The 1990s were a strange time for professional wrestling, especially the WWF. Through the early 90s in particular, a whole range of superstars would debut with a variety of gimmicks, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. The most frequent genre of gimmick was without doubt the occupational gimmick. We had a wrestling garbage collector, a wrestling taxman, a wrestling policeman, a wrestling mortician and many more. More often than not, these gimmicks were doomed to failure. For every Undertaker you have a TL Hopper, The Goon and Duke Droese, characters resigned to the bin of history.
It’s fair to say that if the vast majority of these guys made their bow today, the results would be much the same. Initial hilarity, only to fade into obscurity until a ridiculous Battle Royal at WrestleMania XXXV made their services required. In all of the stupidity, there is one gimmick that could have had legs. One gimmick that could have amounted to something, back then and today. It is a character that parodied itself way too quickly, and was one of the few bright sparks of creativity from the Occupational Era. Not that WWF creative realized it at the time. I’m talking about Doink the Clown.
Now, I don’t remember Doink the Clown too fondly. Most of what I do remember from his run fills me with all sorts of irritation. His Survivor Series battle against Jerry Lawler and their teams full of little versions of themselves. The fact that a team of Four Doink clean-sweeped Bam Bam Bigelow (the most underrated big guy ever) and the Headshrinkers (both of whom were pinned after ‘hilarious’ clown hi-jinx), not to mention Bastion Booger, at Survivor Series 1993. You know you’re in trouble when the only vaguely well-done thing was the double Doink vision thing at WrestleMania IX, and even that was awful.
But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Clowns are interesting things, and professional wrestling is the perfect arena for them. Clowns have been around since the beginning of human time, although I can’t really confirm this due to not being around the since of beginning of human time myself. The whole point of their existence was to sit on the fringes of society, to poke fun at that which no one would dare. They would subvert social norms in strict societies. Clowns represented the deviant side of human nature.
Somewhere in the 20th century it all went a little wrong. A sinister side to clowns and jesters began to dominate, a side with devious intentions. Hobo clowns became the norm, the seedy underbelly of society as opposed to its hilarious fringe. Clown fear (coulrophobia, to give it its proper name) still wasn’t a thing, but a series of murderous clowns in the 1970s and 80s would put paid to that. Stephen King put the final nail in the clown coffin with his book ‘It’, with the character Pennywise taking on the form of whatever the viewer feared the most, becoming a clown in collective vision. Ever since, you’ll find five people who claim to be afraid of clowns before you find someone who isn’t. (Side note: I have no evidence to support this, but it is scientific fact).
Throughout history, clowns have represented the unacceptable side of humanity. They are grotesquely painted individuals holding a mirror up to people, showing them a world of unacceptable ethics and questionable morals. Despite this, clowns still have the ability to cling to their entertainment, and can be quite fun if you aren’t a massive coward.
Where does professional wrestling come into this? Well, is there an art form in the world where its characters frequently tiptoe along the lines of good and bad? Where a character can be loved and enjoyed by all before slowly turning to a darker side where they become repulsed, even feared by the fans? The life span of a professional wrestler isn’t all that different to the historical life span of the clown. Figures for the entertainment of the masses, gone bad and hated, then back and forth between the two depending on interpretation. A clown is the perfect occupational gimmick, and the WWF somehow stumbled upon it. If they had only mirrored the history of clowns, Doink starting as a babyface before slipping into darkness, The Undertaker might not have been the only occupational gimmick to survive.
WWF/E aren’t entirely to blame for the lack of success the Doink character had of course. The injuries and personal issues of everyone who played it plagued Doink the Clown from the very beginning. Over the years, a total of seven people have portrayed Doink the Clown. Seven! The only thing that might come close to that is the eventual number of Sin Caras. This lack of consistency certainly hindered the character, although its booking as comedy relief didn’t help too much either.
It was ECW who came closest to excelling the wrestling clown in heel form. Matt Osborne, he who played the original Doink in WWF, wrestled a number of matches for ECW as Matt Borne, becoming embroiled in a storyline where Shane Douglas would chastise Vince McMahon for turning such a talented technician into comic relief. This character reached its creative pinnacle when Osborne wrestled with his face half-painted in clown get-up, claiming that he had developed borderline personality disorder. When the hobo clown phenomenon began, it’s most famous character suffered from this on an extreme scale. All three incarnations of ‘Weary Willie’, portrayed by three generations of the Kelly family, had difficulty separating between the two existences. This reached its nightmarish climax when Paul Kelly, the third and final Willie, committed a number of murders and listed ‘Willie’ as an accomplice. Dark stuff.
Professional wrestling has never been afraid of exploring the dark side of existence, and their failure to do so with a wrestling clown to its deserved degree will forever frustrate. In hindsight, the clown deserved more historically than a couple of Wrestling Observer awards for ‘Most Embarrassing Wrestler’ and ‘Worst Feud’ and to be remembered by most fans in disgust. Coulrophobia is too new a phenomenon and too all purveying to ignore. The same can’t be said for a plumber or a binman.
That’ll do for now. What do you think? Did the WWE miss a trick with Doink the Clown? Are there any other occupational gimmicks that could have been portrayed better? Have I made coulrophobia up? Drop a comment in the lonely comment box below, or we can duke it out on twitter (@pingvinorkestra) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’m moving to Slovenia next week.