In photographs and in the cartoon logo that shows their heads back to back, with concave faces like twin images of men on the moon or safecrackers with three-day stubble on their stalk-like chins, it will always be Harry on the left. It will always be Harry on the right as well.
The Kipper Kids, the joint creation of Martin von Haselberg and Brian Routh, took their name from a British schoolboy chum who had a face like a fish. For a while, they were Harry and Alf, but they couldn’t remember who was who. Or whom was who. So they both became Harry.
The Kipper Kids have had big reputations in performance art circles, particularly in Europe, for the bulk of the past 20 years. You may have seen them on HBO’s “Mondo Beyondo.” In a scene in a men’s room involving food, they performed the near-impossible in outflanking Bette Midler’s outrageousness and lending the program an unmistakable comic lift. Industry insiders will get a look at the two and only Tuesday night at the Hollywood Masonic Lodge, where they’ll show their latest short movie, “K.O. Kippers.”
(Von Haselberg, who has been a successful commodities dealer in his time, is married to Midler. He was executive producer for “Mondo Beyondo”).
It’s hard to determine what the industry types will make of them Tuesday. (Creative Artists has put them under contract.) Even though the Kipper Kids are a great deal less esoteric than they once were, they still fall well within the classification of the avant-garde. They now use recognizable speech where once they communicated in a series of growls and raspberries whose flatulent variations, which still erupt in their exchanges, would be the envy of a symphonic brass player.
The black-and-white movie which debuts on Cinemax Aug. 13 and repeats Aug. 15, 17, 19, 21 and 23, is short and relatively slight. In it, the Kids have been contractually locked into a prizefight in some sleazy Mexican tank town by a crooked manager (Joe Spinell, oozing mendacity and corruption from every oily pore) who keeps them in a chicken coop (they work out on plucked dead chickens as light punching bags). The manager has two sleek hookers who accompany him everywhere. The Kids have been allotted two merry but overweight and distinctly plain peasant women. (The Kids do their road work carrying the women on their backs.)
The Kids do everything in tandem--they are the closest team since Laurel & Hardy, with whom they bear a couple of similarities. In “K.O. Kippers,” the assumption is that they’re to fight another two-man team, but when the opponents become violently ill after having consumed a bottle of their sponsor’s soft drink product (a rank concoction called “Fizzo” that makes battery acid seem comparatively benign), they’re forced to fight each other, which they promised Mum they’d never do.
By any modern comedy standard, their style is eccentric. In “Mondo Beyondo,” we saw an energy and sharp-featured harlequin look that recalled the commedia dell’arte. But they prefer chaos to linear plot situations--they’re almost always involved in some kind of physical mess, whether it’s food or garbage (in one of “K.O. Kippers’ ” scenes, they’re almost completely obscured in a cloud of chicken feathers). They’re both tall and big-boned. They look like stocky British louts of yore hired by the gentry to cudgel errant country taxpayers but who never could hurt anyone. They have the emotional privacy of genuine lunatics, and a corresponding innocence.
“They love their mum,” said Harry (Routh) drolly, in a soft northern British accent and tone that almost eerily evokes Stan Laurel. He grinned at his partner beside him in the restaurant with the shared prognathous-jawed gesture that confers instant goofiness on the face of the grin’s bearer. It was also a very sly look. Much of Harry’s humor is so subtle that it never gets past the corner of your eye. Of course, there is no mum.
“We have just begun to explore integrating the Kipper Kids in a new context,” Von Haselberg said. “We might one day do films that are more than just comic entertainment. Like our old performances, we want to be painfully funny, with an underlying disturbing element.”
That’s the way they speak. Between the two of them, they can dish it out any way you want to take it. Routh is softly laconic; Von Haselberg is capable of the abstract discourse that reads well in art magazines. It’s a treat to hear them, largely because you never really know what they’re going to do next (they often slip in and out of character) and because so much of their gestures and sounds has evolved through a private (and grossly funny) language. Together they send out a Kirlian penumbra of true strangeness.
“We met in theater school, the East 15th Acting School, which is a breakaway from Joan Littlewood’s theater,” Routh said. “My father was an engineer. My mother was a tailoress. I have a brother and a sister. My family and my father’s family were in music halls, and I had three uncles who did tap-dancing in the street. Even now, my mother likes to put on little musicales in the old folks home.”
Routh, who is 40, and Von Haselberg, 39, were holding forth at the window table of an East Hollywood Armenian restaurant, where the mysteriously indignant owner virtually threw out the entree plates.
“I was a rebellious teen-ager,” Routh continued. “I left school at 15, and though I didn’t gravitate towards the theater, I’d wear extreme outfits and paint mustaches on my face. I spent a lot of time on my own. I’m still not a very social person. Newcastle was a lonely place. Every teacher has a strap or a cane to lay on to a student. I was very frightened. I still can’t remember that time without thinking of the terror.
“I did a bit of amateur boxing, and got married. At 20, I went to the East 15th School, which was very experimental. We did movement, fencing, stage fighting, character study, improvisational theater games and soccer. I dropped out. Friends introduced Martin and me. We were both such misfits that I think people automatically assumed we’d get along.”
“I was born in Argentina,” Von Haselberg said. “My father was a writer, a doctor of philosophy, an expert on Goethe and a marvelous punster. He worked for the Associated Press, and when he saw what Goebbels and the German Ministry of Information were censoring he joined the army, because he knew he’d only have to stay in a short time, given his reputation and circumstances. He correctly calculated that Argentina would be one of the countries sure to remain neutral during the war, and that’s where he took us.
“I have three older brothers. One is a banker, the other is a businessman and the third is a doctor. My mother died when I was 10. My father remains one of the three funniest people I know. The other two are my wife and my partner.”
There were instances when Von Haselberg’s and Routh’s first wives didn’t look kindly on this recondite art-house goofiness that had zero commercial possibilities, and drove them apart. Too, the nature of the act, so to speak, as bizarre and harmless as it seems on the surface, posed its psychological dangers; at bottom the Kipper Kids offered a profound challenge to the idea of identity. At one time or another, each quit the act.
“At first we’d done literary pieces we’d written that were self-conscious and arrogant, and we didn’t care whether people liked them or not,” Von Haselberg said. “Of course, they didn’t. We spent more and more time together doing different characters, but they kept growing together into this fusion, the Kipper Kids, who were born one night in Frankfurt in an absolutely stupendous discover of one character inhabiting two bodies. It wasn’t anything we tried. We just couldn’t stop being Kipper Kids.”
That Routh quit the team first may suggest that he was in the greater danger of becoming consumed by the Kipper persona (he did a few solo performances in the mid-'70s; in one of them, which took place at the Mermaid in Topanga, he was overweight and had the unconscionably tough look of a crematory attendant). They met again in England in 1977, and a year later resumed the Kipper Kids saga in a small role for the movie “The Forbidden Zone.”
“I think he got over the need to differentiate himself,” Von Haselberg said. “Whenever we got together, the same personality came out again. It was like playing an instrument so well you don’t have to practice.”
Each got divorced in 1980, then remarried. Once again, the act and practical life proved incompatible, and once again they quit. Von Haselberg concluded that the act just wasn’t worth the disruption.
“I decided to have nothing to do with Brian for the rest of my life. Naturally, as soon as I made that decision, the call came from HBO to executive produce ‘Mondo Beyondo.’ Now that we’re a little older, we’ve found it more comfortable to do the Kipper Kids. This time, our wives have been supportive.”
“I don’t know that we weren’t related in a previous incarnation,” Routh said, glancing at von Haselberg.
“Look at us,” Von Haselberg said, studying Routh’s overripe Romanesque face. “I have this indescribable nose, he has a straight nose. I have thin lips. He has a sensual mouth. He has a strong jaw. Mine is sharper. Yet everyone assumes we’re brothers.”
The scene had changed from the somewhat fly-blown Armenian joint to a relatively swank nouvelle pasta place on Melrose Avenue. But there was no mistaking their peculiar link. Both have the big-shouldered, rolling gait of longshoremen. Both have Mike Tyson haircuts. Both dress in the same floppy Bermudas, and wear straw cowboy hats and dime-store sunglasses. You can’t place them in any context, but they still exude a strange presence.
For a final Kipper touch, when the check appeared they did their five-finger ceremony (“which is really a 10 finger exercise,” Von Haselberg said). They thumped the table, leered and pointed at each other and emitted their marvelous raspberries. Then they grinned. Clearly they had made peace with the discovery few of us are able to make: the absorption of an Other. Only in the imagination can such a reality take hold.