A moment, please, to remember comedian Soupy Sales, who is with us no more, although the image of whipped cream cascading thickly from some passing celebrity’s pie-toss’d kisser remains vivid in our mind’s eye.
Sales, born Milton Supman on Jan. 8, 1926, in Franklinton, North Carolina, reportedly tossed 20,000 pies into the pusses of willing victims ranging from Frank Sinatra to Shirley MacLaine during a career that peaked in the 1960s and just kept coming back for more. He died Thursday in the Bronx, at age 83.
I don’t remember much about Sales. He was mostly a television figure — he had an extremely popular comedy show — and in the 1960s and ’70s I watched even less TV than I do now. But in the same way you know Britney Spears even if you couldn’t pick out one of her songs from a criminal lineup, I knew Soupy — that dopey elastic mug, the fading pie-in-the-face routine that he revived … well, 20,000 times.
The great, ill-fated movie actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is said to have taken the first filmed pie in the face, back around 1912 or 1914, as one of the Keystone Cops. Whether the whole routine was dreamed up by Mack Sennett for the silent flickers I don’t know, although there certainly seems a rough country humor to it. It has a vaudeville feel, and vaudeville ruled when farm and small-town folk were just starting to feel the tug of bright lights and manufactured sin in the big city. Imagine doing that with Aunt Mabel’s blue-ribbon banana cream pie! The waste! The wonderful waste!
The pie-in-the-face routine has settled into American culture at a largely subterranean level. Politicians and the obscenely wealthy occasionally get one in the kisser as an act of political theater, although exactly what point it makes that a traditional razzberry doesn’t manage more cheaply and just as well is a little tough to figure out. Pitcher A.J. Burnett has apparently revived it in the clubhouse this baseball season, and it seems to be working some sort of mojo: His New York Yankees appear to be heading for the World Series. (I refrain from expressing the depth of my regret over that probability.)
Even at his height of popularity, Sales was a throwback. Comedy was mostly going in other directions, and he was in a weird way a conservator, carrying on the tradition of the Three Stooges and Jerry Lewis in his astonishing prime on early television with Dean Martin, and — going further back — to the likes of Buster Keaton, Abbott and Costello, and Charlie Chaplin. Well, sort of. If you lack the genius of the greats but have a burning ambition to succeed, you do what you have to do. You toss a pie in someone’s face. It’s the art of the unexpected, and, once you get known for doing it, of the expected: the big payoff.
Physical comedy — and what is more physical than smacking a pie in someone’s kisser for laughs? — has been around at least since the early-Renaissance beginnings of commedia dell’arte. Shakespeare thrived on it. You find it everywhere from kabuki to Punch and Judy shows to I Love Lucy and the buff posturings of pro wrestling. Imagine Hulk Hogan as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tradition’s continued, if not often with the aid of actual pies, with the likes of Robin Williams (in his astonishing “nanu nanu” phase), John Cleese, John Bulushi, Bette Midler (non-weepy version), Danny DeVito and, I am sorry to point out, Adam Sandler.
A lot of comedy, of course, comes out of tragedy, or at least tough times. Many of our best comedians have led tortured lives. I don’t want to stretch out poor Soupy’s body on an analyst’s couch, but it struck me, reading his Associated Press obituary, not just that the Supmans were the only Jewish family in Franklinton at a time when that was a dodgy thing to be in the Carolinas, but also that Sales’ parents, who ran a dry-goods store, sold sheets to the Ku Klux Klan. Go ahead: Laugh that off.
Sales seemed genuinely liked in show-biz circles, but he did have an edge. According to one story, he once told the kids watching his TV show to take out all those green papers with numbers on them from their parents’ purses and wallets and send them to him. Astonishingly, a lot of kids did. Sales didn’t think the joke would work so well. He returned the money. When he couldn’t figure out where it came from, he donated it to charity.
Privately, he must have laughed his rear end off. He’d just tossed a pie in the whole nation’s face.