Shakes the Movie

Bobcat Goldthwait screens "the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies."

When Bobcat Goldthwait was 10, he attended a taping of Bozo the Clown's television show."I was really fascinated when Bozo would drop character between takes," says Goldthwait, who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y. "He was kind of a drag. Later on, I talked to the guy who played him, and he said, 'Yeah, yeah, I was going through some bad times.'"Thus began Shakes the Clown's journey to the silver screen.Once it got there, in 1991, Goldthwait's bizarre, darkly comic saga was greeted with frosty confusion, grossing a mere $115,000 (on a $1.4 million budget) and earning a hardy forkful of critical derision. But even then, the film, whose main character—played by Goldthwait, who also wrote and directed Shakes—is a chronically inebriated philanderer who paints his face and entertains children for a living, had its champions. Now, ripened, it teeters on the brink of cult status, having recently been afforded an art-house screening in Los Angeles, where Goldthwait lives."There was quite a turnout," says Goldthwait, whose screechy-voiced Police Academy trainee made him famous in the '80s. "There were women dressed up as clown whores, which, in hindsight, I wish we'd put in the movie. But we also had a keg of Pabst, so that helped."When I was sitting there watching it with Tom Kenny [the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants and a lifelong friend of Goldthwait's who plays the murderous, coke-Hoovering clown Binky in Shakes], we looked at each other and were both like, 'What the fuck were we thinking?'" adds Goldthwait. "With all the movies I make, I don't think about what people are going to make of them. In my mind, at the time, they all seem like really good ideas. I don't know what I would do if a movie of mine took off. It'd be really strange. I make movies for the outcasts and the losers."Goldthwait certainly considers his fellow comics to fit such a classification. In fact, the contradictory nature of comics—clowns onstage, sad sacks off—served as the second pillar for his Shakes script."Stand-up comics are really bitter and self-absorbed and humorless," says Goldthwait, fresh off a Gorge performance at Sasquatch!, during which he took off his pants on a dare from an audience member. "When you ask women what the number-one trait is they look for in a guy, it's always sense of humor. By that logic, comics should be getting laid all the time. But the other side of comics is the self-loathing and suicidal part that doesn't attract women."When it came time to cast Shakes, Goldthwait packed the Twisted Balloon (the bar where the clowns drink in the movie, seemingly round the clock) with his stand-up pals, some of whom at the time stood unwittingly on stardom's doorstep. In addition to Kenny, Adam Sandler and Kathy Griffin play key supporting roles—neither had done anything remotely noteworthy before Shakes—and Robin Williams turns in a lengthy, unbilled cameo as a mime named Jerry. (Julie Brown also stars as Shakes' primary love interest; her ultra-annoying presence stands as the film's lone misstep.) As Goldthwait remembers it, Sandler had just been cast in Saturday Night Live, yet refused to back out of his commitment to Shakes, despite warnings that appearing in a flop could jeopardize his SNL gig.Yet for sheer inspired randomness, nothing tops the casting of Mrs. Brady, Florence Henderson, as a booze-soaked, clown-chasing single mom who has just bedded Shakes at the onset of the movie. The film's first frame shows Henderson passed out on a couch in her living room, her record player skipping and her dog lapping up stale pizza on a coffee table next to her. She's covered in clown makeup from the sloppy passion that ensued the night before, and her young son proceeds to march into the bathroom and urinate on the face of Shakes, who's catching Z's on the floor near the toilet.As it happens, Henderson's inclusion in the movie was hardly a case of casting against type. Goldthwait was in New York City for an appearance on the Letterman show in the '80s when he happened upon Henderson in the bar of the hotel he was staying at. "[She] was telling dirty jokes and having a couple cocktails," he says. "After that, she was just in the Rolodex in my head. She was really game; she was, like, 'Let's put makeup on my boob,' so she'd have a clown hickey."Set in Palookaville, "the lard capital of America," Shakes has a sociological depth that's easily obscured by its gonzo veneer. When Shakes pulls into a service station to dress for a birthday-party performance after peeling himself off Henderson's bathroom floor, the station manager, a non-clown, initially declines to give him the keys to the bathroom. Ultimately, Shakes forces him to yield. When Shakes emerges from the lavatory, the station manager remarks to his friends, "When we built this place, there wasn't a clown in the area."Griffin and Brown are cocktail waitresses at the Twisted Balloon, yet neither of them are clowns. Commenting on her relationship with Shakes, Griffin warns Brown that "a bad clown could really fuck you up."Yet the clowns aren't at the bottom of Palookaville's caste system. That rung is reserved for mimes. Whizzing through the streets in a convertible, beers in hand, Sandler, Goldthwait, and a bearded-lady cohort spot a group of mimes rehearsing in a park. They immediately pull over and proceed to beat the crap out of the mimes who fail to escape their ambush, with Sandler shouting "You silent motherfuckers!"Later, after he's suspected of committing a heinous crime, Shakes is forced to go underground, painting his face white and attending a pantomime class taught by Williams. The experience, Brown remarks, might cause Shakes and his friends to "think twice about mime-bashing.""It sounds kind of high-minded," says Goldthwait, "but I was kind of trying to parody racism. Mime-bashing has become popular, so in hindsight I wish I would have made mimes the baddest asses of them all."Goldthwait's subsequent films—including World's Greatest Dad, which starred Williams and was shot in Seattle—have been received more warmly than Shakes, even if monetary returns have remained modest. But the Shakes experience is not something Goldthwait wishes to put behind him. In fact, it's one he'll likely cherish forever."[Shakes] is special because it was this whole idea: Could I actually make a film?" he says. "My brother just gave me a photo from the Shakes set. Here I am in a clown suit, looking through the eyepiece of a camera, and I look all serious. It's a good way to keep humble—to look at myself in a clown suit looking like an auteur."mseely@seattleweekly.com

 
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