No character, no matter how distinct or iconic, materializes out of nowhere. Even a figure like the Joker, with his famously nebulous origins, can be traced back to various sources of inspiration. Each of the actors who have played the Joker onscreen - Cesar Romero, Mark Hamill, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Joaquin Phoenix among them - have taken unique, personal inspiration for their interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime. And that goes for the Joker's original creators - as well as every writer and director who has ever added their own signature to the character's legacy.
Nailing down the origins of the Joker himself is nearly as difficult as figuring out which of his many comic book backstories is the real one. It's not as simple as asking Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson - his official creators - who and what inspired their legendary creation. After all, the character has been reinvented dozens of times since 1940's Batman #1.
In truth, the Joker has roots across countless corners of pop culture - and the real world, too. After nearly 80 years, the Joker is many things, and a compendium of many people - the silent film icon who gave him his face, the silent clowns who gave him his physicality, the tap dancer who gave him his rhythm, the antiheroes who gave him his humanity, the crooks who gave him his danger, and the musicians who gave him his style.
These are the key influences who have shaped the most important villain in Batman's gallery of rogues.
There’s no real mystery about the real-world origins of the Joker when it comes to his initial conception. Though Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson dispute how much the others contributed to the creation of the Clown Prince of Crime, they all agree that the character was directly inspired by Conrad Veidt's visage from the 1928 silent classic The Man Who Laughs.
Veidt portrays Gwynplaine, an English nobleman disfigured at a young age with a permanent grin. It only takes one look at Gwynplaine’s pale skin, pointed chin, and tortured smile to see where the Joker gets his own iconic appearance from - though he'd go on to adopt more than just his looks from The Man Who Laughs.
There’s no mistaking that the Joker’s appearance was heavily based on Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine from The Man Who Laughs, but the similarities between the two characters go deeper than that. Not only has the title of the film been borrowed and corrupted for various comic book storylines, but its plot has also informed some of the core components of the Joker’s characterization.
Gwynplaine’s disfigurement comes as a result of his father's refusal to bow before a despotic ruler - which is not only in keeping with the Joker's reputation as an antisocial and anarchic villain, but also sounds unmistakably like one of those stories of questionable veracity the Joker so often tells about his own origins. But while the decision was eventually made to write the Joker as a madman, his grinning inspiration only appears to be mad. Gwynplaine's permanent smile is initially his quasi-tragic downfall - a freak show attraction for which he is dubbed the Laughing Man - before he eventually finds love and emerges as a triumphant hero.
The Joker may be most recognizable for his iconic look and trademark whimsical insanity, but those traits aren’t the reason he’s known as Batman’s greatest nemesis. Right from his first appearance in 1940’s Batman #1, Joker demonstrates a remarkable ability to stay one or more steps ahead of the World’s Greatest Detective, a specialty he shares with another of his own historical inspirations.
In designing a new villain for Bruce Wayne, artist Jerry Robinson voiced a desire to create an equivalent to Professor James Moriarty - archenemy of Sherlock Holmes, literature's other most famous detective. Robinson wanted a rogue who, like Moriarty, could draw out the best qualities of the protagonist through direct contrast. That’s part of the reason he designed the Joker as a clown - because he wanted the character to be a true foil to the humorless Dark Knight.
For an entire generation, the definitive version of the Clown Prince was Cesar Romero's turn in the late-'60s Batman television series. Romero's goofy, eccentric, and mostly harmless portrayal of the Joker was itself inspired by the toned-down Silver Age Joker of the late-1950s - a rendition of the character that had been effectively neutered by the Comics Code Authority.
In his earliest inception, the Joker was every bit as wantonly cruel as he is in the modern interpretation, but tales of excessive aggression and mass slayings were heavily discouraged under the strict rule of the Comics Code, which began overseeing publications in the 1950s. This led to the on-page Joker leaning into his wacky side, which in turn inspired Romero’s characterization. Romero’s comical Joker would then go on to inform several animated adaptations of the character, most notably the version seen in Batman: The Animated Series.