The Cult of Shakes the Clown

The surprising following of what Scorcese called “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies”

On September 22, 2016, the Brattleboro Theater in Harvard Square, Cambridge, in conjunction with Independent Film Festival Boston, will screen the cult comedy Shakes the Clown on the 25th anniversary of its release. Three months earlier, the Las Vegas Film Festival also showed the 1991 movie. In February 2014, the annual San Francisco SketchFest wrapped up its two-week-long run with a live staged reading of the original script at Cobb’s Comedy Club.

Shakes the Clown seems to be getting more attention now than it did when the movie was released 25 years ago.

The live show at Cobb’s Comedy Club in 2014 was billed as “a lively live reading” of the shooting script for Bobcat Goldthwait’s “1991 cult comedy classic.” “Reprising their film roles,” as the website stated, were Goldthwait, Julie Brown, Tom Kenny, and Florence Henderson (yes, the Florence Henderson). Also joining the group onstage were comedian/actors Rick Overton, Kevin Pollack, and SNL star Laraine Newman. None of those last three comics appeared in the film, but they graciously appeared for the one-time staged reading.

The only other original Shakes cast member in attendance was me.

The impromptu staged reading of the script reminded me of the way we made the movie decades earlier: loose to the point of seeming chaotic, yet all in the spirit of having a lotta laughs. Goldthwait called for a 1:00 rehearsal at Cobb’s to read through the script. He showed up an hour late. Scripts freshly printed at Kinko’s that morning were hastily collated. Local comedians Caitlin Gill, Paco Romane, and Mike Spiegelman arrived at a moments notice to read additional roles. Tables, chairs, and microphones were set on the stage, and we began a brief rehearsal.

“Doors open in ten minutes!” said the nightclub manager. Goldthwait had to cut the rehearsal short. We’d only read through half the script. No matter. The audience was about to be let in, so we had to clear the stage. We retired to the green room.

I wondered whether an audience would show up. When Shakes the Clown premiered in theaters in 1991, almost nobody saw it. Some of those who did hated the movie and walked out. How many people were likely to show up decades later on a rainy San Francisco afternoon to watch us read from the script? I had my doubts. As usual, Goldthwait seemed happily unfazed.

——

Most people who followed comedy in the 1980s remember Goldthwait’s nerve-rattling hyperactive alter ego, Bobcat. Some will recall that same character as Zed from the Police Academy movies. Although that crazed, screeching comic creation made him a star, Goldthwait’s real personality is nothing like that. He’s relaxed, modest, and approachable.

Goldthwait’s path to film directing began with music videos. He then directed TV segments of The Man Show, which featured Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla. When Kimmel went to late night television, he took Goldthwait with him. Bob directed the nightly talk show for three years.

Upon leaving Kimmel’s show, Goldthwait returned to writing, producing, and directing indie films. He made Sleeping Dogs Lie (2005) on less than a shoestring budget. Then came World’s Greatest Dad (2009) starring long-time friend Robin Williams, a movie that garnered the best reviews of Goldthwait’s career. More recent films include God Bless America (2012) with Joel Murray, the Bigfoot found-footage horror movie Willow Creek (2014), and the critically-acclaimed documentary Call Me Lucky (2015).

Long before those projects, though, came a cult classic called “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.”

——

“Hey, Dan, I’m gonna make my own film, and I’ve got a part for you.”

That was how Goldthwait approached me, and others, to appear in his directorial debut. I’d known Bob since our salad days as struggling comedians in Boston, and his generous offer filled my head with delusions of stardom.

Then I read the script.

A movie about drunken, coke-snorting, obscenity-spewing clowns…? I worried that Bob was pissing away his nascent career.

Goldthwait as the title character

I wanted to express my misgivings, but only a fool would turn down a pal who was offering him his first movie role. Many of my other friends had agreed to appear in the film, so I went along without complaint. If nothing else, we were sure to have a good time. Which we did.

Shakes the Clown is set in fictional Palukaville where nearly everyone is a miserable clown. Literally. It tells the tale of Shakes, a full-blown drunk who fails to keep kiddies entertained. He curses, threatens children, vomits, and passes out during birthday parties. His girlfriend Judy (Julie Brown) tries to keep him sober. Meanwhile, Shakes’ arch-nemesis, Binky (Tom Kenny), gets the coveted TV cartoon show hosting gig (ironic, given Kenny’s real-life future profession) and eventually tries to pin a murder on Shakes.

If that plot seems strange… well, it is. But it’s an allegorical tale about the 1980s American comedy scene; a subculture of drunks, cokeheads, egotists, lunatics, and bitter wannabe showbiz losers. It’s also a quasi-autobiographical take on Goldthwait’s own bouts with alcoholism and show business. Most people miss the hidden meaning. They just find the weird movie hilarious. Goldthwait’s oeuvre consists of dark, dark comedies. Shakes the Clown was his first.

As with many freshman efforts, the movie has its flaws. A film critic described the directing as “pedestrian.” The costumes and makeup seem low-rent. Everything about the film looks a bit cheap. In fairness, there was almost no budget. Yet people overlook the defects. They just find the movie funny.

Part of the appeal is the cast. Goldthwait collected a troupe of veterans and unknowns who went on to comic fame.

Like Goldthwait, Julie Brown was a 1980s phenom. Her trademark Valley Girl character landed her on MTV. She wrote, directed, and starred in the movie Earth Girls Are Easy.

Tom Kenny, who portrayed the hilariously villainous Binky, is the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, among many other cartoon characters. He and Goldthwait grew up in Syracuse, NY, and have been friends since grade school.

Mime Jerry is a cameo role attributed to an actor named Marty Fromage. He’s actually Robin Williams.

Adam Sandler played Dink, a clown too nervous to score with women. Shakes was his second feature film.

Comedienne Kathy Griffin appeared in Shakes the Clown as Judy’s best friend, Lucy. It was her second speaking role in a movie.

Florence Henderson, immortalized as Carol Brady from The Brady Bunch series, made a cameo role as a mother who sleeps with Shakes.

Paul Dooley (Mr. Cheese) is an instantly recognizable veteran actor who has appeared in hundreds of films and television shows.

The late LaWanda Page had perhaps the most memorable line in Shakes the Clown, which was NSFW. She played Aunt Esther on the TV series Sanford and Son.

Most of the remaining cast members were established standup comedians making their film debuts: Jack Gallagher, Jeremy Kramer, Tony V, Blake Clark, Paul Kozlowski, Bob Nickman, Steve Bean, Greg Travis, Bruce ‘Babyman’ Baum, and me.

Goldthwait not only wrote and starred in the picture, he also directed and produced it with his then-wife Ann Luly. IRS Films backed the project. The company is now defunct. They put up slightly over $1 million to make the movie. Even by the standards of the era, that was low budget.

Filming took place in the San Fernando Valley during the scorching hot summer of 1990. We had no idea how audiences would respond to the finished product, but we laughed our asses off every day while making it.

— —

One year later, it landed in theaters with a giant thud.

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin hated it. Leonard Maltin gave it his lowest rating. As with most of Goldthwait’s dark humor, people either liked the movie or couldn’t stand it. Opinions rarely fell in between. (Roger Ebert was an exception. He kindly gave Shakes 2 out of 4 stars.)

Audience reactions were mixed at best. At the San Francisco premiere, Goldthwait and I watched a few moviegoers walk out midway through the screening. That was dispiriting. The box office receipts barely touched $150,000. In fairness, the movie played in only a handful of theaters for two weeks. Shakes was eventually released on video, set adrift in bargain bins, and largely forgotten.

“My son found a VHS copy lying around my house,” Tom Kenny said. “It was a rental that was way overdue. So I took it to the video store and said, ‘Sorry, but I’ve had this for, like, a year, and I know its overdue but I’ll pay the charges.’ The clerk looks at me, shrugs, and says, ‘Keep it.’ That’s how insignificant the movie was. Even the video store didn’t want it back.”

Over the years, though, the movie acquired a peculiar underground following.

On their 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi, REM released a song called ‘Binky the Doormat.’ The song title directly references dialogue from the movie, specifically words spoken by Tom Kenny’s character.

Over the decades, several people asked me if I’d ever seen a movie called Shakes the Clown. When I admitted to them that I acted in it, they were stunned. “You’re in it? I love that movie!”

Tony V, a Boston comic and actor who also appeared in Shakes, told this story. “I got to audition for a role in the Scorcese movie The Departed, and I never got the role, but I talked to Scorcese… I said, ‘You’re on record as saying Shakes the Clown is one of the best movies you’ve ever seen.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, I said it was the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.’ And then he defended his thesis for about 45 minutes.”

Then came a 2009 showing in Los Angeles at a silent film movie theater. Goldthwait, Kenny, and Paul Kozlowski attended and were stunned to see a full house.

In 2010, college students invited Goldthwait to Washington for a private screening of Shakes. They were infants when it premiered. “If you’re not familiar with my movies,” he told them, “people tend to either don’t know about them, or really like them a lot, or hate them. And this is the one they hate the most.” The frat boys in the crowd cheered; incurring the hatred of people who ‘just don’t get it’ has always been a rebel’s badge of honor.

But then Goldthwait told the crowd, “I watched the movie recently with my friend Tom Kenny, and in the middle of it we turned to each other and said, ‘What the fuck were we thinking?’”

Even Goldthwait is a bit mystified about the movie’s cult following. Eventually, Shakes showed up late at night on cable TV, and it can now be found in some rare corners of the Internet. The movie has acquired kitsch appeal. Shakes’ cult status might not rise to the star levels of This is Spinal Tap or Fast Times at Ridgemont High or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It might fall closer to the extra-cult-ish category of Louis CK’s Pootie Tang or John Waters’ Polyester. But the movie’s fans, though not legion, are surprisingly loyal.

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Julie Brown, Bob Goldthwait, Tom Kenny, Dan Spencer at SF Sketchfest (photo: Dan Dion)

On that rainy San Francisco Sunday in 2014, we waited in the green room as the audience was ushered in. With the pissing rain and the unusual 4 pm starting time, I wondered whether people would show up for the staged reading. At $32 per ticket, the odds seemed slim.

Cobb’s Comedy Club is a cavern. A small crowd in the 350-seat room looks pathetic. I was worried the ten people onstage would outnumber the audience.

The house was packed.

We took the stage to a huge round of applause. Goldthwait gave a brief introduction and then launched into the reading. The movie’s first scene involved Shakes awakening from a drunken bender in the home of a one-night-stand. Cue Florence Henderson. When she walked onstage, the audience rose to its feet as if she were Dame Judi Dench. After her brief cameo, Ms. Henderson then exited to another standing O.

People were entranced. Broad smiles all around. A woman in the front row lip-synched much of the dialogue. The crowd howled when Laraine Newman did a pitch perfect reading of LaWanda Page’s role. They cheered Julie Brown’s first words of dialogue, complete with her character’s baby talk speech impediment. They roared for Tom Kenny. Kevin Pollack’s reading of Jerry the Mime was a dead-on impersonation of Robin Williams. Each comic line got big laughs, and the nostalgic crowd loved every minute of it. The reading ended to huge cheers.

Fans had brought DVDs and VHS tapes of Shakes as well as movie stills for us to sign, and we obliged. Other people wanted to take photos with us or just to say hello.

Unlike the movie premiere many years earlier, nobody walked out before the show was finished. When it was over, nobody wanted to leave.

Dan Spencer is the author of over a dozen novels. www.danspencer.com.