Anyone who's seen Capturing the Friedmans, last year's incendiary documentary about the pedophilia scandal that led to the downfall of a Long Island, N.Y., family, likely knows the strange story of its genesis. Director Andrew Jarecki, fresh from selling his company, Moviefone, to AOL for over $350 million, decided to make a documentary about professional clowns in New York City. The most successful clown in town was David Friedman—aka Silly Billy—a man in his late 30s who was pulling in six figures performing at the birthday parties of the New York elite: "I serve the high-end market," Friedman explained to Jarecki in an early interview. "Having Silly Billy at your party is part of that prestige." (Slate's own David Edelstein once hired Silly Billy to perform at his daughter's party; he tells the story in his review of the film.)
In the course of his interviews with Friedman, Jarecki began to realize that he was dealing with one angry clown. During one session on the stoop of his former home, Friedman dropped dark hints of a troubled past: "There's some things I could ... well, whatever." Curious, Jarecki did his own research, which revealed that in the late '80s, David Friedman's family had been ripped apart by multiple allegations of child molestation that that sent both his father and younger brother Jesse to jail; the former eventually committed suicide and the latter served 13 years before being released in 2003.
When Jarecki approached David Friedman about his plans to make a different movie—one that focused not on balloon animals and floppy shoes, but on child pornography and plea bargains—David reluctantly turned over more than 25 hours of harrowing home video footage that he'd shot after his father's arrest in 1988. It was the uniquely raw feel of that footage—fierce family arguments, an account of Jesse's last night of freedom, David's almost unbearably intimate "video diary"—that helped Capturing the Friedmans win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year. Some critics disputed Jarecki's presentation, claiming that he left out material that could have shown that the prosecution was little more than an overblown witch hunt. Others, including the Long Island judge who sent Arnold and Jesse Friedman to jail, complained that Jarecki was bending the truth to create sympathy for his subjects. But most viewers agreed that the Friedmans' case was far from clear-cut—and that as a first-time feature filmmaker, Jarecki had slammed one out of the park.
This year, Jarecki returned to Sundance with the film he had set out to make when he was waylaid by the Friedmans' story. Just a Clown, a 20-minute short about birthday-party clowns in New York (which premiered last week on HBO and runs through next month), can also be seen in the Capturing the Friedmans DVD extras—among the only DVD extras I've seen that truly are required viewing.
Though Jarecki insists in interviews that his sole motivation for returning to Just a Clown was a personal interest in the subject, it's hard not to see the release and promotion of Just a Clown partly as payback to David Friedman for his good-faith gesture in turning over those tapes. After all, the man makes his living in the children's entertainment business, where, as he says in one interview, "Just the intimation of something like this can ruin one's career." Even though David Friedman was in no way implicated in the scandal, it might give a parent pause to see him onscreen in Capturing the Friedmans, defending the innocence of his father, a confessed pedophile, with an almost delusional ferocity. I don't mean to suggest that there was extortion involved, just that the release of Just a Clown, which makes no reference to Capturing the Friedmans, comes at a time when Silly Billy, who now goes by the name David Kaye on his Web site, could use a little positive publicity. And if anyone owes him a favor, it's Andrew Jarecki.
This back story makes Just a Clown an odd artifact: a slight, good-natured little film that—owing mainly to the timing of its release—feels like the tip of a very unsavory iceberg. While it purports to deal with a whole clown subculture—there are bits of shtick from Professor Putter, Marsha the Musical Moose, Kosmic Ken, and David Friedman's ex-girlfriend, Pinky the Clown—Friedman is unquestionably the film's central figure. This is not only because he's New York's most successful clown ("the Bozo of New York," as the Amazing Shawnee admiringly puts it), but because, given his complex layers of hostility and humor, he's the most interesting of the lot. Silly Billy's not a gentle, Gene Wilder type; his humor has a sadistic edge. Warming the kids up at one party, he asks: "Who likes magic tricks?" (Yay!) "Who likes balloons?" (Whee!) "Who likes getting hit on the head with a hammer?" (Confused silence.) Later, as he's karate-chopped repeatedly by an amped-up little boy, Friedman asks, "What the hell's going on here? Have you all had your Ritalin?" And when he reaches down to squeeze the cheeks of one solemn partygoer into a smile, you feel a chill—Friedman touched a child! Alert the media!—and then realize that, without the background of Capturing the Friedmans, you'd think nothing of the moment at all. It's just a little girl and, yes, just a clown.
Just a Clown, with its odd pacing and sloppy editing, seems a strange successor to Friedmans, which, whatever you might say about its veracity, was an elegant, compact work of art. There are also some distinctly unilluminating interviews, like this one with a balloon supplier: "Your best brand is called your Qualitex 260Q … you can make a dog, a giraffe, whatever you want." And at times the film tries unsuccessfully to be a class allegory, with the brown hired help glowering in the kitchen while the white partygoers slice cake and don conical hats.
The film's most successful moments are those in which the briefest utterance reveals hidden depths—and not only about David Friedman. One wealthy housewife, discussing her child's over-planned birthday party, provides an unintentional glimpse of leisure-class self-loathing: "I'm a licensed psychologist and I play the game as if I'm a nothing, a housewife … six, eight months working on those stupid party bags." A former girlfriend of Friedman's (not Pinky; Silly Billy apparently gets around) is asked about their sex life, and her awkward laughter seems to point toward unimaginable perversities.
But all of this says more about what we, as former Friedmans viewers, bring to the film than it does about Just a Clown itself. At one point, David Friedman speaks of his ambitions to land a children's TV show of his own, and gestures to the wall of his office, where he's pasted up a genealogy of children's entertainers: Howdy Doody, Shari Lewis, Soupy Sales, Pee Wee Herman. Unfortunately, Silly Billy may be most like the last performer on that list: a gifted but tragic figure whose name will be forever linked to a sex scandal that, as it turns out, may have been nothing at all.