Three Ring Circus with Steve-O

Steve-O in clown college with Three Ring Circus Title

Steve-O just wanted to be taken seriously as a clown

A few years before he attended Clown College, Stephen Glover had adopted the name Steve-O. As he tells it, “The name Steve-O came about from drunk people yelling to me at keg parties basically. I was always drawing attention to myself doing some kind of dumb shit or other, and people were screaming, ‘Steve-O.’ And so it became my name.” He worried though that it might impede his efforts at professionalism. “I was really fucking serious about having a career, an entertainment career, as a guy who did crazy stunts. And I found myself second-guessing if I wanted to use the name Steve-O.”

In his first gig, at about 20 or 21 years old, he billed himself as “Steve-O, the Alcoholic Gymnast.” And his act was just to shotgun a 12-pack of beer and then do acrobatics. He’s never intended Steve-O as a clown name, but it soon was.  

He did not take the usual path to the surprisingly competitive world of Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey Clown College, which in its 23 years of existence trained nearly 1,500 clowns. A tiny fraction of those graduates ever actually made it to Ringling’s three rings.

picture of Steve-O's first attempt at clown makeup. A man wearing a white tshirt with the letters XYZ has white, red, and black paint all over his face.
“That was day one: ‘We’re going to give you zero instruction in how to do this. We’re not going to teach you anything. We’re just going to give you the makeup you’re going to learn on your own.’”

For someone who pretty much lacked all direction, Steve had a surprisingly clear ambition. And It wasn’t to be a clown. “I dropped out of the University of Miami having failed very miserably in 1993,” he told Whalebone, “My only plan was to try to become a crazy famous stuntman by videotaping idiotic shit.” He had no video camera of his own, so practiced his craft, which usually involved some sort of dangerous stunt, often culminating with Steve-O lighting himself on fire, with home video cameras. Then those parts would wind up in the occasional skateboarding video. He bounced around homeless for three years or so, landing on his sister’s couch in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “There was no precedent for what I was trying to do and I was still not getting any traction. I was doing cooler and cooler stunts, but nobody gave a shit,” he says. “And my sister was not thrilled with my hygiene or my etiquette. She was the one who found out about clown college and thought it might be perfect for me as well as a good way to get me out of her house.”

So, in 1996 when she suggested he apply for Ringling Brothers Barnum Bailey Clown College, Steve-O thought it might not be a bad idea: “Nobody was taking me seriously, and I thought if I was a trained circus professional that would legitimize me.”

A picture of Steve-O balancing ladder and bike on his chin. A shirtless white man with one foot on the ground and arms open wide balances a bike on top of a ladder on his chin.

He hitchhiked from his sister’s in Albuquerque to Denver, where the auditions were being held. During his time bouncing around homeless in South Florida Steve-O had befriended some members of the University of Miami Dive Team, who’d taught him how to do backflips. “I got the standing backflip dialed in and they helped me learn how to walk up and down stairs on my hands and cleaned up some of the jumping that I was doing,” he says. “As soon as I learned how to do backflips, once I became proficient at the standing back tuck on flat ground, honestly, I was lighting myself on fire and simultaneously fire-breathing while doing backflips.” Between that and skateboarding all his life, he developed a pretty strong set of acrobatic skills for his stunt videos, which he busted out in Denver for the audition. “I really just went for it,” he says. And he’d made it clear that he had hitchhiked all the way from Albuquerque. “It was evident that I gave a shit about what I was doing. So I think that my audition in that regard went particularly well.”

Between the audition and before he heard back, Steve-O did have something of a breakthrough with his stunt career. “Actually the one thing that I did which garnered major attention in the skateboard world was burning my face off.” Then he got the letter telling him he was accepted. “I had second-degree burns on my face when I found out I got into Clown College,” he says. “I was still waking up in the morning and peeling my pillow off my face because shit was oozing out of it.”

Steve was on his way back to Florida to start Clown College. That first day in The Sarasota Opera House he began to actually be impressed with where he was. “Apparently Elvis Presley had performed there,” he says of the Opera House. “It was a really nice building and they had a big welcome thing. We walked in and it was like ‘You guys made it. Congrats. You’re here. It’s a big deal.’ It really felt like something super special, which it was.” Then they were all handed makeup kits—the classic clown greasepaint—and told to do their own makeup. Steve’s didn’t go as planned.

Steve-O with head injury. A white shirtless man sticks his tongue out and makes a hand signal as blood runs down his chest.
“It was midnight, one in the morning, who knows, and I split my head open and I had to go get five staples. It was just a bad look.”
Steve-O doing a backflip while breathing fire. A man wearing black shorts and shirts is blowing fire out of his mouth while halfway through a back flip.
“It was evident to everybody when I got to clown college, from the way that I was carrying on, that I really had no interest in being a clown. That in fact I wanted to be this crazy stunt man.”

Aside from showing up with a slightly melted face, it pretty quickly became clear to the administration that maybe Steve-O wasn’t totally committed to clowning. After strenuous 14-hour days, every day, he’d start his elaborate extracurricular activities. “And then at 10:00 p.m. I would start drinking,” says Steve. “Getting all fucking drunk and shit and doing all this stuff—setting myself on fire in our clown apartment complex or skateboarding or whatever it was. When we got done for the day, everyone’s kind of chilling out. I was just fucking going for it.” Steve was clearly more interested in preparing for a career as “this crazy stuntman.” The very first week of the eight-week program he hit his head doing an ollie down some steps late at night and had to be taken to the hospital. He wasn’t making the impression someone who had a future with the Ringling Bros Company should be making. “They were like, ‘This fucking asshole gets drunk and splits his head open and we’ve got to take him to the hospital. He’s not taking this shit seriously. It’s a fucking joke to him.’”

And at first, there was truth to that. Steve really wasn’t taking it seriously. But something began to change for him. “Overall clown college was distinctly more like boot camp than college,” he says. “Eight weeks and then two weeks on the road doing random things. So it’s two and a half months and, truth be told, by the end of it, I had fallen in love with the idea, I was converted. So by the end of it, I really wanted to be in the circus, but I had fucking blown it.”

Steve-o in full clown attire. A man in striped pants, red shoes, yellow and green shirt, and red leather jacket poses in a storage room. His face is painted in clown make up and he's wearing a wig.

Of some 3,000 applicants, 33 clowns had gotten into clown college—all 33 accepted graduated—but only 10 of them got contracts with the circus upon graduation. Steve-O the Alcoholic Clown was not among them. And so, dejected, he says “I went back to Albuquerque to live with my sister and was selling pot.”

He used his new skills for bar tricks, like balancing a butcher knife on his nose, that allowed him to drink for free, basically. Running away and joining circus that was Jackass was still a few years away, but at this point, he says, “I had a really fancy clown costume hanging in the closet and nothing to wear it for. “