Will Carlson is a 20-something loser who lives in a rundown neighborhood in New Jersey, where he ekes out a living as a birthday party clown in order to pay the rent for his abusive mother's nursing home and the rent on his rundown house. Despite the difficulties of the job, clowning is Will's one escape from the realities of his miserable existence: Will genuinely likes kids, and takes great joy from making them happy on their birthdays.
Struggling to make ends meet, but not wanting to give up his dream job, Will comes up with the idea to be a "bachelor party clown." Will's idea is that men throwing bachelor parties can hire him as well as a stripper; Will enters the room prior to the "real" entertainment, wearing clown makeup and lingerie, tricking the bachelor into thinking that there was a mix-up and a gay clown stripper has been sent in lieu of a female one. Will invents the persona of Vulgar the Clown (after his friend Syd tells him that the entire idea is "vulgar") and solicits himself in the want-ads. Before long, he is hired to appear at a bachelor party being held at a nearby motel.
When Will arrives for the party — wearing stockings, garters, clown makeup, and a trench-coat — he is attacked and brutally beaten by a middle-aged man, Ed, and his sons Gino and Frankie. The three men then proceed to gang rape Will, taking turns videotaping the attack. The trio hold Will hostage in the motel room for an indeterminate amount of time, during which they subject him to a series of violent and humiliating sexual assaults. They also break a bottle over his head and drug him. A tearful Will goes home and spends the remainder of the night and part of the next morning crying while he washes himself clean in the bathtub.
Will spends a considerable amount of time after the attack in a crippling depression, which nearly costs him his home. Eventually, Will fulfills a promise to appear as a clown at one of his past-clients' children's party. When he gets to the party, Will discovers a hostage crisis is occurring; the father of one of the children, in the middle of divorce proceedings, has kidnapped his own daughter and is threatening to kill her. In a near-suicidal reaction, Will sneaks past the police barricade, breaks into the house, and subdues the father. News reporters capture some of the event on film, and before long the story makes national headlines. Will becomes known as "the hero clown;" the attention and outpouring of support breaks him out of his depression, and he is eventually given his own syndicated children's television show.
The media coverage attracts the attention of Ed and his sons (who are still raping young men). They threaten Will with a copy of the tape of his being raped (edited to look like amateur porn) and begin to extort him. When Will tries to pay the men off, they attack him in a bathroom stall. Will finally strikes an agreement with the men wherein he will come to a motel room and "perform" for them, allowing himself to be taken advantage of again, and they will give him all of the copies of the tape; secretly, Will plans to ambush and murder them with the help of Syd.
When the time comes, the gun jams and Will finds himself unable to kill his tormentors. Just as Ed and his sons move in to rape and murder Will, Ed's son Frankie accidentally shoots himself in the face. Then, a shootout ensues with a vagrant lowlife at the hotel, who robs Syd and then plots to do the same to the others. Both the man and Ed's other son (Gino) are shot to death. Ed panics, and Will chases him through the motel parking lot to a nearby playground. As Will approaches him, Ed has a massive heart attack and starts to die. Will takes off as he hears police sirens coming. His conscience clear, Will retrieves the tape and goes on to live happily ever after, hosting his television show.
The director's cut DVD features an extended ending, wherein Will finds a note from Syd along with a clipped newspaper article on the Fanelli's death, Ed's heart failure from panic and overdose of crack cocaine, as well as attributing Ed's sons' (as well as the vagrant lowlife's) deaths to a random incidence of criminal violence and natural circumstance. A stunned Will determines that the men's deaths were all karmic retribution.
After the success of such films as Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma, Kevin Smith financed three films (Drawing Flies, A Better Place, and this one).
The film was written and directed by Smith's long-time friend Bryan Johnson and produced by Monica Hampton.
Vulgar the Clown was also the View Askew Productions logo at one time until Smith changed it to the eventually more iconic Jay and Silent Bob.
The movie was written in 28 days, filmed in 26.
The role of Will Carlson was written specifically for Brian O'Halloran.
It is not set in the View Askewniverse (other films not to be set in the View Askewniverse are Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri, Cop Out, Red State, Tusk, and Yoga Hosers). Although the location is said to be anonymous, many have firmly confirmed it all as New Jersey.
The lead rapist Ed Fanelli was inspired by the Dennis Hopper role of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and the sons Frankie and Gino were inspired by the inbred backwater rapists in Deliverance.
The film was sound edited and mixed at Skywalker Sound.
The music was composed by Ryan Shore.
The role of Scotty, the daytime talk-show host who interviews Will on his heroics, was written specifically for Ben Affleck, but after he had become a discovered star, he moved onto other things. Scott Mosier took the role.
In a quick phone call scene, Will contacts a "Mrs. Affleck" to inform her he won't be able to attend her son "Benny's" birthday party, but after talking to the child over the phone he changes his mind and restarts his career as a child-entertainer.
The film was shot on an extremely tight budget. Many of the grips, assistants and film crew took bit parts in the movie to save money. Brian O'Halloran actually had to have a real bottle broken over his head in one scene because View Askew couldn't afford a break-away bottle.
O'Halloran really cut his own hand on a piece of broken glass in one scene of the movie.
The film received mostly negative reviews. The one major positive review came from Lou Lumenick of the New York Post. Howard Stern got a copy of the film before it was released. His producer, Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate is a big fan of Kevin Smith, so Scott Mosier sent a copy to him. After Dell'Abate saw some of the film, he gave it to Stern, who was repulsed by it and shared his opinion of it on The Howard Stern Show.
The film premiered at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival and was theatrically released on April 26, 2002 by Lions Gate Films. Its first major screening was at The Angelika Theater.