A neglected little comedy gem from 1991, Shakes The Clown does a lot of things very well in its modest package. There are lots of easy and dark laffs to be had here – the cultural targets are pretty easy marks – but the film’s creators found a nice balance between transgressive humor and sympathetic characterization.
Palukaville, USA is like any town in America, I suppose, if you allow for the fact that a great deal of its population is Clowns. Party clowns. Rodeo Clowns. Mimes. Clowns beating up Mimes. All costumed, all in make-up, with the locals grousing about what things were like Before The Clowns. They don’t run the gas stations, they aren’t the parents who throw the parties, there are no cop clowns (oddly enough), but when any of those people need a clown, for a party, or on TV, there are plenty to go around.
When not doing magic tricks or piling up inside of cars, the clowns of Palukaville like to chill out over a few cold beers and pizza at their favorite hangout, The Twisted Balloon. The big news there is the retirement (forced or voluntary?) of Uncle Peppy, the host of the local TV cartoon show. Longtime veteran Shakes (Bobcat Goldthwait) is the clown everyone is leaning towards replacing him – he’s a great guy, and well liked in spite of the fact that he’s an alcoholic – but Horror of Horrors, the producers have selected Binky (Tom Kenny), an arrogant and unfunny show-biz manipulator. Shakes hasn’t heard yet – he was detained by Florence Henderson in a hilariously disarming opening scene that hits all the one-night-stand Hollywood cliches while presenting a perfect little capsule of why Shakes is loveable, and why Shakes is a loser.
Because, in spite of his alcoholism, he’s a really great clown. The kid’s party he entertains at (he’s late and hung over, of course) is genuinely fun and successful Thanks To Shakes. The kids love him. After the party, he makes his usual stop at the Twisted Balloon, where he not only hears that he didn’t land the TV gig (Binky? BINKY??!!), but also receives a dressing down from his girlfriend Julie (Julie Brown) for not supporting her aspirations to become a professional bowler. His best pals Stenchy and Dink (Blake Clark and a very young Adam Sandler) are always supportive, but have resolved to try to get Shakes to stop drinking. He’s always late, always letting his friends down, and obviously on the bad side of his manager, mentor and father figure Owen Cheese (Paul Dooley) – “I’ll fire you so fast you’ll be out of work immediately!”
Binky, of course, has a little coke habit, like all the playazz, and has found a semi-reliable connection with a couple of rodeo clowns. Unfortunately, Owen Cheese walks in on Binky and his party and threatens to squeal. With the hapless Shakes passed out on the couch, Binky grabs Shakes’ juggling pin and kills Cheese in a rage. He then recruits the rodeo clowns, and his own two dim-witted henchmen, to help him frame Shakes for Cheese’s murder.
Hilarity ensues, of course. In fact, things have been funny, or at least pleasantly entertaining, all along. And, these days, it’s easy to take that for granted.There aren’t long stretches of treading water between the momentarily hilarious showpieces like Ferrell, Sandler or Mike Myer’s films. It isn’t relentlessly never-let-you-off-the-black-humor-hook like ‘Bad Santa’. It doesn’t set up 90 minutes of transgressive humor for a pull-the-rug-out lecture on Responsibility, Family, True Love and Adulthood. It just tells a familiar story, in a genuinely original context, about people we either like and identify with, or people we don’t like and Boo and Hiss. Goldthwait knew that if he maintained a likable, identifiable context for everything, then he could pick his spots for the burping and farting and vomiting and drunken screaming, and those would never become What The Movie Was About. Even most of the way through the film, goof after goof after goof, we’re still genuinely frightened for Binky’s hostage Julie – clown makeup is smeared over the duct tape keeping her quiet, and Tom Kenny really turns up the malevolence under Binky’s show-biz facade, despite the old-as-the-hills knife-thrower cliche. Goldthwait never squanders his audiences’ goodwill, but never lets up on What Can I Do To Make You Laugh?
It’s nice to see that this directing debut has led to reasonably steady gigs. As a director, he’s done numerous episodes of ‘The Man Show’, ‘Chapelle’s Show’, ‘Jimmy Kimmel’ and a couple of other features. His IMDB resume reveals a steady, veteran working joe.
It’s also fun to spot the cameos and before-they-were-famous types riddled throughout the film. Florence Henderson is memorably easy to spot, but less conspicuous are Sandler, Kathy Griffin, Robin Williams (less conspicuous then, maybe), character actors Dooley and Sidney Lassick – and is that really an uncredited Milton Berle at the end of the bar with LaWanda Page? And Tom Kenny, it seems, is most famous as the voice of Spongebob Squarepants.
Very funny, very refreshing. Recommended.