson being one of them, another being possibly the greatest observer of clowns, H.L. Mencken.
Here’s H.L. Mencken reporting on the first day of the Scopes Trial: “They were all hot for Genesis,” he explained, “but their faces were too florid to belong to teetotalers, and when a pretty girl came tripping down the main street, they reached for the places where their neck-ties should have been with all the amorous enterprise of movie stars…”
Mencken, Thompson, London and Sondheim all knew about collisions. Even a dog can start out innocent and become a killer. It’s the nature of clowns and fools to act by instinct. We all have killer and complacent genes. Collisions are meant to teach us which is which.
Finding clowns and fools is the easy part. Writing about them is fine art. It may not always be the same as Thompson reporting on the Palm Beach dung heap, but it’s always about human nature. That’s where clowns collide.
The collision had happened. Nixon was impeached. Why embellish what already stank of corruption and sin?
Let’s go back to Mencken for a minute. He was down in Dayton, Tennessee reporting on one of the most important trials of the century. It struck at the very heart of our fundamental beliefs. Why did he report on the red-faced citizens of Dayton? Because they were voters, and voters in number can affect change the same as any bumpkin in Washington.
When a writer says “Well, if I’d been around during the Nixon administration, I could’ve written like Thompson,” they’re kidding themselves. Hundreds of journalists reported on the last days of Nixon. Very few went one word beyond the facts. The collision had happened. Nixon was impeached. Why embellish what already stank of corruption and sin?
The answer is simple: you have to ask where the stink comes from in the first place. If Roxanne Pulitzer was such a miscreant, who made her that way? Was the Scopes trial about creationism or our own fears of alternative thinking?
All these questions come naturally to good writers. As low as we think someone can go, with enough investigation, we find they can go even lower. If Woodward and Bernstein hadn’t pursued what were then the slimmest of leads, there wouldn’t have been a Watergate trial.
Was the Scopes trial about creationism or our own fears of alternate thinking?
It’s all clownish behavior, the kind that only comes from digging and insight. Before you dig, though, you have to know why. It has to be fundamental to your thinking — not just to be different — but know what makes us clownish in the first place.
If we’re fools, what makes us fools? How did we come to believe any behavior is acceptable, as long as we don’t pull a gun or steal a giraffe from a zoo. Our foolishness has to come with a certain lack of decency or at least moral guidelines. As someone once said, “You’re over the line when everyone in the room is uncomfortable.”
Right now, it’s like everyone in the world is uncomfortable. Is it the other clowns and fools, or none of us realizing we’re over the line?
It’s all worth thinking about. Fools can change, or so we think, or hope, but it’s a long way to go if you’ve been a fool for a long time.
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now available in paperback). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for details.