Friday, October 23, 2009
Soupy Sales, 1926 -- 2009
Now He Belongs To The Ages: Soupy and Pookie, 1962
My usual practice when coming in to work at 6:30AM is to look at the USGS Earthquake reporting site for California, see whether any part of the state has dropped suddenly into the Pacific overnight; then, I shuffle (still not very awake) over to the New York Times online, to see if any part of our culture has dropped suddenly into the ocean overnight. It was there I spotted, in the Obituary listings, right at the top: Soupy Sales, Comedian, 83, and for a moment everything came to a stop.
Given how much I loved seeing Soupy as a child, I was suddenly ashamed that I hadn't thought about him in decades. For the brief time he was allowed on television he had made a significant impact both on the child I was, and on American culture.
"How do I get a letter to Soupy Sales? When I was a little girl in Detroit, during the 50's, I was very lonely. My father was an alcoholic and my mother took prescription drugs. They were so involved with their own problems, I was alone most of the time. I would run home for lunch every day to eat with Soupy Sales. It was like having a lunch date every day. I never met Soupy, but I want to thank him for all those lunches that I didn't have to eat alone.
"- Sincerely, Janet D."
As one of the hated, reviled and (according to the Twentysomethings working at Peets' coffee, anyway) 'useless Boomers', I remember Soupy from direct broadcasts, not VHS or DVD collections of "classic television", and seeing his name in print was like a memory trigger out of Proust; Le Temps retrouvé -- for a moment, I was sitting on the rug in the living room of my family home, in front of the Black-and-White Philco, and oh boy, here's that really funny, crazy man again. I don't slow down enough, or have many doors available to recapture the feeling of being that young or open very often.
"Go to Daddy's wallet and get those little green pieces of paper with
pictures of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Lincoln, and
Jefferson on them; send them to me, and I'll send you a postcard
from Puerto Rico."
I don't want to sit back and reminisce about 'my memories of Soupy'; you can read a fair synopsis of his career here, with part two here.
American comedy from the Thirties to the 50's was a direct descendant of the cadences and formulas of Vaudeville -- but along with pie-in-the-face gags and slapstick pratfalls, it carried a fair amount of laughter at someone because of what was happening to them, a heavy dose of Schadenfreude and cynicism. Most television humor came from Vaudeville-trained standup comics who had already been successful in radio and on film (Jack Benny, Bob Hope), or combined 'situation comedy' with slapstick (Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton).
The late 1950's were also a time when a lot of "edgy" television humor both mocked and depended on its audience to recognize the double-standards and hypocrisy of modern American life: Beany and Cecil, the comedy of Stan Freeberg and Tom Lehrer, and (later) Rocky and Bullwinkle. For all that, it was fairly sophisticated, an in-joke: Mom and Dad could watch, listen to the double-entendres and laugh at how clever it was -- and how clever they were, to appreciate it. And so could the sponsors.
Soupy Accosted By White Fang, 1960's
Soupy's humor was closer to Gleason's or Skelton's (His pie-in-the-face moment was classic; you waited for it). And, there was also plenty of humor with hidden meanings for Mom and Dad, if they were watching (and as time went by, they did) -- but Soupy's humor was simple, direct, creative and spontaneous. Kids knew it was funny, because it was.
He was childlike, not childish, and as a kid you knew that. Like you, Soupy wasn't ashamed to laugh. He was in a safe, funny place; he brought you right along with him, and you wanted to go. In the photo of him with Pookie at the top of this post, he's looking at the camera, at you; that man is happy. He was having an incredibly good time, in part because he knew he was making you laugh. There wasn't a hint of a shadow, or a cynical, yeah, right lurking in that smile -- and that made him a rare talent.
If Mom and Dad were watching, it was like having a witty, funny friend of the sort you run into at parties, the one whose humor is crazy and inventive and just makes you laugh, right up from the gut; the kind of laughter that reminds you you're alive. As a result, it's also humor that's a lot closer to the edge (Who remembers Soupy's classic line, "My wife can't make a cherry pie, but boy, can she make a banana cream!"?), and not always something a sponsor considered "in good taste".
As a comedian, he was innovative in the risks he took with the television medium. And he was cool! Even the Rat Pack (which showed up individually on his program) thought so, and Coleman Hawkins, and Ella Fitzgerald (who also appeared, and stayed to do some music).
It wasn't a cool, blue, oh-so-Madison-Avenue-clever. It was spontaneous and alive. It was White Fang and Black Tooth and the 'Soupy Shuffle' and the Mystery Guest; it was Soupy asking boys and girls to get the "little green bits of paper" from their parent's wallets and send it to him. You watched because, child or adult, you felt good afterward; and he was funny because who the hell knew what would happen next?
I miss having that feeling, most of all. Thanks for giving it to us, Soupy.