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Clowning Glory? : Goldthwait's Dark Comedy Parodies Stand-Up Comics

March 07, 1992|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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