EVER WONDER what became of the class clown? Judging from the growing popularity of clowning and mime, he or she may be getting paid for acting silly these days. Of course real clowning isn't kid stuff and never has been; you should check the entrance requirements at Clown College in Venice, Florida. Still, a lot of grownups who never ran away and joined the circus are finally acting out their childhood fantasies. They're amusing themselves and their friends and maybe even earning extra coins.

Jan Cogley was 33 when her husband died. A teacher at the Mount Pleasant Montessori school, she had two young daughters to support and some grim reality to escape.

"I wanted to do something really silly without any socially redeeming quality," she said. "I took a mime class and that's when I knew it was something I wanted to do." Two years later she quit teaching and enrolled in a California mime school.

Today Cogley, now 41, owns Town Clowns, a local troupe of full-o work church festivals, community events, children's and adult's parties and at the Old Post Office Pavilion. Cogley's group performs occasionally at the Capital Children's Museum, where she teaches clowning.

Town Clowns has three stock shows, "Clowns From All Over," "Hobo Holiday" and the "Town Clown Circus," each basically targeted at children, yet broad enough to make adults laugh, too. There's a regular Sunday brunch gig at the Fort Belvoir Officer's Club, which helps pay the bills. Other steady sources of income are business promotions and delivering birthday balloons, for which she charges $35 to $50 per hour.

Last month Cogley was one of five clowns hired to entertain First Lady Nancy Reagan during a luncheon given by congressional wives at the Hart Senate Office Building.

"When she laughed, it really made my heart warm," Cogley said. "She really got a kick out of it."

And that's exactly what attracts people to clowning. "I love making people happy and I love the artistic possiblities," says Lin Murphy of the Echo Mime Theater in Glen Echo. "I enjoy the opportunity to express myself, too."

Robbie Chafitz, 16, recently worked his first embassy party, a charity fundraiser that featured top banana Mark Russell.

"It's my passport into another world," said Chafitz, who's been studying at Silver Spring's Round House Theater since he was eight. "It's really great when you can go to black-tie dinners and act like you're spilling drinks on the guests. When you're in costume and in makeup, it's a license to be crazy; people really loosen up and we help them. I also get to eat food I'd never get to try. It beats an honest job."

Many clowns incorporate pantomime in their routines. "When I come into a function I hear the crowd, particularly the younger kids, say, 'Look at the clown.' But when I leave, they say, 'There goes the mime,' " says Chafitz.

"They do cross territories, but a mime is more a storyteller without words," agrees Murphy. "Clowning is more exaggerated."

The American clown revival dates from 1967, when Washingtonian Irvin Feld bought the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus. He found hardly a dozen clowns under his Big Top; all were over 60 and some were in their 80s.

"The clowns were so old that they could fall down but they couldn't get up," Feld said. He launched the Clown College in Florida, where students learn makeup, mime, juggling, unicycling, stiltwalking, animal riding, acrobatics and supporting crafts. Some 5,000 call each year but only 60 are chosen for the free but grueling 101/2-week course, according to administrator Don Arthur. Perhaps 20 of the graduates are offered circus jobs, at which they work six days a week -- with all weekends on -- for $200, meals and bunks on the circus train.

"Clowning requires a lot of practice and imagination," warns Chafitz, who turned professional three years ago and hopes to hit the big time after he graduates from Magruder High School in Derwood, Maryland, next year. "You can't be too shy or closed in. It's very physical. Your muscles ache at the end of the day, your face burns from the makeup, and your feet hurt."

Despite the hard work, long hours and low pay, clowning is growing in popularity.

"It's getting even bigger than magic for children's entertainment," says Al Cohen, who runs Al's Magic on Vermont Avenue NW. "It's become a very big business. People are fascinated with being entertainers. But it's really a labor of love." CLOWNING AROUND

Everyone loves a clown; here's a sampling of where to see 'em and where to learn how they do it:

TOWN CLOWNS -- Will perform free at the Old Post Office Pavilion on May 11 at 11:30 and on May 25 at noon. Call 289-4224.

OPEN UNIVERSITY -- Next clown class begins May 13. Call 966-9606.

CLOWN CONVENTION -- June 20-22 at the BWI Airport Holiday Inn. More than 250 clowns from around the country are expected. There'll be workshops and seminars in juggling, unicycling, makeup and more. The $35 registration fee includes Saturday evening banquet and show. Call 301/675-2066.

DISCOVERY THEATER -- The Smithsonian's summer camp program offers "Circus Arts" for ages 11 to 13. Taught by Robert Morse, a Clown College grad, and Shelly Harris, local juggler and acrobat. July 29 through August 16, 9:30 to 12:30. Young associates, $264.; nonmembers $300. Call 357-3030.

ECHO MIME THEATER -- Teaches two workshops and two courses in clowning annually at Glen Echo Park. Next clown workshop will be held July 28. Also offered are classes in balloon sculpture and juggling. Call 588-1947 or Glen Echo, 492-6282 for more information.

OPEN STUDIO -- Has Saturday workshops in theater clowning beginning June 15. Call 628-6736.