In Memoriam Soupy Sales

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It was pure absurdist surrealism in the guise of a kids' show.

I was 12 when I first saw Soupy Sales. His show was on a local LA station; this was several years before he moved his operation to New York and achieved a certain national notoriety. Twelve was the perfect age for such an encounter, really: too mature for the simple kids' entertainment that the show purported to be, but just about old enough to begin to grasp, with delighted amazement, what it was actually aiming for.

There was Soupy, with his wonderful rubbery face, full of warmth and manic glee, and his outlandish garb--a dumb floppy hat and baggy black sweater and outsize bow tie--and his low-rent set and his menagerie of puppets. All the conventional apparatus of an ordinary children's afternoon show. But initial appearances were deceptive. Within minutes of my switching the show on, it became obvious to me that something almost insurrectionary was occurring. Even at age twelve, I could see that the joke wasn't Soupy Sales being hit in the face with a pie; the joke was that being hit in the face with a pie was, in some circles, for some insane reason, considered a joke.

Even his puppets were off-kilter.  Two were simply arms thrust through Soupy's front door, intended to represent his two temperamentally opposed dogs, White Fang ("the biggest and sweetest dog in the world") and Black Tooth ("the biggest and meanest dog in the world").  They spoke in growls, one a syrupy falsetto growl, the other a menacing bass growl.  Another puppet, an actual hand puppet this time, appearing at Soupy's window rather than his door, was the small lion, Pookie, possessor of boundless cockiness and narcissistic self-regard.  For some reason, he always addressed Soupy Sales as "Boobie."  And when he blew a kiss to his fans --- we were all his fans, of course --- he would declare in his anomalously plummy tenor voice, "There you go.  Now divvy it up amongst you."

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That front door through which the dogs thrust their paws was an integral part of the show. People were always showing up at Soupy's door--they were never visible, except for their arms--demanding things of him, upbraiding him, and usually, sooner or later, hitting him in the face with a pie. Who they were and where they came from was a question never answered, or even posed. On that old LA show, they were all voiced by a versatile actor named Clyde Adler, whose capacity for portraying unjustified, unmotivated impatience, indignation, and high dudgeon in a wide variety of voices was pretty much peerless.

The only time we were ever shown a world outside of Soupy's claustrophobic set was when clips from old silent comedies would be--incompetently--edited into the show's continuity. I recall one frequently-recurring clip in which a small child in a mac and rain hat, pedaling furiously on a tricycle, scurries up a country path, shouting (through the miracle of bad dubbing, naturally), "Toupy! Toupy Tales! Toupy! Toupy Tales!" until he reaches a doorway (presumably the one leading to Soupy's house) and then unceremoniously falls over onto his ass.

Perhaps the most telling indication of Sales' growing awareness of his own show's covert subversiveness came during the section sometimes called "Words of Wisdom" and sometimes known as "Soupy Sez." This was the part of the show when some sort of adage would be written on a blackboard, and Soupy would expatiate upon its meaning.  Initially, these were fairly straightforward and unexceptionable, small pieces of quasi-parental guidance about respecting your teachers or dressing up in warm clothing on cold days and so on.  But then, as the weeks went by, they became a little jokier, although still retaining their essentially reasonable didactic character.  "Be true to your teeth," went one, "and they won't be false to you."

But eventually, they began to slip into something resembling madness. I recall one that said, "Today is Wednesday, the middle of the week. Chew your food."  Soupy turned to face the camera, clearly flummoxed about how to explain this one. "That's right, boys and girls," he began, and then he began to laugh that booming large-spirited unselfconscious laugh of his.  He was stumped.  And then things went farther still: the following week, when he went up to the blackboard and turned it toward the camera, it bore the chalked words, "You're on your own today." They had given up even trying.

I doubt that Soupy Sales ever read Sartre or Camus, or attended a production of an Ionescu play. But he somehow intuited, on his own, a home-grown version of existential absurdity, and, with a characteristically American absence of pretense, he embraced it not so much as a philosophy of life as a pretext for explosively silly hilarity. Was there ever a greater gift a kids' show host offered his viewers?

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