The Worst Things About Parenting, No. 24: The Extinction of The Bozo Show

In the spirit of June and Father’s Day, NewBourne Identity will be posting every Tuesday this month. You may be thrilled or terrified – both are valid responses. Enjoy!

The Bozo Show was a clown-based variety show for kids that aired nationally on WGN for decades. I know you know that, but that’s an important sentence to say aloud. Once in a while, you’ll run into someone who has never heard of The Bozo Show, and you have to explain it to them, and there is no faster way to make yourself sound completely insane to others.

“No, no, it wasn’t weird – the clown magician was just part of it, the other clown also taught you about doing chores!”

But there’s an entirely new group of people to whom we’ll be explaining The Bozo Show: our children.

Full of pre-internet charm, the show managed to get across several meaningful concepts for kids. You learned that clowns weren’t just hauntingly terrifying. They had some educational components, teaching some math and reading skills. There was a band and audience-participation sketches. It was SNL for kids.

Best yet, it was unpolished. Bozo looked like a man wearing makeup, not a Tim Burton character. The production value was low. But that didn’t matter because the characters were entertaining, educational and funny. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like my kid to watch. But now, the only remnants of the show are on YouTube and your parent’s VHS collection.

And even though the various actors held your attention briefly, the real star of the show was the Bozo Buckets Grand Prize Game.

I regularly dreamt about winning the bike that was given away on The Bozo Show as part of the Bozo Buckets game. I would sink that final bucket, hop on my new bike, ride right out of the studio and into my neighborhood, where I would pull off a smooth skid-slide and dazzle everyone.

In reality, I was once a part of the Bozo Buckets, only in the most heart-breaking way imaginable. I was selected as an at-home player when I was in third grade, allowing me to win the same prize as the audience member picked by the Bozo-puter. When the number came up, I was excited to check out who my teammate would be for this bike-winning extravaganza.

Instead, a woman came out of the audience holding what appeared to be a fetus. I’ve never been great with kids’ ages, but I’m guessing this kid was maybe one year old. Maybe.

The mom plops the kid down in front of Bucket No. 1. This one’s a gimme, as viewers know. A fine package of Maurice Lenell cookies awaits the participants who drop the ping-pong ball into Bucket No. 1 (Tragic side note: I later lived near the Maurice Lenell factory on the NW side of Chicago, and it haunted me for years). The mom hands my proxy the ball, and he immediately flings it to the left side of the stage, several feet from Bucket No. 1. At this point, my heart sank because I had probably watched about a hundred episodes of this show and never saw someone tank Bucket No. 1 this badly. Maybe they’ll get another boy player, I thought. No, Bozo shoved the ball into the kid’s hand, then held it and dropped it in No. 1 for him. The kid overshot Bucket No. 2 by several feet and a few weeks later, I got a box of Maurice Lenell cookies in the mail. They were oatmeal raisin and tasted like disappointment.

They ran episodes of The Bozo Show for decades after that, with the last rerun airing on Aug. 26, 2001. Sixteen days later, 9/11 happened and no one has ever confirmed to me whether these two events were related.

There are many life lessons to teach a child, but so rarely does such a valuable lesson come at such an early age. From the moment that wobbly one-year-old tossed away my bike-winning hopes, I came to realize something very important in life: If you want something done right, you’re going to have to do it yourself.