Friday, October 23, 2009

Mr. Pie In The Face

In keeping with a partial function of this blog as a chronicler of dead celebrities, comedian Soupy Sales died at 83. I remember Sales from a TV show he did in the 1970s, and my father thinking it was the funniest thing on the air. He was a master of double entendres and in many ways was ahead of his time. The censors never let him get away with what he really wanted to do, and that's a shame. Judged by today's standards, Soupy's act was shticky, with puppets, corny songs and the trademark pie in the face gag, yet there was something quintessentially American about his buffoonery. The Soupy Sales Show was what every lame kids show in the 1950s wanted to be; an attempt to tweak the nose of repressed America and break out with something innovative and new. As crude as it was, it preserved a Vaudevillian style, a man in a studio grasping at jokes, playing the fool and getting pelt with pies all in the name of entertainment, to elicit smiles and laughter. What more nobler pursuit could one strive for in a jaded, fearful world? Soupy pushed boundaries on his program. In an improvised moment, he asked children to sneak into their parent's rooms and find the little green pieces of paper with pictures of presidents on them and mail them to him. In exchange, the children were promised a postcard from Puerto Rico.
In recent years, Soupy attended Ocean City's Doo-Dah Parade, even judging a pie in the face contest. It appeared he had a stroke, which limited his mobility, yet he was a regular guest at some of the city's events, such as a rally for deceased comedian and politician Pat Paulsen in 2008. Though he sat in a wheelchair, gaping mouthed and silent, he appeared very responsive and aware of the celebrity impersonators around him, and seemed to enjoy the moment.
I might sound like a 90-year old curmudgeon on a fixed income here, but young people today will never have firsthand knowledge of comedic legends like Soupy Sales. Sure, they have their Dane Cook and the in-your-face, OMG attitudes of pop culture screaming by them at warp speed, but in living in such a hyperactive world where ADD is as common as texting, American Idol or the latest portable entertainment gewgaw, it lacks perspective. When life is flashing by you and the audacious and obnoxious passes for political debate and entertainment, when snark and profanity are the end-all-be all and alpha and omega of existence, you don't have that vista of where we've been and how far we've climbed.
And in that, you lose perspective.
Now don't get me wrong. South Park and Family Guy are two of my favorite shows, combining animation with biting social commentary or in the case of the latter, surreal and funny sight gags. Yet Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Seth MacFarlane are really the bastard children of Soupy Sales. Their comedy is an evolution from Soupy's canned shtick. The old school comedians like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Andy Kaufman paved the way for Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison and Richard Jeni, who in turn inspired the current pumper crop of comedic talent in Patton Oswalt, Greg Giraldo and Lisa Lampanelli.
Lingering in the background were the venerated fathers of 20th century comedy: Soupy Sales, Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Each of their acts different yet eerily similar in the way they applied comedy, through joke telling on the new medium of television and films. For boundary pushers and shocking innovators like Lenny Bruce, who worked in smoke-filled nightclubs, it wasn't the medium but the message that changed what we thought was funny and challenged the puritanical prudence of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Yet Soupy was a creature unto himself, a Vaudevillian who harnessed the airwaves with shlock and shtick and inspired everyone from Pee Wee Herman to Howard Stern with risque double entendres, a stripper in the closet and a pie in the face.

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