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I was obsessed with stand-up comedy as a kid. One of the things I loved about comedians like Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby was finding that unique thing in their delivery that marked them as original. For Bobcat Goldthwait it was that hairball-in-his-throat screech, a phlegmy, disconcerting gurgle that punctuated his nervous, off-kilter stand-up shows.
Like many joke slingers, Goldthwait yearned to break free of the mic, and his 1992 debut as a director/screenwriter and leading man, Shakes the Clown, was the kind of low-budget, culture-skewering gem I’d come to admire courtesy of late-night flicks such as Kentucky Fried Movie. Packed with big names and “Wait, I know that guy from something . . .” near-celebrity cameos, it’s also exactly the kind of forgotten treasure Trunkworthy loves to shine a light on.
Starring Goldthwait as the alcoholic clown leader of a group of degenerate big shoe wearers, the movie also features Adam Sandler as one of his clowny sidekicks, as well as former SNL star Tim Kazurinsky, Mrs. Brady herself, Florence Henderson, then relatively unknown stand-up Kathy Griffin, and Goldthwait’s best friend, the late Robin Williams, as acerbic mime class instructor Marty Fromage.
Shakes is ostensibly about the heavy-drinking clown’s struggle to hold on to his depressing gig under constant threat of dismissal by his jerk boss, whose murder he is framed for. So, you know, wholesome kids stuff.
But peel back the layer of greasepaint and you have a sharp, if mouth-puckeringly bitter satire of the stand-up comedy circuit that birthed Goldthwait, Williams and the majority of the cast. The jealousy, substance abuse, clannishness, backbiting and stylistic peculiarities are all here in their red-haired glory. The mimes hate the clowns, the rodeo clowns hate the party clowns, and they all hate the mimes, who are, essentially, the prop comics of the bunch.
It’s also one of the few movies to show clowns as flesh-and-blood regular folks with regular problems. We’ll never see Jerry Lewis’ legendary 1972 Holocaust clown movie, The Day The Clown Cried, and we’ll have to wait until next year for Baskets, the half-hour FX comedy from Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis about a clown who has to settle for the rodeo when his big top dreams flop.
At the center of Goldthwait’s gritty comedy is Shakes, a nightmare who drinks, punches out bathroom attendants, threatens his client’s dads (“If you ever talk to me again I’m gonna twist your head into a f**king balloon animal!”) smokes (exploding) cigars and wears a clown costume so filthy it looks like someone dunked it in a urinal.
In their off time, Shakes and the clowns of Palukaville are every bit as twisted as their balloon animals: snorting coke, cursing like sailors, drinking to excess and sloppily hitting on women.
Here’s the thing, though, Shakes is actually a pretty decent clown, magician and acrobat who makes the kids happy. That is, when he’s not on a bender smashing their cakes and destroying their homes in a boozy rage.
“You’re not funny clown,” a kid says with a honk of a horn after Shakes cures his DT’s with a massive swig of booze from mom and dad’s liquor closet. “Give it a break on that horn,” Shakes warns. “You blow that horn one more time I’m gonna shove it right up your ass.”
When boss Mr. Cheese is murdered and our hero is framed, Shakes has to go undercover as a mime to clear his name. A fate worse than death for our hero. Not surprisingly, the mile-a-minute sequence featuring Robin Williams as a raunchy, free-associating mime teacher is a tour de force of the late comedian’s trademark wit and energy. Well after establishing his Oscar-worthiness in Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society, Williams threw a bone to his old stand-up buddy with what must have been a freebie out of the goodness of his massive heart.
The film bounces between being a satire, film noir crime thriller and meditation on sobriety, with Goldthwait pulling the curtain back on the kind of mean-spirited kibitzing, ball-busting and professional pettiness comedians engage in around the table backstage every night. (If you need more proof, check out the after-show action on Louis C.K.’s brilliant series, Louie.) In fact, a Boston Globe writer dubbed it the “Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.”
And who’s to say we don’t need more of those? As Shakes says, “A clown is the difference between a party and a really nice party.”