The Clown With the Beautiful Baritone
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Puddles’ stunning singing might undo a lifetime of coulrophobia. (Or the opposite.)
By Jim Knipfel
A year or so back, upon first seeing Puddles, a nearly 7-foot-tall clown in stark white greasepaint with only the most minimal of red accents, singing some of the saddest songs in the world, my gut reaction was immediate: “This is so very deeply wrong on so many levels.” The more I saw him, however — drawn back again and again, the way you can’t help but revisit a nightmare or an accident — I started to reconsider.
Setting aside my own inescapable and paralyzing coulrophobia, there is something absolutely perfect about Puddles the Clown. History is filled with tragic clowns, from Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped and Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs to Auguste in Henry Miller’s The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, Jerry Lewis in The Day the Clown Cried and all those sobbing clowns in Emmett Kelly’s paintings. On the surface, Puddles may be just another musical comedy act with a hook, but at heart he’s a 21st-century Pagliacci, a larger-than-life funnyman being devoured by his inner demons. Only difference is Puddles has yet to pick up the knife.
Puddles does not frolic or caper or do pratfalls. He stands in existential isolation onstage and sings heartbreaking songs like Lorde’s “Royals” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in a soaring baritone reminiscent of Scott Walker’s. He even (and maybe this is his own clown magic at work) makes “My Heart Will Go On” bearable.
It’s a gimmick of course, and in simple visual terms it’s profoundly and hysterically funny (or would be if he didn’t sing so beautifully). But at the same time he’s dredging up the tragedy at the core of all clowndom the world over and laying it bare.
Beneath the greasepaint, Puddles the Clown is Michael “Big Mike” Geier, a singer and musician based in Atlanta. The tallest of seven freakishly tall siblings, Geier began his musical career in the early ’90s as part of the swing revival with the Useless Playboys. He first put on the face paint and baggy suit a handful of years later to front the short-lived all-clown band Greasepaint. In the years that followed, Puddles made occasional appearances as part of Geier’s other projects, like the Dames Aflame burlesque revue, but he only came into his own around 2013, after Geier teamed up with the band Postmodern Jukebox to make a series of filmed performances that were posted on YouTube, some of which went viral. Since then, Geier, who’s also written music for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, has pulled together Puddles Pity Party, a dark cabaret act whose cast includes Geier’s wife, musician Shannon Newton, as Monkey Zuma, the chimp girl.
In a world that’s been plagued by unsettling clown sightings and unseemly clown behavior of late, Puddles, with all his deep, deep sadness, is no less unsettling, but at least seems less an immediate threat.
- Jim Knipfel, OZY AuthorContact Jim Knipfel