Friday, October 23, 2009

My thoughts on Soupy Sales

You have to take my word for it. Soupy Sales was a brilliant physical comedian.

Those of us of a certain age (middle… not old yet. Don’t rush us.) remember Soupy Sales fondly and are very saddened by his passing. The vast majority of you I suspect don’t even know who he is.

And it’s not like I can just point you to some movies. Soupy’s milieu was live television. And worse, live local television most of the time. So not a lot of his work exists and even the snippets that do don’t really tell the story. You just have to trust me on this one.

Soupy’s brilliance was that he created this whole comic world. And to be fully appreciated you had to watch everyday. Offstage noises, wise ass puppets popping up in the window, eight foot dogs, sound effects, girlfriends with hairy arms, old film clips, lip syncing songs, classic comedian monologues, zany props, a barrage of corny jokes, slapstick sight gags, and plenty of pies in the face – that was the world of Soupy Sales, coming at you in rapid succession from every which angle. It was so unrehearsed and spontaneous that half the time he didn’t even know what the hell was happening. You could hear the crew offstage laughing, you knew that the set and entire budget was so cheesy the biggest expense was probably all the shaving cream used to make the pies.

But that was part of its charm. Again, trust me. It was wonderful. And hilarious. Most of the time Soupy was just the straight man, unselfishly letting the hairy arm or hand puppet get the big laughs.

And at this point I need to stop a moment and salute the man whose arm and offstage voices were the key to this inspired lunacy. Clyde Adler, a former stagehand, was a master of comic timing. Together he, Soupy, White Fang, Black Tooth, Pookie, Hippy, and Peaches made magic.

For a brief moment Soupy was the rage. ABC even went national and prime time with him briefly. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra no less, would come on and get hit in the face with pies (although in Frank’s case I’m sure he had the thrower killed).

Soupy went on to a successful career in radio, appearing as a celebrity panelist on game shows (where he showed off his Wake Forest education and proved to be quite smart and well read), and performing live shows.

But it was those early afternoon shows on KABC Channel 7 I will remember and revere.

I’m right about this one. You just gotta believe.


Kitty Sheehan said...

As I replied to someone on twitter about Soupy, he really was our generation's Pee Wee Herman. He was one cool cat. All kids loved him, but unlike Pee Wee, so did our parents.

Terry McCarty said...

I remember Soupy had one starring film called BIRDS DO IT. Never saw it, but curious as to its quality.

SeattleDan said...

Yes, that's how I remember him. Thanks, Ken.

buddybutler said...

I think of Soupy as a child-oriented Ernie Kovacs. Watch footage on YouTube and you see him making very adult asides, in between the pies and puppets. Like Kovacs, Soupy's stuff was pure TV, not radio with pictures or vaudeville. Maybe his use of recorded music and sound had some influence on the brilliant Lloyd Thaxton. I'd say any kid show host who would go on the air and ask kids to find those little green pieces of paper in Mommy's purse and send them in, is some kind of comic genius.

Kirk said...

I've seen BIRDS DO IT. Soupy's pretty good in it, but as for the movie as a whole, it reminds me of Ken's post about how impossible gags can suck the tension out of the film. The plot's about a janitor at NASA who is exposed to something that makes him fly uncontrollably. That's not the impossible gag I'm talking about. There a scene with an inflatable lifelike horse (a spoof of the Ajax commercials of the time) and another scene with hippies dancing to a weather report. After those two scenes, Soupy's flying is almost anticlimatic.

Marv said...

Many say Soupy was our generation's Pee Wee Herman, but he wasn't. Pee Wee was done for adults who remembered what it was like to be a child and it was intentionally unruly. Soupy aimed his material for kids and knew that some of it would fly over their head, but the jokes, probably awful, but what did we know, made us laugh because we sensed some of them were aimed for adults and we were hearing things maybe we shouldn't have had. Soupy worked because he was the real kid's host that Pee Wee later played and satirized in a way.

Bob Claster said...

There is one movie in which Soupy is quite memorable. It's called "...And God Spoke," and it's essentially a less skilled version of "This Is Spinal Tap" about the movie business, in which these guys try to make a biblical epic with no money. The only celebrity they can afford to cast as Moses is... yes, Soupy Sales. As himself, improbably cast in the role of Moses. I won't spoil it, but he a great joke on the subject of product placement.

Tim W. said...

If I say I knew who Soupy was, does that prematurely age me? I do recall, however, enjoying the pie in the face thing a great deal, and I believe I used to call him Slappy Pie in the Face, because that's what I remembered.

bruce miller said...

Ken.......I grew up with Soupy. Watched Lunch With Soupy every day when I was very young. When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I would take a guitar lesson from the amazing guitarist in his late night show band. (Joe Messina was the best jazz player and primary guitarist in the Motown Funk Brothers). After my lesson in the old Maccabees Bldg in mid-Detroit, I'd hang around with my dad and watch the late show from the set, itself. It was awesome and had all the jazz legends of the time and completely developed the format for what would later become The Tonight Show and it's many clones.

Robert Lawrence said...

One of Soupy's greatest talents was just the way he told a joke. It didn't matter if the joke was funny or not. You were laughing hysterically half way to the punch line. It's the same hilarity that he carried throughout his show. On his show in Detroit, he had no budget or staff. He just made it up as he went along. As a kid, I will always remember running home for lunch to watch Lunch with Soupy. I feel that part of my childhood is gone.

Mark Murphy said...

I didn't have the privilege of seeing Soupy Sales' live stuff as a kid, but as I got older and watched him on game shows, I became aware of something that I don't think has been pointed out: In addition to being a funny comedian, unlike some comics, Soupy was a total pro as a broadcaster, knowing when to crack wise and when to play the game, never hogging the spotlight, looking out for the needs of the show first.

Case in point: It's an episode of the syndicated, post-John Daly version of What's My Line. The mystery guest is Rodney Dangerfield. Someone (Soupy, I think) guesses him right away. This means that the host has some time to fill. Unfortunately, the host is rather awkward with show biz folks and doesn't seem to know how to interact with Rodney.

Soupy, sensing the awkwardness, jumps in -- not with a joke of his own, but with a setup line for Rodney (something like, "Rodney, how's you're wife been?") and Dangerfield is off and running for a very funny couple of minutes.

I remember thinking that this was a classy thing to do, and thinking that Soupy Sales was a classy guy. I still think so.

Anonymous said...

I believe, I believe! I am just old enough to remember some of the live shows, as they were telecast in Philly when I was a kid. (If I'm not mistaken, it was on UHF channel 17 -- I'm sure someone out there can verify) White Fang was my favorite, but the whole vibe of the show was just unmatched then, or now. Pee Wee's Playhouse couldn't touch it, although it was obvious that Sales had tremendous influence on that show. He was one of a kind for sure.

Cheers to Soupy Sales!

Randy said...

I had the pleasure to spend time with Soupy in recent years. Despite declining health from a number of sources (Parkinsons among them), he was an absolute joy to be around, and was adored by his New York fans. His wife Trudy (a former Radio City Music Hall Rockette) was as sweet a woman who ever walked the earth, and gave so much during his illness.

I'm glad you DIDN'T mention a failed NBC pilot that really was not his best work. But we DO need to give credit to the guy who stepped into the Clyde Adler position in later years - Frank Nastasi. His chemistry with Soupy was phenomenal.

Thanks for spreading the word of Soupy's genius.

Patrick said...

Just the for blog-a-sphere record, I was the anonymous who "...believes!". That anonymous tag is a pain in the anonymass sometinms.

a very young Soupy Sales fan

Anonymous said...

I was a member of Supervisors, Helpers in Television
(acronym SHITS) back in the early 60's. We met, for lunch,the last Friday of the month, when the air raid sirens when off, in the basement of Nicodell Argyle. At each lunch they screened the latest out takes from a lot of the big TV shows of the time, but Soupy always had the most, including the nude girl behind the stage door. They (the crew) were always goofing on him - big stars showing up unexpectedly, all kinds of stupid gags, etc. His reactions were always great to watch.

Mary Stella said...

My older (have to get that in) and I loved watching Soupy Sales.

Ken, thanks for so eloquently putting into words why we were so entertained.

DwWashburn said...

Living here in Las Vegas, you sometimes get a little lazy when stars come into town. Most stars are on "rotation" here so you always say Well if I don't see them tonight I'll catch them in a couple of months when they come through. In the late ninties, Soupy appeared at the Rivera Comedy Club and my wife and I went. I am so happy I did.

After a couple of warm up comedians, here comes Soupy using a cane to motor through the audience. He told his show biz stories and was very warmly received. That to my knowledge was the only time he came to Vegas in the 22 years I've lived here.

Soupy, Bob Keeshan and Shari Lewis were the heroes of my childhood. Now they're gone. Thank goodness they were here, though. what laughter, what joy, they brought to the world.

D. McEwan said...

Amen to every word on Soupy, except that along with going on to a successful careeer in radio, he also came from one, having been a radio man first.

LUNCH WITH SOUPY SALES, broadcast nationally Saturday afternoons from Detroit, was my first taste of the Soupman, but of course, he hit big in Los Angeles, when the Mickey Mouse Club went off the air, and Soupy replaced him live, 5 days a aweek, here in Los Angeles, with Clyde Adler, the show you and I were busting our guts over every day.

When he left to go do the exact same show in New York, I was heartbroken. Frank Nastasi was the New York Clyde Adler, although, to we Angelenos, Frank's Pookie never sounded right. Only Clyde was the true, original Pookie the Lion. (Everyone's White Fang sounded right. White Fang was the world's easiest voice to do. Just make retching sounds. My grandmother hated the show, because, to her, White Fang sounded like someone constantly throwing up, which he did.)

In 1965, my family went back east to see the World's Fair and some Broadway shows, but I was super-excited, because it meant I'd get to see Soupy again. I have photos of me as a skinny 15 year old at the World's Fair, wearing a big Soupy Sales badge. I actually joined his official fan club when I was 10.

He had a couple hit novelty records. "Do The Mouse" was the biggest, although "Pakalafaka" did pretty well too.

Some of the New York Shows are available on DVD and/or VHS, along with the color recreation of the show, done for the ABC network in 1965 at KTLA, with Adler back doing the charcaters, though it's a visably aged Soupy doing the schtick. (A building I used to live in is in the opening credits of every episode of the color verison.) Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any of the old LA shows from 1960 - 62 left.

Soupy did co-write a memoir, "Soupy Sez: My Life and Zany Times," published in 2001. It's like his show was, a zany conglomeration of stuff, rather than a cohesive narrative, but it's lots of fun, and stuffed with pictures. Well worth seeking out. You can't have my copy.

D. McEwan said...

Pt 2.
In 1994, I saw him do his nightclub act, and I saw what 60 years of show business experience does for you. Despite his relentlessly corny material, the way the act was structured and paced was brilliant. The rythms, the way long, shaggy dog stories (including one literal shaggy dog story about White Fang) were interspersed with bouts of quick, short jokes, the way a mounting pile of one-liners were rattled out, one hard on the next one, accelerating in pace, the hard joke material broken up with personal anecdotes about the career, the whole performance was masterful. A real lesson in how to work an audience. A pro to the marrow of his bones.

And after the show, he came out and spent a whole hour dealing one-on-one with everyone who wanted an autograph, or who had brought items to be signed. (The audience seemed to solely consist of folks between the ages of 40 and 55, his kid audiences grown up.) I had brought a couple of his record albums I had had since 1960, including the one you've used as the picture at the top of the column. Mine's signed. And not charging, like the folks at the Has-Been Conventions, I mean "Autograph shows, do.

And he brought out a Polaroid camera with him, so everyone who wanted a picture with him got one, which he could sign right then, all on his own dime. He did not leave until every fan there was satisfied. I treasure my Polaroid picture with him.

I even remember going out to Dodger Stadium to see Soupy play in the "Hollywood All-Stars" before the real game in the early 1960s. Seeing Soupy was a much bigger deal to me than watching the Dodgers afterwards. I remember Soupy stepping up to bat, and pointing at the center field fence, as though that was where he was going to send the ball. After fouling twice, he did the pointing again, only this time towards pointing over the catcher's head at the stands, for a more realistic prediction of where he would send it.

"Birds Do It " is an inoffensive, forgettable little film. AND GOD SPOKE, which a number of close friends of mine are in, is actually very funny. Soupy is only in it briefly towards the end, but his "Moses" is very funny. (Fred Kaz, the legendary original Second City pianist is in it, as himself. Fred is a trip at all times, terminally cool) Soupy pops up on all sorts of TV shows, from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES to BURKE'S LAW to WINGS.

A dear, close friend of mine ended up partnered with him on The $25,000 Pyramid about 20 years ago, and he took her all the way up the pyramid and won her the money.

A few months after I saw him perform, he fell and broke his leg and hip, and he couldn't do his live shows anymore. I was so glad I got to see him work live.

Milton Supman, aka Soupy Sales, was a class act, even when he was being overwhelmingly vulgar. His death actually made me sob.

Mike Barer said...

I remember Soupy from the syndicated version of "What's My Line". Even though he was out of the business and as far as I know, out of sight for a couple of decades, he is not forgotten.

Cap'n Bob said...

I first saw his show in 1960, when I lived in Virginia. A friend insisted I watch it and I was hooked for life. These shows were from the Frank Nastasi era, and only shown on Saturdays, I think. A year later I was living in New York and saw him more often. I wish I'd met him and had a chance to say what great joy he brought into my life.

denparser said...

I only saw him here but I heard about him since I was not pro - blogging. And now, I know something about him.

Cheeky Monkey said...

Craig Ferguson is keeping the spirit of Soupy alive and well in the 21st century every weekday morning at 12:35.

Paul Duca said...

I'd like to bring up another great Soupy moment. It was from WHAT'S MY LINE when they had a viewer question segment. A woman wrote in and asked why the panelists had pencils and paper in front of them. As far as she could tell, they had the occupations of each contestant written down on them. Arlene Francis explained that they used those things to take notes, collect thoughts, even have the person's name handy (the "Sign in, please" blackboard is taken offstage after the person's introduction). While she retained her inimitably classy composure, Arlene was visibly upset by this slur on the show's integrity.

Soupy proceeded to save the day...he stood up, looked at the camera and addressed the viewer "If you think this show is rigged and you watch it, that means you're an accessory--and I'm making a citizen's arrest!"

Mike Snider said...

Nobody has mentioned..."The Soupy" - that signature dance-step of his that every loyal kid fan absolutely HAD to be able to do for themselves! It was kind of a sideways version of Michael Jackson's 'moonwalk' and, if done properly, left big scuff-marks on the floor (much to the irritation of mothers, teachers & nuns all over America)

D. McEwan said...

It was called "The Soupy Shuffle." In fact, on the record album Ken used the cover of at the top of the column, he sang a song: "Do The Soupy Shuffle".

8mm film exists of me, at the age of 11, Soupy Shuffling my brains out in my parent's front yard. It didn't leave scuff marks on the lawn.

Mitch Waldow said...

I met Soupy Sales when he was doing his show out of L.A. I was just a kid at the time, maybe eight or nine years old. My family was driving to Palm Springs, and we stopped at a Coffee Dans restaurant in West Covina. Soupy was sitting in the booth across from ours and my parents nudged me to get an autograph. Don't know what became of that scrap of paper, but I do remember how friendly he was to a timid little boy. I'm sorry to hear of his passing.

Ralph D said...

Lest we forget, I'd like to mention some of Soupy's other bits: Hobart & Reba, Philo Kvetch and the song, "Your Brains Fall Out." All very funny. But you can't do justice to Soupy with just snapshots. His show was always in motion, an exerpt just can't do him justice. I feel lucky to have been able to see him, Sandy Becker and Ernie Kovacs all do their thing.

Unknown said...

When Soupy Sales had a show in NYC there was a staff member with a high pitched laugh that made me laugh even harder. I have friend who laughs just like him.