Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shakes the Clown (1991)

by Jimmy "The Doormat" Callaway

You'll often hear people remark on the irony that comedians are generally pretty miserable. It does seem odd that people whose job it is to make others laugh can often be fairly humorless and bitter, or just kinda fucked in the head. Apparently, Chevy Chase is a complete and utter asshole. George Carlin seemed to only get angrier as he aged, which was a tall order even for a crankypants like him. Bill Cosby isn't even immune to this (although I guess if my only son got murdered, I'd be pretty bitter, too).

I think this perceived irony is indicative of the attitude that most people have towards comedians and comedy, that it is a lower art form. For a painter or literary author to be moody and unpredictable is a sure sign of his or her genius, in a lot of eyes. For comedians to be the same way just makes them big weirdoes. I will grant that since comedians' stock-in-trade is laughter, it seems counterproductive to be such a bummer all the time. But comedians are artists, just the same as Van Gogh or Diego Rivera or Hemingway or any of the other assholes the so-called finer arts have produced.

And like a lot of artists, comedians will sometimes party themselves to death. Belushi, Farley, Hedburg, and who the hell knows how many more. Again, it's all romance when Dylan Thomas or even a hack like Jim Morrison medicates himself into the great beyond. But all Lenny Bruce gets is a kinda boring bio-pic made of him.

You don't have to be much more than an armchair psychologist to see how all these behaviors are related. The drive to create is often produced by a need for approval, a need which is all encompassing and therefore doomed to go not completely met from the word go. When even creative success is not enough to please the artist, the artist will often turn to drink and drugs to numb the pain or become a bitter crank to protect him/herself from further emotional damage, usually a combination of the two, and usually to the same lonely end. It's a big depressing cycle that can seem unbreakable.

The only way to make it really funny is to add clowns. I've never been one of these guys who's scared of clowns. I dunno, I guess I can kinda see where folks might get creeped out by these charlatans of chuckle, but I guess there were lots scarier things to me as a kid, like poltergeists or Dobermans. Regardless, the juxtaposition of comedians as tortured artists is only all the more highlighted and hilarious when it is acted out by a buncha guys in clown outfits, as it is in Bobcat Goldthwait's directorial debut, Shakes the Clown.

The opening image of the film is a broken record. It's the morning after a big party, and the young son of the hostess awakes to a dog eating pizza off the coffee table and a drunken clown in his bathroom. The first thing the kid does, though, is take the needle off the record. So, the way I'm reading this, the record represents the seemingly unbreakable cycle we've been talking about, this constant treadmill ride for some sort of brass ring of love that just drives you nuts. This flick also has a nice undercurrent about children and innocence that's always hovered around my viewings of it before, but has only become clearer this time around.

See, the way I look at artists is that they act as sorts of champions for the beauty of human experience, the innocence often lost. Comedians especially fall under this since their work is often in the vein of what can be considered juvenile or silly. So comedians have attained this status in my mind of hero, in that they were something of a salvation to me from the normal, eat-your-vegetables grown-ups that I was surrounded by. And what I've come to notice as I've gotten older is that this is a reciprocal situation. Comedians tend to work from a painful place, and often that pain derives from an innocence lost. In Shakes's case, as we find later in the film, his father was trampled to death by elephants. So Shakes entertains children at birthday parties, an environment in which we see him truly thrive, and in return, the joy he spreads salves the loss of his own childhood joy.

This is what I see when little Billy removes the needle from the broken record. Shakes has a need to create, to entertain, in order to keep himself sane, to tame the chaos in his life. When that isn't enough, he hits the sauce, and how. By the film's end, when everything has been rendered okay in the world, he has realized that the work is enough, that he does far more good as a clown than as a drunk. Doing it for the kids is a worthy cause, possibly the worthiest of them all, and it will redeem him.

This theme of innocence lost is only reinforced here by Florence Henderson as Billy's mother, the anonymous woman Shakes has nailed the night before. Taking the materfamilias of that staple of good, wholesome television, The Brady Bunch, and tarting her up like this is played up for laughs (and Henderson herself, God bless her, has been doing such in a ton of other roles satirizing her most famous part). But it's also a clear indication of the lost innocence we're dealing with here: Mrs. Brady reduced to drunkenly banging birthday party clowns without even learning their names first.

There's then a fairly touching slo-mo shot of kids playing in a lawn sprinkler as the theme from A Summer Place plays. Again, we have happy smiling children in a direct visual counterpoint to an unshaven, hung-over clown. It's also here that I realize that this is one of the few times we see Shakes not in full make-up, when he's hung-over. This could easily be taken as showing how the guy's not himself when he's not a clown, but I think it's more accurate to say that he's not himself when he's sober. Whether drunk on adoration or drunk on Amstel Light, Shakes cannot function when sober.

It also makes a nice visual when he emerges from the gas station men's room in full clown regalia. Now Shakes is in command, and his role as defender of the innocent is brought to light. As he arrives late at the birthday party he's to be working, he's immediately confronted by a typical tight-assed suburban father, excellently played by Tim Kazurinsky (and it makes me feel warm seeing these two together again for the first time since Hot to Trot)(though I admit, I can't remember if they had a scene together in that. They must have though, right?). Shakes gets right back in his face and backs him down, striking one for the little guy right away. It's a very brief role, but like I say, Kazurinksy nails it completely with his face and his voice tempered right in the part of the throat that I heard my dad and all my friends' dads yell at us from (when later Shakes puts an extra party hat on Kazurinsky's head, effectively giving him horns, this just drives home who's really the bad guy here).

Then as Shakes emerges into the backyard, he's greeted by a party of utterly bored kids. But now their friend Shakes the Clown is here, and with his bag of tricks and goofy japes and gibes, everybody's having a good time. Yes, Shakes is more than likely buzzed, but he's also just really enjoying his work. And this I'd say is kind of a smaller tragedy within the larger, namely alcoholism will really put a dent in your drinking. Like when Dink, one of Shakes's buddies, later wonders why the guy just can't drink normally, y'know, have fun with it. It all makes me grateful that I've never gotten so bad off that I had to quit altogether. Karaoke would be a lot less fun, for one thing.

Take, for example, the music montage scene of Shakes and Dink and Stenchy driving around, drinkin' beers and raisin' hell. I think overall the scene is supposed to show that these guys can kinda be dickheads, but man, it still looks like a lot of fun (although, I can do without NRBQ on the tape deck, personally). Like, I guarantee audiences cheered or at least smiled widely at the sight of Shakes and the boys beating up a buncha mimes. But technically, mimes are also artists (even if they generally represent a prissier, au francais kinda art that guys like me, who may have artistic inclinations themselves, still find kinda fruity), and as Shakes finds out, mimes are people, too. Without the keen insight of Mime Jerry (as played brilliantly by Robin Williams)(quoth my old roommate upon seeing this scene: "Man, Robin Williams should really get back on coke."), Shakes would never have been able to figure out who really killed his boss, Mr. Cheese, and thereby clear his name.

The real murderer and the clown who frames our hero is the vile antagonist, Binky the Clown, portrayed by Tom Kenny (in what is probably one of my top three personal favorite film performances ever). Binky acts as an excellent foil for Shakes in that Binky is not an artist, he "can't even throw a fuckin' pie straight." By having beaten Shakes out for a plum role as host of the afternoon TV cartoon show, Binky has succeeded only in drawing attention to himself. Binky cares little for art--as his stage manager tells the children in the studio audience, "We're all older, we know what's funny." This notion that Binky is purely an egomaniac is reinforced by his base treatment of his henchclowns, Boots and Hoho, his desire to look cool in front of the coke-dealing rodeo clowns, and most especially in his pursuit of Judy, Shakes's girlfriend. The fact that Judy continuously brushes Binky's puerile sexual advances back drives Binky into a homicidal rage, and while in the throes of which, he attempts to murder Judy in front of the boys and girls in the studio and those at home. Binky revels in his total disregard for humanity, for beauty, and works as an excellent counter-point to Shakes: Shakes may be "a drunk and a bad lay," but Binky is a stone-cold psychopath.

So overall, the moral of Shakes the Clown is art first. Shakes's drinking is only the catalyst for all his woes, but it's when it begins to affect his work that the damage starts to become near-indelible. There is one scene where Shakes goes off on a kid, calling him a loser and insisting that his parents "had to pay grown men to come and play with you today, because kids collectively, on a whole, think you suck." Yes, the kid may have been acting like a brat, but this is not Shakes, the defender of the innocent, the artist. The fact that he's sober at this point only belies the importance of creativity over sobriety, I'd say. Shakes had to go into a rehab program in order to continue his work, but the closing shot--a young boy, laughing and cheering--illustrates that this is what is the most important thing.

Battle not with clowns, kids. Just keep 'em laughing, and I promise you, it'll all work out.

1 comment:

  1. Another example of your aptitude to make us think while you keep us laughing. I'm in your corner on the value of the comedian, as you know. Good job pointing out the link between sobriety and identity - between grim acknowledgment and assimilation to reality's hardships, and clowning at them.