Shakes the Clown lives in Palukaville, the nation’s leading producer of lard, where most of the men dress in makeup and clown costumes and hang out in a bar called the Twisted Balloon.
With his clown pals, Shakes likes to drive around town boozing it up in a car painted with polka-dots. One day, they spot three mimes performing on the side of the road. “Mimes!” they shout, as they begin chasing and bashing the hapless men in white face. Every birthday party clown, they will tell you, hates mimes.
Shakes spends his nights at the Twisted Balloon getting tanked and waiting for his big chance to be a TV star. But Shakes has a problem. He’s an alcoholic clown.
In a dark comedy that has provoked outcries from America’s real clown community, comedian Bobcat Goldthwait has written, directed and starred in a movie so outrageous--and in some ways so satirical--that one reviewer called it “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of alcoholic clown movies.”
Goldthwait said he intended no deep message with “Shakes the Clown,” but added that his film is a parody of stand-up comics everywhere, of “desperate folks” who steal each other’s bits and dream of one day breaking into television. It features many of Goldthwait’s stand-up comic friends.
“It’s like me looking at my peers and going, ‘You guys got to cheer up, man,’ ” Goldthwait said.
While it has been screened at some film festivals, it will premiere March 13 in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Chicago and opens March 20 in San Diego at the Hillcrest Cinemas.
With all the screenplays that don’t get made in Hollywood, how did a comedy about an alcoholic clown that nearly everyone said shouldn’t be made, find its way into the theaters?
Goldthwait said that comedy today is so safe and unthreatening, particularly in films, that just the idea of a comedy involving alcoholism and drug abuse scared off the major studios.
Goldthwait, a veteran of three “Police Academy” movies, the Bill Murray comedy “Scrooged,” “Hot to Trot” and numerous other movies and cable TV specials, recalled how he trekked from one production company to another trying to find money to invest in his project.
“I’d go into these companies and they were definitely interested in making a movie with me, but what they wanted was like ‘Bobcat’s Big Adventure.’ I’d be in character and have all these wacky friends. But I said ‘No, this is the script I want to make.’
“I remember one day I had a meeting with this producer who actually read the script out loud to me at the meeting. He said, ‘How could you write this? You have kids!’ He only took the meeting to yell at me. It’s not a kid’s movie. I never made this movie for kids. It was always for disenfranchised adults, balding 30-year-olds who are listening to Nirvana.”
After other companies turned him down, Goldthwait found out through a fellow comedian that I.R.S. Media was looking for movies to finance. After listening to his pitch, they said they would get back to him in three months and they did.
“I think they just found it funny,” Goldthwait said. “When we rolled into the Chicago Film Festival, they turned away 2,000 people. I’ll tell you this much, and I’m not bragging, whenever I go into a situation where they ask me what the movie is about and I say ‘It’s an alcoholic clown movie,’ they laugh.”
When asked how much “Shakes the Clown” cost to make, he replied: “You know the scene in ‘Terminator 2' where Arnold Schwarzenegger walks out of the bar and gets on his motorcycle? That’s how much my movie costs. My movie costs about 8 minutes of ‘Wayne’s World.”’
Goldthwait, 29, who is proud to be a comedian outside the mainstream, said the idea of making a movie about an alcoholic clown had been kicking around in his head since he was 18. He said it was merely coincidence that Homey the Clown from “In Living Color” and Krusty the Clown from “The Simpsons” have recently become so popular.
“I’ve just always hated clowns. I found them unfunny and scary. Gacy was a clown,” he said, referring to serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
“Clowns traditionally were thieves,” Goldthwait said. “I read up on these guys. It wasn’t until Barnum & Bailey got involved in the clown image that they became this wholesome, wacky, fun thing. I don’t trust clowns. They always freak me out.”
The nation’s real-life clowns are not laughing.
“Children have a hard enough time dealing with Santa Claus, we don’t want to see them have a hard time dealing with clowns,” said Carrol Mudlaff, administrator of the Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center in Delavan, Wis.
She said the number of clowns in United States has grown from 10,000 a decade ago to 80,000 today. There are three major clowning organizations--Clowns of America International, the World Clown Assn., and the Shriner’s International Shrine Clown Assn. Mudlaff said there is even a code of ethics the groups have developed that calls on clowns to refrain from drinking, smoking and using vulgar language and telling off-color jokes.
Steve Smith, the director of the Clown College in Venice, Fla., and himself a clown with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, told Entertainment Weekly magazine that he did not like to see the clown “art form” portrayed negatively. “I do wish (Goldthwait) would wear the rubber nose with some responsibility and respect,” he said.
To which Goldthwait replied: “I think this guy has got to get a life. He’s just trying to cash in on all the media hype. If he’s so funny, why is he teaching at a school? He’d be out there making people laugh.”
Goldthwait said he just wanted to make a funny movie with wild characters.
Shakes, with his big red nose and his ability to leap high in the air at a moment’s notice, is a definite favorite at children’s parties. His magic tricks are great, but the kids flee in terror when a drunken Shakes starts tearing up the house. Perhaps he is haunted by his poor father’s death in an elephant mishap.
His girlfriend, Judy (Julie Brown), who has a speech impediment, does not approve of his drinking and hopes to reform him. She dreams of one day becoming a professional bowler.
Then there is Binky, the groin-kicking clown, who gets involved in cocaine deals with rodeo clowns and lusts for fame as a TV star. It is Binky (Tom Kenny) who frames Shakes for murder and turns him into a fugitive from justice.
Along the way, Shakes has to commit the ultimate indignity to avoid the law--he masquerades as a mime and attends a mime class where he learns to bump into pretend walls. Robin Williams, in a cameo appearance, portrays the teacher.
Goldthwait said he really doesn’t hate mimes. He said the scene where Shakes and his friends attack the mimes on the roadside is a parody of gay bashing. “There is so much homophobia out there right now, it’s kind of sad and scary.”
When the movie opens, Shakes is passed out on the bathroom floor after a night of heavy drinking and carousing with a clown groupie (Florence Henderson).
A little boy walks into the bathroom to relieve himself when Shakes, struggling with a hangover, sits up only to have the side of his head urinated upon.
“There’s a lot of vomiting in the film,” Goldthwait said. “I probably would hold back on one of the vomitings if I had to do it over.”
In one scene, Goldthwait said, he “broke the comedy rule” by really vomiting. “I ate all these coffee cakes.”
Reviews of the film have swung wildly.
The Boston Globe asked: “Do you like movies that manage to slip in a colostomy joke in the first 10 minutes?”
But the Miami Herald hailed Goldthwait as “some kind of comic genius” and called the film “wickedly funny.”
The film was shot in September of 1990, and Palukaville is really an industrial area of Los Angeles. “There’s like a Palukaville Heights that we don’t even get into,” Goldthwait quipped.
Goldthwait, whose wife, Ann Luly, produced the movie, said that he would equate “Shakes the Clown” with his early stand-up comedy.
“I just was always doing things on stage I thought might be interesting to watch. I’d just break down and read a Dear John letter and cry, or I’d gut and clean herring, or perform my whole show in a cardboard box, whatever. That is what this movie is like, what would make me laugh.”
He added: “If my stand-up seems strange to you, Johnny Carson seems like a Martian to me.”