by Late Mitchell Warren
It never occurred to me until all these years later, after watching the “Soap” DVD collection for the second time… What do you get when you take Burt Campbell, the clumsy, stuttering doofus from ABC’s soap opera spoof and make him younger, sexier and more urban? Yes, Cosmo Kramer is Burt’s future descendant. I have no doubt that Michael Richards studied Richard Mulligan’s manic mannerisms, bizarre comic timing and man-child sensibilities to create a cynic’s “clown” for the attitude-driven 90s decade.
How do I know? Not only because the two actors are similar down to the most minute details–including the rough and tough drawl, the puppy dog whimpers and the inexplicable “sound effects” that interrupt complete sentences–but also for the very simple fact that there was no post-hippie era TV clown before the 1970s and not too many in the 1980s for that matter.
Lucy was a snappy Vaudeville pioneer and Archie Bunker was an oblivious imperfect gentlemen. But they weren’t clowns. They were smart people thrust into funny situations. Before the TV era there were the silent clowns of the early 20th century, most of whom relied on physical storytelling. Art Carney may have introduced the slow sidekick, but he never quite passed the line of dialog-driven, reactive comedy into idiot savant territory. The closest thing to Richard Mulligan’s revival of smart slapstick was maybe Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne), who literally made his interpretation of a talkie clown a supernatural monstrosity with the strange desire to act human. Add a little tinge of Christopher Lloyd’s otherworldly grimacing on Taxi, and you have the formula for a Funny Frankenstein.
Perhaps the greatest clowns in comedy history were not the entertainers that played circus-style dumb, but the ones that played their characters a step above their audience. Their interpretation of an “idiot” was a person who was quickly labeled by society but who actually talked, thought and reacted in a brilliant, postmodern way–a clown that dared to laugh before the audience could muster a reaction.
Michael Richards was looking for that fine of line of artsy slapstick to dance across for most of his career. He played dumb in UHF and even throughout the first season of Seinfeld, always looking for his character’s true voice. Perhaps after studying Richard Mulligan’s method clowning, which can only be described as a proud embrace of awkward, almost alien energy, did Kramer truly evolve into a new age “hipster doofus.”
Oh yes, and of course, he had to add that hair! A true clown, no matter his art, always has a visual sight gag to immortalize his performance. Perhaps this is why Burt Campbell never actually achieved a spot in the zeitgeist of American comedy like Kramer did. He never had that gimmick–just the face of a silly old man, a Pagliacci-esque sight far too tragic to elicit laughter.
Sadly, I see no clown for the new millennium anywhere in sight. Today’s comedians are too anxious to play the acerbic sidekick or the aggressive freak show. They are more keen to play “serious” or funny/disturbing characters, or perhaps all to eager to star in a pseudo-intellectual comedy produced by Judd Apatow.
Besides, no modern day clown genius can truly emerge in a TV generation deprived of real laughter. Most comedies on TV today are hour-long quirk-fests or half hour long, laughter-dubbed vanity projects starring washed up 90s actors. As much as I love funny cartoons, animation is simply not the same as live action comedy.
The death of the live audience reaction is was what killed the clown.