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.