CHICAGO -- It's hard to believe there's a shortage of Bozos in this world when you consider your most recent trip on a highway, not to mention your latest encounter with your boss.

And yet it is true. There is currently a Bozo emergency -- a scarcity of Bozos, a Bozo dearth, a situation of high Bozo demand and low Bozo supply.

Larry Harmon has put out the call: He wants to hire more Bozos, and is welcoming applications from prospective wearers of red noses and perpendicular hair.

Harmon, of New York and Los Angeles, is the owner and sole licenser of Bozo. He portrayed Bozo on record albums and an unaired TV movie in the early 1950s for Capitol Records. Then he bought the rights.

For Bozo is not merely a clown. He is a concept, a trademark. Harmon has turned him into a worldwide franchise operation, with billions and billions amused.

The Bozo concept has waxed and waned over the years. In the late 1960s, there were 183 locally produced Bozo TV shows in the United States, covering every market in the country. Outside the United States, there were human or cartoon Bozo shows in 40 countries.

"I was traveling 400,000 miles a year," Harmon says. "TWA had a Bozo office for me in Chicago in the airport."

Today there are six TV shows in the United States featuring a human Bozo, taped before live audiences. There are between 15 and 20 human or cartoon Bozo shows outside this country, including a human Bozo show in Brazil that airs six hours a day, six days a week.

"Even I don't believe it," Harmon says.

Many stations dropped Bozo in favor of violent cartoons, Harmon says, or got out of children's programming altogether.

"It was too expensive to produce local shows," says Joey D'Auria, Chicago's WGN-TV Bozo for the last six years. "It is infinitely cheaper to run cartoons than to hire actors and producers."

WGN-TV did not drop its Bozo show and, in fact, is largely responsible for keeping the Bozo flame alive. Tuesday, WGN's show began its 30th year, making it the longest-running live-action Bozo show in the world.

And Harmon says other stations are returning to the Bozo fold.

"There are 15 stations across the country negotiating to put a new live show back on the air," he says. Stations in a number of foreign countries are following suit.

And in recent years, Harmon has expanded the Bozo concept. He has created a traveling Bozo show that appears on local stages. He is creating a traveling Bozo circus, complete with animal acts and trapeze artists.

He sends Bozo to charity fund-raisers.

He sends Bozo to shopping malls.

He sends Bozo to amusement parks.

He sends Bozo to state and county fairs.

That's a lot of Bozos. Thus, the Bozo Crunch.

"The whole bottom line," Harmon says, "is I need Bozos."

A good Bozo is hard to find. Bozo must amuse both children and the parents who accompany them to shows. He must reassure the occasional fearful toddler. He must be quick on his floppy feet.

"I'm not looking for a clown," says Harmon, who has trained 203 Bozos. "I need a person with a sense of warmth, a sense of understanding. If he's an entertainer, fine, but he doesn't have to be. I'm looking for people persons."

Individual shows hire their own Bozos. It took Allen Hall, the original director of WGN's "The Bozo Show" and its producer since 1963, nine months to hire a replacement for Bob Bell in 1983 when Bell stepped down after 23 years as Bozo.

"I must have talked to 500 people who played clowns at birthday parties," Hall says. "They put on clown makeup, and think they're great. They had no idea what our needs were.

"Bozo is not a clown," he adds. "What you see is a very highly skilled comedic character actor. The character he plays is that of a clown. He has to have a great deal of knowledge of vaudeville, situational comedy, improvisational comedy."

Hall finally chose Joey D'Auria, a stand-up comedian working in a private club in L.A. for vaudeville comedians. D'Auria had an extensive repertoire of vaudeville and burlesque shticks, which he draws on extensively for his improvised skits with Roy Brown, who plays Cooky the Clown.

A good Bozo is not rattled by the occasional, unintentionally rude comment from a child. Once, a little girl remarked on camera to D'Auria, "You know, I don't watch you anymore." Another time, a boy said to him and the viewing audience, "Hey, Bozo, have you got a bathroom in this place?"