Better clowns, not more clowns.

That's the thinking behind Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' decision this week to pull the plug on its 30-year-old Clown College, in favor of a new program that will train already-working pros in the baggy-pants profession--a sort of Graduate Clown College.

While this news will not set well with those who dream of learning the intricacies of the cream-pie toss, it's going over boffo with greasepaint veterans.

"When I spoke to the clown on the unit about this, they gave a standing ovation," Kenneth Feld, of Ringling Bros. parent company Feld Entertainment Inc., told Associated Press.

Yes, for a bunch of clowns, they're pretty savvy. They can count.

When Feld's father, Irving, founded Clown College in 1968, the profession was literally dying. Ringling Bros. only employed about a dozen of Red Skelton's favorite art subjects. And most of those guys were old.

Anticipating that there would be few sights more disturbing than that of an aged clown who can't muster the strength to climb out of his own imaginary box, Irving Feld decided the yukster biz needed fresh blood--and fast.

And so was born Clown College. The circus barnstormed the country, looking for the hearty who wanted to be fools. Thousands auditioned; few were chosen. Only 30 people were selected each year to attend the free-of-charge Clown College classes in Florida, according to AP. Top graduates were hired by Ringling Bros.

But the program became a victim of its own success. Today, the ranks of professionally trained Bozo disciples have swelled to 1,400.

Like Alan Greenspan putting the brakes on a boom-boom economy by raising interest rates, Kenneth Feld is trying to head off a clown glut.

And so now at the old grounds of Clown College, our nation's working stiffs with giant, floppy shoes will work toward their M.B.A.s in clowndom.

New high-tech acts--with bungee cords, and the like--demand such schooling, Feld told the wire service.

The circus exec, in fact, dreams of a day where his spritzer-water specialists will do things that International Clown Hall of Famers like Edwin "Poodles" Hanneford never dreamed of: Perhaps, "a comedy trapeze display with clowns," Feld said.

No word yet if the grad school courses will actually make clowns funny. But we can dream, too.

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