The bag of clownfish

(Warning: a partial draft of this essay was accidentally posted an hour and a half ago. I know from bitter experience that trying to delete a posted draft and replace it with the final product unfolds into disaster, so I’m just treating this as an update of that earlier posting. Please bear with me.)

In today’s (12/15) Rhymes With Orange cartoon, a delightful exercise in cartoon understanding: to appreciate the point of the joke (set in a pet store and focused on tropical fish), you need to know something quite specific about modern American popular culture, having to do with circus acts.

(#1) Two young women — perhaps, we speculate, a couple, though that seems not to be relevant to the joke — have bought some (tropical) fish, in water in plastic bags (two in one bag, one in the other); the pet store clerk is now handing them a bag of clownfish as well: a bag jam-packed to the brim with brightly colored tiny fish

Why is that funny?

The cultural setting. The viewer of #1 is expected to bring a mind-boggling amount of cultural knowledge to bear on understanding it, including at least the following:

— we live in a culture in which people routinely keep living creatures as pets (which ones we treat this way differs from one (sub)culture to another); from NOAD:

noun pet: a domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship or pleasure

I note that fish are very marginally pets: they don’t interact with the people who keep them, but serve as a kind of living decoration (or science lesson).

And that it is almost entirely tropical species of (small) fresh-water fish that are treated in this way. The common, or ocellaria, clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) — more on clownfish later — is fairly small (grows up to 11 cm / 4.3 in), but not nearly as tiny as the clownfish in the cartoon; and it’s a marine (saltwater) fish, unlike the other fish in the cartoon.

So the clownfish in the cartoon are truly cartoon clownfish, bearing little relationship to actual clownfish. They’re in the cartoon not because of their real-world characteristics, which are in fact irrelevant there, but because of their clownfish name, a compound noun with clown as its first element. Lotsa clowns, that’s the thing. (Evoking, ohrwurmlich, Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns” .)

— a culture in which those creatures are customarily viewed as property (though they may have other cultural values as well), and so can be exchanged as gifts or goods.

— goods exchanges which can then be institutionalized in pet shops / stores, retail businesses that sell animals and pet care resources to the public. (Again, these are very culture-specific.) Finally, tropical fish, or aquarium, stores are a specialized type of pet store dealing entirely with fish.

And all of that, put together, gives us the setting for the Rhymes cartoon.

A perfect day for clownfish. First, clownfish as a group, then with a focus on the common, or ocellaria, clownfish, which you can just think of as Nemo. From Wikipedia:

Clownfish or anemonefish are fishes from the subfamily Amphiprioninae in the family Pomacentridae. Thirty species of clownfish are recognized: one in the genus Premnas, while the remaining are in the genus Amphiprion. In the wild, they all form symbiotic mutualisms with [the venomous] sea anemones.

They’re apparently called clownfish because their erratic swimming patterns (tending to the anemones) look acrobatic and playful, and because they’re brightly colored. The iconic clownfish, gaudily orange:

(#2) Amphiprion ocellaris (clown anemonefish, ocellaria clownfish, common clownfish), among the tentacles of sea anemones, in Papua New Guinea (Wikipedia photo)

On common clownfish as pets, from the LiveAquaria site on “Clownfish Care: Finding Nemo .. In Your Home”:

Clownfish are an absolute joy to keep, not just for the sake of kids who have an absolute fascination with these wondrous species due to the evolution of Clownfish through pop culture, but also for amateur aquarists fascinated with having their very own Nemo in their own home. [AZ: they are strikingly pretty; but they’re saltwater fish, and require saltwater aquariums, which are demanding to maintain]

And on Nemo, from Wikipedia:

(#3) Disney poster for the movie

Finding Nemo is a 2003 American computer-animated comedy-drama adventure film … It tells the story of an overprotective clownfish named Marlin who, along with a regal blue tang named Dory, searches for his missing son Nemo. Along the way, Marlin learns to take risks and comes to terms with Nemo taking care of himself.

What do clowns have to do with it? Even if I’ve told you, as I have above, that a bag packed to the gills with lots of little clownfish is the real point of #1, and that it’s actually all about clowns, tons of clowns — even then, you might well be mystified. What you need to cope with the clown thing is (from Wikipedia) this mid-20th century development in American popular culture (originating in the circus and then spreading to other forms of mass entertainment, notably the movies):

(#4) A Lars Kenseth New Yorker clown car cartoon, which appeared in the magazine on 6/8/20 (Which one of these things is not like the others? Which one of these things doesn’t belong?)

A clown car is a prop in a circus clown routine, which involves an implausibly large number of clowns emerging from a very small car. The first performance of this routine was in the Cole Bros. Circus during the 1950s. The effect is produced by simply removing all of a car’s internal components — including the door panels, the headliner and any interior barrier to the trunk — and then filling the enlarged space with as many clowns as possible. Greg DeSanto of the International Clown Hall of Fame estimates that somewhere between 14 and 21 clowns and their props could fit into a car prepared in this manner.

Here at the end of the story I’d intended to include an image of a clown in a bright orange fright wig, to go along with the fish in #2, but the images I found all required a fee for use (or were actually images of the reality show host Helmet Grabpussy). But, to my mind better than any clown from the circus is this Bitter Campari aperitif clown wrapped in orange peel:

(#5) Vintage advertising art (ca. 1921) by the marvelous Italian-French poster artist Leonetto Cappiello; see my appreciation of Cappiello in the 1/7 /22 posting “Royal Melchior”

Now imagine vivid shoals of clownfish darting playfully among swaying anemones in the bitter saltwater of the Campari Sea.

4 Responses to “The bag of clownfish”

  1. John Baker Says:

    And, of course, the circus act in question is the clown car entrance, in which a small car enters the circus ring and discharges an implausibly large number of clowns. Actually, that’s the only well-known clown act that I can think of, but it’s very well-known.

    At this point, I wonder how many people have even seen the clown car entrance? (I have, but not for 50 years or so.) It seems to have become part of our collective memory even as it has been phased out of actual practice. Similarly, who has actually ridden in a horse-drawn sleigh, or eaten chestnuts roasted on an open fire? (There’s a good reason for the latter: Roast chestnuts are awful.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Your reply is to the accidentally posted draft, but you caught my “circus acts” clue. Yes, who has seen the clown car entrance? (I have, but that was, like, 65 years ago. I did think it was *wonderful*.) In fact, that kind of circus is pretty much gone now, though there’s still work for clowns. But the clown car entrance remains as a bit of mythic Olde America (still appearing in animated cartoons, where the effect is easily achieved through software rather than hardware).

      Hmm. I recall getting roasted chestnuts from a street vendor in Reading PA back in winters around 1950, and liking them. But my recollection might have been colored by the myth.

      • Robert Coren Says:

        Or, alternatively, you and John Baker simply have different tastes. “X is awful” really just means “I don’t like X”.

  2. Robert Southwick Richmond Says:

    I saw the clown car act more than once, at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, 1946 into the 1950s, when I was a kid. I regret the passage of such circuses, but they cannot be again.

    I didn’t get the cartoon. I used to be a serious aquarist, and all I thought of was the clerk’s incompetence of crowding that many of a delicate reef fish into a small bag.

    Clown fishes, Amphiprion percula and other species in the genus, live in sea anemones. They entice prey into the sea anemone, and the sea anemone protects them from predators, and a good time is had by all.

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