Soupy Sales!

Originally posted in 2011

Today is the birthday of the great Soupy Sales (Milton Supman, 1926-2009)

When I was a kid growing up in the 70s, Soupy was one of that army of scores of mysterious “celebrities” that populated the television airwaves. You saw them as panelists on game shows, as guests on talk shows, performing on variety shows, but still, if you’re my age or younger, you never knew what any of them actually did. It was never explained, because older people already knew these people. Orson Welles was a movie director and radio star. Peggy Cass was a singer in swing bands. Orson Bean was a nightclub comedian and Broadway stage actor. These were people with real accomplishments; somehow all this overexposure made them cheap. And if you walked in late, like I did, you only knew them as “the guy on Match Game” or whatever it was.  Soupy was sort of one of these. I say “sort of” because everyone also knew he used to have a children’s show in the 1950s and 60s, because everyone knew the famous anecdote where he instructed kids to go into their mother’s purses, take out the money, and mail it to him at the television studio.

I always found him amazingly likeable, with enough sort of “off” elements to keep you interested. For example, he had this weird, Beatle-length haircut that was sort of unusual for a man of his age (except perhaps for Captain Kangaroo). And he has this funky, black-sounding way of talking that always intrigued me. (A little research and the answer emerges. He was a Southerner who grew up in North Carolina and later West Virginia. And he was an extreme jazz buff in the be bop era, who started his broadcasting career as a D.J. and later brought many seminal jazz acts to television. So Jewish he may have been — his real name was Milton Supman — but culturally he had somethin’ else goin’ on altogether.)

Soupy pioneered the “kid’s show that was really for adults”. In this, he was influential on a very long list of performers, among them Peewee Herman, Andy Kaufman and Uncle Floyd Vivino. And, while he was hip and subversive, at the same time, he was perpetuating the comedy of old time vaudeville, burlesque and silent comedy. The material is a barrage of black out sketches and shameless one-liners of widely divergent wit in the tradition of Groucho MarxHenny Youngman and Milton Berle. Most importantly, he takes the pie in the face (which I usually detest as an empty, dead comedy cliche) to the ultima Thule by doing it so much it becomes a punctuation mark, an act of God. Disembodied pies come from nowhere to chastise him for his dumb behavior and bad jokes. They become his salvation, letting the audience know that he knows he’s corny even if he is brazen. The pie throwing on The Soupy Sales Show is downright existential. It is the pie throwing Samuel Beckett might put in his stage directions.

To learn more about vaudeville, including tv variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; to learn more about classic comedy please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

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