You can’t escape him. No matter where you go—what classroom full of tired students, what business meeting of bored workers, what overly-packed subway distinctly lacking in personal space—there is always that one guy who has to be funny about it. He is always ready to make a joke, never accounting for appropriateness or good taste, and no matter how serious, stressful, or focused a situation is, that joke is going to happen. You could be dangling off a cliff face together and he’d be making jokes about you leaving him hanging.
In all likelihood he unwittingly got the idea from storytelling in general: the comic relief character is a trope pulled straight from the quartos of Shakespeare, where guys like this one traipse about tormenting nobles and making clever, genital-based jokes between death scenes. (Nobody likes your Conan jokes, Feste.) Different versions of this prankster thrive in pop culture to this day, from the snarky sitcom bachelor to the quick-witted class clown of cartoondom, so it comes as exactly no surprise that a version of this character appears in Final Fantasy as well. Think of any bad joke that’s made at the wrong moment, any awful and intentional pun, any moment of comedy meant to break of the seriousness of a situation by making us laugh in any Final Fantasy under consideration, and I can almost guarantee you are thinking of that guy.
However, Final Fantasy has done something interesting in making the archetype their own. While this always-male character is a jokester of the highest (or lowest) caliber throughout the entirety of the game, it doesn’t take long for the audience to realize there’s something else going on. Maybe his humor becomes self-deprecating, maybe that clown-paint veneer starts to crack, maybe the party stumbles on just the wrong place at just the wrong moment and it hits him like a freight train—but eventually, it becomes clear that there’s something vulnerable about this funny man, something that turns him into a Sad Clown. Interestingly, it almost always has to do with something as close to his heart as his terrible puns: family, and how he has lost them. Characters that fit under this archetype include Barret (FFVII), Irvine (FFVIII), Wakka (FFX), Balthier (FFXII), and Sazh (FFXIII). Steiner (FFIX) is also a notably clownish character, but does not fit with the archetype on more than a superficial level; several early-entry characters, such as Locke (FFVI), Edgar (FFVI), Setzer (FFVI) and Bartz (FFV) display traits characteristic of the archetype as well, if only partially.
To start, there are several traits consistent among the members of this archetype that should be addressed: they are often some of the older members of their respective parties, but are only the oldest when there is no Failed Warrior in the party. They act goofy from the get-go. They get along well with their respective Perky Refugees, and have a push-and-pull relationship with Jaded Beauties. More often than any other archetype, they are marked by signature headgear. And . . . that’s it.
Other than these traits, the characters in this archetype vary widely in terms of look and disposition. Barret is a short-tempered, gun-toting terrorist who is quick to make use of Wingdings; Irvine is at once a smooth-talker and a bumbler who will do anything to get a girl’s attention; Wakka is a laid-back island boy with an unfortunate tendency toward racism and verbal tics; Balthier is Han Solo; and Sazh is a down-to-earth father who is way too somber for that hairdo. They maintain few consistencies in their dress or appearance, unlike the Perky Refugees with their booty-shorts and short skirts. They do all act as comic relief in their respective games as mentioned above (even Barret, the most serious of the bunch, might as well be wearing clown shoes during the battle with Bahamut in Advent Children), but even then they are not exclusively responsible for the role, with other characters contributing regularly. Taking just these characteristics into account, you would never put these guys together in the same category.
However, in their shared experiences of familial loss, their similarity becomes glaring. Much like the Jaded Beauty and the Perky Refugee—or, really, like any character of note in Final Fantasy, if these analyses are revealing anything—the Sad Clown has experienced a marked tragedy in his past that greatly affects him, in the loss of a close, beloved family member.
Sometime before the events of the game, an unforeseen calamity befalls the clown, though he is noticeably missing from the actual event. In the moment of his absence, misfortune befalls a close relative, with perilous results: Barret’s wife is killed during a Shinra raid while he is away from Corel, Wakka’s little brother dies when the Crusaders engage Sin, and Sazh’s son is given a virtual death sentence when a threatened fal’Cie brands him a l’Cie. Even when the event is not as dramatic, it is still dire, and may in fact be more painful for being drawn out; Balthier, for instance, watches his father descend into Myst-driven madness, and Irvine finds himself forgotten and abandoned by his amnesiac orphanage family.
In nearly all cases, the Clown blames himself in some capacity (Barret wasn’t there to defend his village when he was needed, Wakka allowed Chappu to become a Crusader despite his concerns, and Sazh looked away just a moment too long) or feels personally responsible for undoing the damage done (Irvine refuses to kill Edea when the others have forgotten who she is, and Balthier pursues Cid to take his father out himself).
In each case, the Clown reacts to this misfortune by both hardening and redirecting. His sense of humor, though likely genuine in many circumstances, becomes a mask to cover his feelings of inadequacy, mixed with a considerable dose of self-deprecation: Barret is the most pointed advocate in the group for violence against Shinra, but cools significantly when mention is made of Corel; Irvine reveals that he was deeply upset about his friends forgetting him, though he takes great pains not to let it show; Wakka is often good-natured and optimistic, only to withdraw emotionally or lash out at the mention of Chappu’s fate; Balthier’s devil-may-care attitude masks a hidden anger that makes itself plain when he and the party confront Cid; and Sazh, who behaves pessimistically about his future whenever Dajh is mentioned, falls into a fit of despair when his efforts to protect his son are rendered futile.
Occasionally, the Clown will also direct his anger toward an outside target as a means of coping, such as in the cases of Barret and Wakka; one becomes an eco-terrorist to seek revenge against Shinra, and the other becomes bigoted toward the Al Bhed, who he blames for the Crusaders battle methods and Sin’s continued existence.
Ultimately, the Clown’s efforts are counterproductive, his attempts to mask his pain weakening him to the point of emotional instability. This state, in turn, can render him a danger to himself and others. Irvine, for instance, is unable to tell the others about their shared past before the encounter with Edea; his friends’ lives are then put at risk when he is unable to shoot her, and they are forced to engage her in close combat. Wakka, filled with hatred for the Al Bhed, insults and hurts Rikku when he discovers her origins, upsetting the party dynamic. Sazh, wracked with guilt when Dajh crystalizes, turns his gun on himself.
A shared understanding of personal tragedy helps create a strong connection between the Clown and the Jaded Beauty. Maintaining a relationship with her that often predates the events of the game, the Clown is able to both simultaneously annoy and endear her with his humor. Part of her patience seems to come from the fact that they understand each other on a deeper level; they are the most likely of any party members to know of each others’ back-stories, and the way their personal tragedies truly affect them. Barret, for instance, leans on Tifa for emotional and familial backing, while in turn hiring Cloud to assist AVALANCHE at her request, and encouraging her to reopen the 7th Heaven in Edge. Lulu acts as Wakka’s emotional rock through Yuna’s pilgrimage, and visa versa. Balthier and Fran are loyal companions, helping each other through a variety of scrapes and bruises. Even Sazh and Fang, whose relationship is initially rocky due to Fang’s protectiveness toward Vanille, come to support each other through emotionally strenuous situations, such as Fang’s discover that Oerba has been destroyed. (To belabor the point, excluding FFVIII, the Beauty and the Clown have at least one tear-tugging heart-to-heart in every single game under consideration here.)
The Clown is also usually close with the Perky Refugee, though the nature of that relationship varies greatly between games: while Selphie and Irvine are will-they-or-won’t-they romantics, Wakka and Rikku are more like quarreling siblings, and Balthier and Sazh seem to act as father (or at least “generic older male”) figures to Penelo and Vanille.
Often, the Clown’s relationships with these two women, as well as the party at large, are what encourage him to unpack his emotional joke box. Barret comes to admit his personal failings when mulling on the death’s of the AVALANCHE members killed or injured under his order, and the friends he wishes to keep from similar harm; Irvine is made to address his feelings of abandonment and loss when he explains the reason for, and extent of, his friends’ memory loss; Wakka must weigh his bigoted beliefs against Rikku’s emotional well-being after the destruction of Home; Balthier confronts the dissolution of his family, which he has fled for many years, when his father becomes a threat to the world at large; and Sazh is made to see the error of his personal assumptions when Vanille supports him through the loss of his son.
To combat his counterproductive behavior, the Clown is made to address his true feelings of sadness, loss, and failure in a way that eliminates their power over him. Sometimes, this comes in admitting how much they truly affect him–such is the case with Barret, who finally reveals that much of his motivation to combat Shinra was out of a desire for vengeance, rather than the greater good he claimed to be fighting for. Irvine has to allow himself to trust his friends again, and to be vulnerable enough to feel how they value him. Balthier, too, must confront his feelings of betrayal and hurt at his father’s growing madness. Other times, it comes from admitting their anger has been misdirected: both Wakka and Sazh find themselves facing down a representation of their hated enemy (Rikku and Vanille) and are forced to see how wrong they have been in blaming them.
For each of these men, their development as characters and maturation as people comes in understanding the source of their pain, in allowing their face-paint to fall away so they can show (and see) how they truly feel. This willingness to address the source of their anguish is what ultimately helps to reserve or repair much of the damage the Clown’s actions have caused: Barret is more willing to put leadership in the hands of others more capable than himself, likely sparing more lives; the danger the party experiences due to Irvine’s mistakes is counterbalanced by a stronger party dynamic, and he is again accepted as a member of the family; Wakka’s willingness to accept and respect Rikku allows him to mature emotionally and move past the death of his brother; Balthier is able to confront the horror he had been hiding from for years, making him a freer man and more productive partner; and Sazh’s desire to continue living after Dajh’s crystalization is ultimately what allows him to see his son again.
In the end, for all his faults, the Sad Clown is hardly a bad guy. Occasionally wrongheaded in his thinking, quick to point fingers and slow on the uptake, he can sometimes put players on edge with the backward nature of his behavior and the poor taste of his jokes. However, looking deeper, the source of that awkward and counterproductive behavior is ultimately a hard-felt pain at having failed and lost someone he loves. This sadness, detrimental at first, affords him a place to start growing. Once he is able to overcome those feelings of inadequacy, anger and sadness, he becomes all the better for it–and after that, only his jokes are intolerable.