Robin Williams’s cameo in “Shakes the Clown,” the “‘Citizen Kane’ of Alcoholic Clown Movies”

By on July 21, 2015

Today we’re remembering Robin Williams on the anniversary of his birth — he was born on July 21, 1951, in Chicago, Illinois; he died on August 11, 2014 — by taking a look back at his memorable cameo as a mime instructor, Mime Jerry, in Bobcat Goldthwait’s cult fave Shakes the Clown, the 1992 film memorably called the “Citizen Kane of Alcoholic Clown Movies!” by the Boston Globe‘s Betsy Sherman, whose review also posed the question for the ages: “Do you like movies that manage to slip in a colostomy joke in the first ten minutes?”

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Goldthwait’s Shakes is a depressed, blackout-drunk birthday party clown who lives in the fictional town of Palukaville, the nation’s leading producer of lard, which is populated with bickering clowns of various types (including mimes and rodeo clowns, one of the latter played by the great Bruce Baum) who constantly fight with each other in what amounts to a clown town turf war. At the local bar, the Twisted Balloon, we even hear one clown complaining about another that he “can’t even throw a pie straight.”

The clowns, meanwhile, hate the mimes, and when mimes are spotted performing on the side of the road, Shakes — who drives around town with his clown pals in a polka-dot painted car — and his friends pull over and begin chasing after the hapless men with their sad white faces.

Shakes is actually considered a top candidate for the available job as host of a local kiddie show, but soon spirals downward into a deep trough of liquor-soaked depression after he learns the job is going to be given to Binky, an unfunny evil disco clown, played by Tom Kenny.

Kenny — a fellow classmate of Goldthwait’s at Bishop Grimes, a private Roman Catholic high school in their hometown of East Syracuse, New York — actually has quite an impressive résumé as a comedian and actor, but he is probably still best known as the voice of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

The plot of Shakes the Clown continues pinballing around for awhile, and sometimes even feels like it’s trying to score huge comedy points by trying to be too many things. It’s almost as if Goldthwait — who wrote, directed and starred in the title role — thought he may not ever get another chance to direct a film and had decided to pack this one with every clever comedy idea he’d ever had; not to worry, Bobcat has subsequently directed several films, including Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad, which arguably features one of Robin Williams’s best dramatic performances ever, as a high school poetry teacher, despite it being an even darker black comedy in some ways than Shakes was.

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Shakes the Clown, by the way, can be seen as the director’s attempt to satirize the dysfunctional stand-up comedy circuit. Back in 1992, Goldthwait told the L.A. Times that the film was “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’s like me looking at my peers and going, ‘You guys got to cheer up, man.'”

Goldthwait told the Times that despite the fact that it’s about clowns, his movie is not for kids, it was made for “disenfranchised adults, balding 30-year-olds who are listening to Nirvana.”

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Goldthwait also says that the scene where Shakes and his clown pals attack the mimes on the roadside was supposed to be symbolic of the gay-bashing he witnessed in the stand-up community, saying at the time: “There is so much homophobia out there right now, it’s kind of sad and scary.”

One wonders if the drugging and drinking portrayed in the film was exaggerated beyond actual reality or a fairly accurate depiction of what Goldthwait experienced in the stand-up world for many years, before he became a film director and TV actor.

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Shakes even winds up attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in full-blown clown makeup, and from there the storyline continues to ricochet around between full-on satire and a murder mystery, after Shakes is framed for killing his boss.

The movie starts off dark and just keeps going darker — as in black comedy, sure, but also dark in the fact that the cinematography stays shadowy and murky throughout most the film, something a lot of the movie critics pointed out in their mostly negative reviews at the time — and apparently that might have had something to do with the film’s budget and the lack of being able to afford good lighting. Goldthwait told the Times that his movie “costs about eight minutes of Wayne’s World,” which had a considerably larger budget.

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At the time, another group were perhaps even more vocally critical of Shakes the Clown than even movie critics, and that was representative from the real clown community, who told the Times they were not happy with Goldthwait’s disrespectful portrayal of clowns.

Carrol Mudlaff, administrator of the Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center in Delavan, Wisconsin, said “Children have a hard enough time dealing with Santa Claus, we don’t want to see them have a hard time dealing with clowns.”

She said the number of clowns in United States has grown from 10,000 a decade ago to 80,000 today (this was in 1992). There are three major clowning organizations, she reported — Clowns of America International, the World Clown Association, and the Shriner’s International Shrine Clown Association — and 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.”

We’d just like to point out that “Mudlaff” is an awesome last name for someone speaking on behalf of clowns, and we certainly hope she’s still working as the administrator for the Clown Hall of Fame, as that sounds like just an excellent job for someone with such an obvious great sense of humor.

By the way, there’s no word how the mimes felt about their portrayal (they usually keep pretty quiet, though).

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Meanwhile, Steve Smith, the director of the Clown College in Venice, Florida, who once upon a time was a clown with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus — we told you about the Ringling Bros.’s Clown College here (there’s even a photo of Smith if full clown regalia) — told Entertainment Weekly magazine that he did not like to see the clown “art form” portrayed negatively.

“I do wish (Goldthwait) would wear the rubber nose with some responsibility and respect,” he said.

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Back to Shakes: Williams’s sadistic mime teacher cameo scene comes about because Shakes has to go into hiding, and he cleverly ends up disguising himself as a mime — which for a clown in Palukaville we suppose is about as self-loathing as you can get — in order to go uncover to find out who really killed his boss, Mr. Cheese, all while he’s being pursued by two cops named Boar and Crony (Jeremy S. Kramer and Jack Gallagher).

He’s  also trying to save his girlfriend Judy (played by Julie Brown, giving her character a bit of speech impediment — she dreams of one day becoming a professional bowler), who has been kidnapped by the sinister Binky, who seems to be constantly jacked up on “white powdery beef.”

Let’s go back to that clip at the top, however, as we get to see classic Robin Williams here, doing his schtick — going off-script with raunchy, frenetic, free-association and completely off-the-wall improvisation — but we’d also like to point out that this was not the first time funnyman Williams acted as a mime, either, as evidenced by these photos of Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, that were taken in Central Park, NYC, in 1974 by then-amateur photographer Daniel Sorine.

Williams apparently also worked as a mime on the sidewalks outside the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and a decade after these photos were snapped, he even appeared as a mime in this “Saturday Night Live” skit, “Living with a Mime” (with Brad Hall, Season 9, 1984).

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For his role in Shakes the Clown, Williams (who was already a big, big star by the early 90s) was credited with a pseudonym, “Marty Fromage,” which was likely an homage to an earlier film he and Goldthwait had both appeared in, Tapeheads, in which Goldthwait had used the pseudonym “Jack Cheese.”

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In addition to Williams and Kenny, Goldthwait filled the rest of his cast with quite more friends from the world of comedy, some of them in key roles, including Paul Dooley (“Owen Cheese” — you can see how the “cheese” theme kinda stayed with Goldthwait, huh?), Kathy Griffin (“Lucy”), Adam Sandler (as “Dink the Clown”) and even the lovely and talented Florence Henderson shows up as “The Unknown Woman” that Shakes cheats on his girlfriend with (quite an unexpected role for the formerly perky matriarch of the Brady Bunch family, doncha think?).

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We really miss Robin Williams, as we’re sure you do too if you’re reading this, and so we thought we’d leave you with this excerpt from 1982’s “An Evening with Robin Williams,” which shows Williams doing some of his act in San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall at the top of his game, although he was really pretty much at the top of his game his whole career if you ask us, as we pointed out in this previous Night Flight post.

He was also a pretty kind soul who cared about the homeless right up until his death last year. He was one of a kind.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.