02 Nov The Go-For-Broke Comic

If you were under the age of 10 or 12 and lived in the New York metro area during the 1960s, as I did, you knew—and probably loved—Soupy Sales, the comedian who died at 83 last week. In 1965 he was as big as the Beatles or so it seemed to me. He had his own fan club, fanzine, trading cards, record album, and syndicated TV show. His parody of a rock dance, “Do the Mouse,” was a radio hit. You can see it on YouTube.

What made Soupy special was his go-for-broke style. It seemed anything could happen on his show. Though mindful of his kiddy audience, he played to the crew, who egged him on and laughed all the way. A lot of it was obviously improvised. During one skit, he paused, looked up in puzzlement, then asked, “What’s that noise?” He kept interrupting the skit to ask this question. “It sounds like a bad speaker,” he concluded. When, at last, the noise ceased, he said, “Ah, somebody woke up on the set!” Then he waved at the crew. “No, no, don’t let me disturb your nap.” He was having a good time and invited us viewers to do the same. But he wasn’t self-indulgent. He seemed genuinely slap-happy and a little crazy, like the kid in class who will eat paper paste and jump out second-floor windows on a dare.

Jerry Lewis — famous in the movies — preceded him with a similar reckless style but, unlike Soupy, Lewis seemed downright desperate for the audience’s love and approval. Watch Lewis and you can see that part of him is always too aware of the camera. He’s like the kid who can’t really play dead because he can’t keep himself from opening his eyes to see how people are taking it. Soupy Sales, on the other hand, didn’t seem self-conscious at all. He gave himself totally to the moment, whatever that moment was — whether receiving abuse from the eight-foot-tall dog, White Fang, or dancing with abandon when music erupted suddenly from the set.

The set was supposed to be the interior of Soupy’s house but was nothing more than a wall with a door. There was a black board on one side of the door and a table on the other. Also a pot-belly stove. During the course of the show, Soupy would be compelled to answer the door several times. (A model that originated with Captain Kangaroo a decade before and culminated with Pee Wee Herman decades later.) We seldom saw the visitor, which kept our focus on Soupy, who always got duped, insulted, or injured during the exchange. This was the other appeal he offered: he was wide open to the world and usually the world got the better of him. Yeah, kind of like Charlie Chaplin but not. Unlike Chaplin, Soupy never asked for our pity. Usually the worst that happened to him was a cream pie in the face. His vulnerability made him seem like one of us.

He wore white denim jeans, which were really hip at the time, and his hair, though short, was kind of mod. He also said things like, “Cool it.” Top-40 hits (including Motown) appeared in many of the skits. In other words, though he was the same age as our parents (and, in fact, a WWII vet), he wasn’t anything like the grownups we knew. He performed close to the camera, sometimes right up on the lens. And even though he was making the crew laugh, he made it clear that mostly the jokes were on them — he and his viewers (us kids) were in this together.

His reckless improvisations led to the rumor (which turned into urban legend) that he told off-color jokes like this: “I love taking my girlfriend, Peaches, to the baseball game because we have a great time. I kiss her between the strikes. And she kisses me between the balls!” This never happened (he didn’t have to stoop so low) but it seemed like something he’d do because, at bottom, Soupy was irreverent. Or fearless — like the time he stared at his instructional blackboard in an attempt to explain a pun that was way above the young viewer’s head and he stared and stared at the pun, then turned to the camera finally and said, “You’re on your own today, folks.”

After his show’s cancellation in 1966, Soupy never recovered his popularity. It’s amazing that someone so successful one year can drop out of sight the next and never come back He ended up playing a panelist on game shows. I saw him do stand-up on a TV show in the eighties and he was awful. The scripted punch-line format wasn’t right for him at all. He needed the open-ended, anything-goes formlessness of his old show. The cast of that show (especially Clyde Adler), and even the rowdy crew, created enough push-back and volatility to make him soar. He soars still in my memory.