In a recent edition of The Sound of Young America, Jesse Thorn interviewed Barry Gordon, who starred in A Thousand Clowns in its Broadway and Hollywood incarnations (1962 and 1965, respectively) as a young man. The play ran for years in New York, and the film was a big hit that won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Martin Balsam. (It was also nominated for Best Picture, among other categories.)
Nowadays, it’s a fairly obscure film, not in print in any home video format. Its general availability has hovered between “not” and “barely” for the last 30 years or so. Every now and then, you can catch A Thousand Clowns on Turner Classic Movies, although if you blink you might miss it.
Listening to the interview with Gordon reminded me not only of how much I love this movie, but of how I first heard of this film: My longtime obsession with Jean Shepherd, who himself was obsessed with A Thousand Clowns, though in a not-quite-healthy way.
Some quick background for those in need of it (those who don’t, feel free to skip ahead a paragraph or two) Jean Shepherd is best known for writing and narrating A Christmas Story, but my love of him has more to with his radio show, which aired on WOR in New York from 1955 to 1977. It’s hard to encapsulate exactly what he did on the radio; something in the Venn intersection of improvised monologue, storytelling, and sardonic commentary on the day’s events. It was done completely off the top of his head, with no notes, outlines, or anything. It is better experienced than described, so I’d encourage the curious to check out some of my Shep-related posts, or The Brass Figlagee, a podcast that makes available hundreds of his old shows.
When he came to New York in the mid-1950s, Shepherd had an overnight show that garnered a huge following among jazz artists, writers, and other Night People (a phrase he claimed to have coined, and just may have). By his definition, a Night Person was someone who probably had a day job to get up for in the morning but preferred to stay up into the wee hours, just brooding, because they were “bugged” about some inexplicable something. His monologues were a stab at trying to get at that something.
At that time, among his many pals in the nocturnal, creative set was the future author of A Thousand Clowns, Herb Gardner. They appeared together in a neo-vadevillian revue, Look, Charlie: A Short History of the Pratfall (which also featured another erstwhile Shepherd BFF and fellow Chicagoan, Shel Silverstein). The exact content of the show has been lost to the mists of time, but peep this page from its program, in which both Shepherd and Gardner are listed with their respective credits. (Also, note the illustrations by Silverstein.)
Shepherd used to promote Gardner’s “Nebbishes” cartoons on his WOR show, embellishing the spots (as he often did to those who dared advertise on the program) with his trademark rambling. Shepherd did not have many guests on his show–he preferred to work solo–but Gardner was one of the few, and he came on the program to promote Nebbishes in person. Gardner in turn wrote the liner notes to Shep’s second LP, Will Failure Spoil Jean Shepherd?
Shortly thereafter, the two men had a falling out, and the reason was almost certainly A Thousand Clowns.
The story of A Thousand Clowns concerns Murray Burns (played by Jason Robards), an unemployed TV writer who enjoys frequenting junkyards, screaming things out his window at his neighbors, and living his life in as slack-tacular a fashion as humanly possible. He lives in a dilapidated apartment somewhere in Manhattan (presumably the Village) with his nephew, Nick, who was left on his doorstep by Murray’s free spirited sister. “You might call Nick a bastard,” Murray says, “or a little bastard, depending on how whimsical you’re feeling at the time.”
Murray considers all the striving of humans to be one grand joke. He is genuinely bemused by the trappings and scut of life itself, and studies it as a scientist might. He hits the street with binoculars just before the morning rush hour, so he can track the movements of the North American Commuter.
As the play/movie begins, Murray is visited by two Child Services officials who want to make sure that Nick is growing up in a “healthy” environment. Murray’s responses to their questions, which include a duet with Nick on “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” complete with ukelele accompaniment, do not reassure them. It is fairly obvious that Nick is the adult in this relationship.
Child Services insists he find a proper job or else risk losing Nick. And Nick himself seems concerned that Murray’s desire to detach himself from the rest of humanity, and to see everything as a joke, is turning him into “a bum.” This causes Murray to contemplate taking a standing offer to write for an imbecilic children’s show, “Chuckles the Chipmunk,” even though the idea of returning to the workaday world terrifies him.
Five months ago I was on the subway on my way to work, was sitting on the express same as every morning looking out the window watching the local stops go by in the dark with an empty head and my arms folded, not feeling great, not feeling rotten, just not feeling. And for a minute I couldn’t remember, I didn’t know, unless I really concentrated, whether it was a Tuesday or a Thursday or a… for a minute it could have been any day…
Why did this cause a rift between Shepherd and Gardner? Because Shepherd was absolutely convinced the character of Murray was based on him. He wasn’t the only one; during A Thousand Clowns‘s Broadway run, Shepherd was constantly asked about the similarities between Murray and himself, to the point that he refused to talk about it at all. According to a 1968 article in the Bergen Record, he even sued Gardner over it: “‘It was my life,’ Shepherd admits, ending further comment.”
When I began diving headfirst into Shep research many years ago and came across this tidbit, naturally I decided I must see this film. Even then, it was extremely difficult to find. After months of searching, I joined a tiny little video store on the Upper West Side because they were the only place I’d found, even in cinephiliac Manhattan, that had a copy of the film on VHS.
The first time I watched A Thousand Clowns, I admired the movie immensely. It’s a bit dated in some respects, but in most aspects it’s vibrant and ahead of its time. It is much more lively than you have any right to expect from a film that takes place almost entirely inside a tiny apartment. Both Gordon and Robards are phenomenal in it; how neither was nominated for an Oscar is a mystery to me. And its on-location footage of mid-1960s Manhattan serves as a unique time capsule of a time when the city was unknowingly on the precipice of plunging into the despair and violence of the 1970s.
However, during my first viewing, I also couldn’t help sympathizing with Shepherd. After spending so many hours listening to his old shows, I had his speech patterns and turns of phrase firmly imprinted on my brain. Five minutes in, I was convinced that not only did Murray Burns greatly resemble Jean Shepherd, but that he was meant to resemble Jean Shepherd.
I couldn’t imagine Jean Shepherd fighting hard to keep his children as Murray did for Nick (he had two kids but remarried several times and was not a stable presence in their lives). And though he’d already written for Playboy and The Village Voice by the time A Thousand Clowns debuted, he still held TV in contempt as a medium, so ‘television writer’ was, at the time, neither on his résumé nor pursued as an outlet for his art in any meaningful way (though he would produce great material for TV later).
Even so, Murray’s general demeanor and life philosophy was pure Shepherd. His bemused take on the foibles of mankind was straight out of Shepherd’s book. His turns of phrase were decidedly Shepherd-esque. (Murray’s frequent use of “Hey, Charlie!” as an all-purpose exclamation is a classic Shepherd-ism.) Certain things Murray did to amuse no one but himself greatly resembled features of Shepherd’s radio show. Check out this segment where Murray harangues his neighbors to improve the quality of their garbage.
This is extremely similar to a recurring segment of Shepherd’s show called Hurling Invective. He would tell his audience to put their radios on their windowsills and turn up the gain. He would then yell something nonsensical as a grand, communal cathartic gesture, shouting on behalf of all those who could not bring themselves to shout. Here’s a representative example from 1957.
“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” used throughout the play/film, was a favorite of Shepherd’s as well. He would often sing along (badly) with an old scratchy recording, or by himself, almost to himself, as goofy little filler between monologue threads. He’d often plunk away on a tiny toy guitar, not unlike Murray’s work on the ukelele.
In the film, Jason Robards even vaguely resembles Shepherd at the time the play was written. Though Robards is taller and rangier, he has the same sleepy-eyed cast, the same curling half-smile. Take a look at the LP cover above, which contains a picture taken in 1960, not long before A Thousand Clowns was written. It’s not hard to see a similarity between Shep and Robards in the film.
As I said, when I first watched A Thousand Clowns, the Shep parallels seemed too vast and deep to be coincidental. A few years later, I wound up working on a book about Shepherd’s life, Excelsior, You Fathead!, performing research, watching old PBS specials, and conducting interviews with people who knew him (who at that point were few and far between). I desperately wanted to talk to Gardner and get his side of the story, but unfortunately he was already quite ill at the time and passed away as the book went to press. I’ve never been able to find any statements by Gardner on the subject of Shepherd, so it’s impossible to say what he thought of the accusation.
However, I’ve seen the film a number of times since that first viewing, and I’ve revised my thinking somewhat. I don’t believe Gardner necessarily meant to hew so closely to the Jean Shepherd model, at least not intentionally. It’s possible that Shepherd-esque things flowed from Gardner’s pen simply by osmosis.
Shepherd’s radio work was meant to come across as a one-sided conversation. He spoke to the listener as if they were in the same room with him. It was an intimate art form. “People feel they’re your friends,” Shepherd said of his radio work in 1979 (by which time it had ended). “You never feel that Johnny Carson is your friend, but you feel I am your friend.”
He attracted lonesome obsessives (cases in point: Bobby Fischer and Stanley Kubrick were both fans as young men) because he was one. When Shepherd was in a room, he had to own the room, and if he was just with one person, he had to have their undivided attention.
I interviewed Fred Barzyk, a producer who worked with Shepherd on his PBS films, and he told me a fascinating story about him. They were on location for the series Jean Shepherd’s America, and Fred and his crew had just checked out of a hotel to move on to the next site. Shepherd, returning to the hotel, spotted him in his car and literally stepped in front of it so he could tell him a story. The producer indulged him for a while, then insisted he had to get going. Shepherd reluctantly complied, then moved on to the next car to complete his story.
That car was full of complete strangers. The content of the audience didn’t matter so much to him as having an audience.
If Gardner was an intimate of Shepherd’s at one time, surely he was given this treatment more than once. The Shepherd World View would have seeped into him and come out in some form or another. As it turned out, intentionally or not, it materialized in certain touches in A Thousand Clowns.
Was this really the “rip-off” Shepherd considered it to be? It’s important to consider that Shepherd was obsessed with people swiping his stuff. He would often rail against “night club” comics who he believed were biting “material” he’d done on the air. Most of these alleged thieves went unnamed, but he had no problem taking swipes at Mort Sahl on the air, out an apparent believe that Sahl’s whole standup schtick was taken whole cloth from what he did on the radio. The similarities between Sahl and Shepherd are not obvious to the untrained ear, and Shepherd’s suspicions are closer to paranoia and jealousy than reality, but that didn’t prevent him from mocking Sahl at every opportunity. Check out this critique of Sahl’s memoir Heartland that Shepherd penned for The New York Times Book Review. It is drenched in so much vitriol and schadenfreude, you can almost see it dripping off the page.
I’m sure there were comedians who ripped him off on occasion, but it’s difficult to separate the genuine thieves from the minor or nonexistent ones, because Shepherd had the habit of seeing himself everywhere. When he eulogized Jack Kerouac (a Shep fan and occasional pal) on the air in 1969, he insisted he was a character in On the Road, but if you can find him in that book you have a sharper eye than me (trust me, I tried). He even claimed to be the inspiration for José Ferrer’s portrayal of the radio man at the center of The Great Man—a film released in 1956, when Shepherd had been on the radio in New York for less than a year. (Arthur Godfrey is the more likely target.)
This paranoia pushed Shepherd into doing more work in other, more marketable media like TV, film, and books, eventually supplanting his radio career. Toward the end of his life, he even claimed that he was really a “classically trained actor” and radio was “just another gig” until opportunities in film and publishing came along, a claim virtually no one believed, save maybe himself.
One other vital thing to know about Shepherd: He had a nasty habit of burning bridges. In the early 1960s, he often championed the work of Jules Feiffer and Paul Krassner, but by the end of the decade he was badmouthing both on the air, using their names as bywords for self-important intellectuals. He had kind words for Lenny Bruce (another fan of Shepherd’s from the overnight years, evidently) at the comic’s funeral, but was harsh on him in the documentary Lenny Bruce: Without Tears, going so far as to say his worldview could “lead to a new kind of Jew-burning” (!). He meant that Bruce’s attitude was a very us-vs.them, sensitives-vs.-squares mentality, but the use of such a loaded phrase implies Shepherd felt extreme contempt for, or fear of, the comic.
More importantly, I think that when I first watched the film, I was at the height of Shep mania. I was listening to his old shows so much that I was seeing his influence in anything. I distinctly remember listening to a show from 1960, which was quite atmospheric and eerie (as were many of his shows from that period). It starts with Shepherd waiting for subway. While on the platform, he sees a young graffiti artist at work. He’s never actually seen someone do this before, so he decides to quietly, distantly follow her as she defaces subway posters. When she’s safely out of sight, he examines her handiwork: an ad on which she’s written BELA LUGOSI IS DEAD.
My mind immediately began swirling: Was Bauhaus influenced by Shepherd? I did some furious googling, with nothing but dead ends, for obvious reasons (the band and the radioman were separated by an ocean and 20 years, for instance). It was then I realized that 1) I don’t really care what influenced Bauhaus, and I shouldn’t care just because Shepherd might be involved, and 2) I was now seeing the world exclusively through the filter of Shepherd. No matter what looked at, heard, or thought about, my brain connected it to him.
Sadly, I think Shepherd himself came to see the world in the same way, but rather than seeing all the good things he helped create, he only saw other people get rich and famous on work he made, and it poisoned his perceptions.
Perhaps this Shep Filter came over Gardner, too, so that he almost had no choice but to write about Shepherd, if only to purge himself of the influence once and for all. So in the end, I think the truth behind A Thousand Clowns is somewhere in the middle. I think there is much of Shepherd in the character of Murray Burns, though I think this was not entirely intentional. At the same time, I think Shepherd had a right to feel aggrieved, though not to the point of suing the author.
Regardless of the Shepherd question, A Thousand Clowns remains a unique, fascinating film (particularly for its ending, which I will not ruin). I hope it comes back into print and stays that way; maybe even a Criterion Edition, because it is that essential. In a just world, both Shepherd’s radio work and A Thousand Clowns would be widely available, studied, and most importantly, enjoyed. But hopefully in small, non-obsessive doses.