Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
There’s a sea of scholarship about plays that reflect the Human Condition. Most of them seem to have been written by Shakespeare (Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, etc.) but there are others: Death of a Salesman, Antigone, Mother Courage, The Cherry Orchard, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, etc. Pretty heavy stuff, so Meaningful, with a capitol “M,” that they make you read them in school. But there’s one play that has meant more to me over the years, and has endlessly revealed itself as Truth, than any other. It debuted on Broadway in 1962 and ran a modest 428 performances but it has never failed to repeat in my mind whenever an important Life decision presented itself. It’s called A Thousand Clowns. For me, it is the Meaning of Life.
Set in a one-room New York City apartment, A Thousand Clowns, written by Herb Gardner, shows the dilemma of Murray Burns, an unemployed writer for the “Chuckles the Chipmunk” TV kiddie show, to keep custody of his 12-year-old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon), when the Child Welfare people want to take the boy away. Murray asks them, “Who writes your material, Charles Dickens?” when the sociologists, Albert Amundsen (William Daniels) and Sandra Markowitz (Barbara Harris), determine that living with a purposely unemployed adult is detrimental to the child’s health regardless of how much love is in the home.
Murray is a nonconformist who hates big businesses (“I never answer letters from large corporations”), rejects bureaucrats (“they have that wide-eyed look that people put on their eyes so nobody knows their head’s asleep”), and pounces on any excuse to goof off (“let’s go to the Statue of Liberty and watch all those tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free”).
But mostly he loves Nick, a prodigy who is, in the rules of dramatic conflict, more grown-up than his uncle (Murray scolds, “would you stick to being a kid, Nick, because I find your imitation of an adult hopelessly inadequate”).
Murray – as played on stage and in the 1965 movie by Jason Robards, Jr. -- is a delightfully anarchic character. He’s lovable, witty, and unfiltered. He wants Nick to grow up and give the world a little goosing and not be one of the grey people. This, of course, is exactly what the Child Welfare authorities – and even, we suspect, Nick – wants to prevent. But it’s something that the increasingly countercultural audiences of the 1960s embraced. Murray speaks his mind (ordering food in a too-dark restaurant, he tells the waiter, “I’ll have a hamburger and a flashlight”) and lambasts all the right people (“You are a dirty O.W.,” he tells Albert, who has just called Nick an “Out of Wedlock” child). To summon the over-used Freudian term, Murray is the id of everybody who has ever wanted to get back at the System.
I first encountered Murray in my late teens and immediately took his side. He was against everything that I and my generation stood against: conformity, boredom, regulation, and all the idiots who were running things. As an added advantage, Robards, then in his early forties, was even more attractive because he was a grownup who voiced the same yearnings that I was only just starting to crave.
I should have taken a hint by the film’s commercial failure. Just as the play had had only a modest run, so did the film quickly vanish from theatres (although I dutifully booked it for a weekend at the college cinema I was then running where it also attracted only the cognoscenti). As brilliant and visionary as A Thousand Clowns may have been, it wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind. By the end of the play, you see, Murray breaks down and goes back to work for Leo Herman (Gene Saks), better known as Chuckles the Chipmunk, “friend of the young’uns and seller of Chuckle Chips, the chip of potatoes that your friend Chuckles chuckles over and munches on.” Watching Murray’s sacrifice – he does it only to protect Nick who, at the end, seems to have inherited some of Murray’s mettle – we are meant to feel proud but resigned. It’s an emotion that would follow my generation throughout our increasingly pragmatic lives. We would come to live by the motto, “We fucked up, but we weren’t wrong” (a line that Robards, incidentally, used in All the President’s Men).
I would return to A Thousand Clowns every ten years, discovering each time that it held new meaning for me. This is a trait that what one normally ascribes to so-called “great literature.” But a cult comedy of the middle 60s? You’ve got to be kidding.
Yet there it was. Rather, he was. Murray Burns. By the late 1970s, when I watched him again, I was working in the same broadcast medium from which Murray had fled. Like Murray, my bosses were intransigent morons. Unlike Chuckles, however, mine were Group W (Westinghouse), a company that made paranoia a management tradition. Rather than quit, however, I got fired (read my memoir Screen Saver Too: Hollywood Strikes Back) and also, like Murray, I went back to work for them, but in a different position with no opportunity for conflict. In the meantime, I had learned my lesson, although not as Murray had by compromising. The lesson I learned was to never expect anything from my employer and, by God, that’s what happened. Viewing the movie again, I started to see the flaws in Murray’s position. He should have been more mercenary. After all, Chuckles wanted him to come back to write for him. Asshole or not, Chuckles’s checks cleared, and he was such an obvious idiot that Murray didn’t have had to waste energy explaining it. He should have taken the money and ran, a I did.
By the late 80s, when I renewed my acquaintance with Murray, I thought that he had become the asshole. How, I asked, could he for even a moment have hesitated doing anything short of murder, and maybe even that, to save his relationship with Nick? After all, unlike Patrick in Auntie Mame, Nick never put on airs or made Murray wonder “Were the years a little fast, was his world a little free?” Even if Nick occasionally goaded Murray to be more responsible, he was always proud of him and never hid his love.
Seeing A Thousand Clowns in 1987, when I was pounding out articles for The Boston Herald (a Rupert Murdoch paper), I saw Murray as the immature, self-centered elitist who, rather than magnanimously tolerating other people’s foibles, was unsympathetic to them. I had the chance to speak about this with Ralph Rosenblum, the man who edited A Thousand Clowns, whose book When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins, moved me to visit him in New York. In his book he writes how the film was shot in such a disjointed matter than the only way he could achieve coherence was to take a fragment here, a fragment there, and construct dialogue out of bits and pieces or have the actors come in and loop lines to bridge the continuity gaps. We spoke mostly of technique, not content, but one thing he said about the latter has stuck with me. “Did you notice,” he asked rhetorically, “that every character in the script has a self-justification speech?” It’s true. Murray, Sandra, Albert, Leo, Murray’s brother Arnie (Martin Balsam, who won an Oscar® for delivering his), and even Nick, although he has previous little to justify, explains why they do what they do. Was A Thousand Clowns an apologia cannily created to give anyone who sees it a justification for who they are? It made sense.
By the 1990s I had met a producer named Michael Lennick who shared my admiration for A Thousand Clowns, Moreover, as a child, he had played Nick in a Canadian production; his parents, Sylvia and Ben Lennick, were popular Canadian performers. As we threw favorite lines back and forth and congratulated each other for discovering this unknown comedy, we began to apply it to our own lives. I was struck by how Murray had changed over the past decades. Here I was, living in Los Angeles, finding it hard to get work because I had made the mistake of turning 40, and still Murray called out to me. By this time I was older than Murray is in the story and I marveled once again at his youthful arrogance. I knew that, even if he told Chuckles to pound sand yet again, he would land on his feet because he was still employable. I, on the other hand, had to take what I could get and do it without complaint. Fortunately, I was working for a production company whose owners had traveled the same road as I had, albeit more wisely and successfully, and they encouraged my individuality. We had the same enemies – the “finks, phonies, and frogs” that Murray railed against – and I found comfort in their protection.
You can imagine what comes next. I watched A Thousand Clowns after the 2008 Bush recession, a perfect storm that had begun under Bill Clinton, if not Harry Truman, and dashed the hopes of several generations in a single week of bank and stock market malfeasance. Now Murray was again a blind dreamer, a man so devoid of a sense of reality that I began siding with the Child Welfare people in worrying about Nick’s continuance in his home. Go back to work, Murray. It isn’t like they’re forcing you to kill puppies. It’s a TV kiddie show, f’r’Chrissake. Plus, writers are the keepers of history. Work for Chuckles from 10 to 6 and then come home and write your own material. I promise you, your personal work will survive your TV garbage. (By this time, I had been publishing books for eight years.)
I haven’t had the guts to watch A Thousand Clowns lately, even though it’s time to do so. I really should, but I know what will happen. Now I have two nephews, ages 8 and 9.5, for whom I would give my life or take someone else’s to protect them. They are the future, and I am doing everything I can to see that they are prepared to enter it. Will they grow up to give the world a little goosing? Will they remember me as weird Uncle Nat who used humor to show his love and seized upon every teachable moment to broaden their knowledge of the world that they will be forced to enter and make their ways within?
Herb Gardner died in 2003. I doubt he knew how much A Thousand Clowns meant to people in general, and, as I never met him, to me in particular. I tried giving the world s little goosing but, over the years, things have changed. It seems that the world has become goose-proof.
What would Murray do?
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.