Pie Throwing TV Comedian Soupy Sales Dies, 83 (An Appreciation of His Art)
Pie-throwing TV Golden Age comedian Soupy Sales has died at 83 — one more tidbit of news that signifies an end of an era for Baby Boomers but also the end of a personal story about an entertainer who had a rare gift: he did a show ostensibly aimed at kids that was loved and adored by many teens, college age kids and adults. And his adult fans included some of the biggest movers and shakers of show biz of his era.
What was it about Sales? Most of the obits call him “rubbery faced” and, to be sure, that was true. But Sales also had absorbed and mastered slapstick and vaudeville type shtick — in particular, the pie throwing that had delighted so many Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers kids who roared when they saw the Three Stooges hurl the pies. Sales’ show was collection of truly bad and decent jokes, some good puppetry and bad hand puppetry. Above all, he had “it”: he was so likable on the tube.
If Sales represented a vaudeville, movie-slapstick inspired era, in his quintessential mid to mid-late 20th century television shows and performances it wasn’t as if he was doing things totally straight: there was a definite “winking” attitude, where as Sales did his jokes, and opened a door to get what you knew would be a pie in his face, or talk to someone who’s invisible except for a hand, he made it clear he knew that you knew what was going to happen and you knew that some of his jokes were truly terrible. It was, in short: a kind of family fun entertainment that isn’t as easy to find these days — entertainment where people of all ages could sit and watch it yet take it on different levels.
On a personal note, I watched Sales when he did his ABC half hour show in black and white in the early 60s. Later, when I was in junior high, he was on TV in New York with a show and I heard his (in)famous joke to his kid fans on his 1965 show — to go into their parents rooms and take all those nice little green pieces of paper and mail them into him and he’ll send you a postcard from Puerto Rico. The problem was: some kids reportedly did, and Sales was suspended.
Sales comedic style combined slapstick, the corniest of jokes and physical shtick, some pioneering irony — plus a big dash of “camp” where kids could take it as a serious kids show (Howdy Doody, a great kids show, was played straight as was the earliest of TV kidshow stars, Pinky Lee who inspired Pee Wee Herman) but adults could take it on another level (and Sales had some jokes and wisecracks aimed at them to keep them tuned in). What more can you say except that his show became a comedy cult where some of the biggest show biz names of the era — including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr — showed up.
Did Sales have an show biz impact? As an entertainer, I myself do lots of family shows and the kind of approach he did — doing a performance that appeals to kids but has components that adults love so it that can be viewed on different levels — is what I typically do if I have that kind of audience. So some of watching him for hours in front of our old black and white set has rubbed off on me. Additionally, I know of some other entertainers who watched him and some tidbits also entered their subconscious and helped form how they were imprinted as well. Some baby boomer entertainers would later seek Sales out at gatherings or visit him (and they loved their time with him).
As any TV programmer will tell you, or anyone who has performed for audiences with kids: kids will tune out literally and figuratively if they don’t like something or if they feel something really talks down to them. Sales never talked down to his kid fans: he was having fun making them have fun and adults who watched who didn’t detest slapstick or who didn’t take an ancient or bad joke as something beneath their dignity had fun seeing an adult have so much fun, too.
You always knew Sales was a comedian because it was his living.
But he did his own form of derivative comedy, infused with his own intensely likable personality, with a sense of joy, ease and style.
High comedy, low comedy, middle comedy. In reality, comedy isn’t always easy.
Sales only made it look that way — which is why he was so beloved by so many people of so many different ages.
Here are some comments on Twitter about his death
Here’s a cross section of media reports:
Soupy Sales, a comic with a gift for slapstick who attained cult-like popularity in the 1960s with a pie-throwing routine that became his signature, has died. He was 83.
Sales had numerous ailments and died Thursday at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, said Kathy O’Connell, a longtime friend.
As the star of “The Soupy Sales Show,” he performed live on television for 13 years in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York before the program went into syndication in the United States and abroad.
Ostensibly for children, the show had broad appeal among adults who found Sales’ puns, gags and pratfalls deliciously corny and camp. His cast consisted of goofy puppets with names like White Fang, Black Tooth and Pookie, and a host of off-camera characters, including the infamous naked girl.
The high point of every show came when a sidekick launched a pie into Sales’ face. Sales once estimated that he was hit by more than 25,000 pies in his lifetime.
The gag became more than hilarious; it evolved into a hip badge of honor. Frank Sinatra was first in a long line of celebrities who clamored for the privilege to be cream-faced, including Tony Curtis, Mickey Rooney, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Martin and Burt Lancaster.
“I’ve never done a pretentious show; it’s always had a live feeling, the kind of thing that comes across when you don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Sales told author Gary Grossman in the 1981 book “Saturday Morning TV.” “I’ve never done anything simply because I thought I could get away with it. I’ve just wanted to do the funniest show.”
Slapstick comic Soupy Sales died yesterday at the age of 83. His manager and friend Dave Usher says Sales passed away at Calvary Hospice in the Bronx, N.Y., where he was admitted last week. He had been battling health problems for the past several years.
Sales (born Milton Supman) began his career with a 1953 kids’ TV show in Detroit called Soupy Sales Comics, and went on to star in both syndicated and network TV shows (including three for ABC) until his last series in 1979-80. They all followed similar formats: slapstick, awful punning, and goofy banter with shaggy puppets like White Fang and Black Tooth. And, of course, there were the trademark tossed custard pies — a career total of 20,000, according to Sales’ calculations.
Born Milton Supman in Franklinton, North Carolina, Sales began his TV career in Detroit in 1953 as the host of the goofball “Lunch with Soupy,” a half-hour show that featured a cast of imagined characters including a dog named White Fang, who communicated through a string of guttural noises.
Sales also conjured up Hippy the Hippo, Willy the Worm and Black Tooth, a sloppily affectionate dog — characters that carried over to a late-night comedy-variety show, “Soupy’s On,” which aired five nights a week in Detroit in the 1950s.
The program, which aired on ABC-owned affiliate Channel 7, broke new ground in the pre-civil rights era by regularly featuring some of the top black jazz performers of the 1950s, including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
Sales left Detroit in 1959 for an ABC-affiliate in Los Angeles and later hosted nationally syndicated children’s shows in New York and Los Angeles.
He stirred up a hornet’s nest with his show on New York’s WNEW-TV in the mid-60s by asking kids to go into Mommy’s purse, pull out the paper money and mail it to him at the station.
He was suspended for that stunt but reinstated after huge demonstrations in front of the New York studio.
The comedian never lost his contempt for TV executives, contending they had ruined television. He has said most station managers wouldn’t “know a tap dancer from a trombone player” and their main contribution to TV was “getting drunk on their six-martini lunches,” the Free Press reported.
The show’s comedy sketches made use of such whacky characters like White Fang, the biggest and meanest dog in the USA; Pookie the Lion, a hipster with rapier wit; Peaches, Soupy’s girl, whom he played in drag; private detective Philo Kvetch; The Mask, Kvetch’s evil nemesis, and “Onions” Oregano, henchman of The Mask.
The sketches often ended with Sales getting plastered with a pie in the face, which became his trademark and delighted his fans.
Stars such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis and Shirley Maclaine appeared on the show for pie-throwing….
…..In the 1980s, Sales had a radio show in New York and appeared in the movie comedy “Birds Do It.” He also was a regular panelist on the syndicated revival of “What’s My Line?” from 1968 to 1975.
No true fan can forget the New Year’s Day 1965 live broadcast on WNEW.
Sales, miffed at having to work the holiday, signed off by encouraging his young viewers to tiptoe into their still-sleeping parents’ bedrooms and remove those “funny green pieces of paper with pictures of U.S. Presidents” from their pants and pocketbooks.
“Put them in an envelope and mail them to me,” Sales instructed. “And I’ll send you a postcard from Puerto Rico!”
He was then hit with a pie.
Money started coming in and embarrassed station officials felt compelled to suspend Sales for two weeks.
Sales was perhaps best known for his long-running sketch comedy TV series, which ran at varying times between 1959 and 1979. “The Soupy Sales Show” operated under several different names and locations during its on-again/off-again run, but it was always marked by a cast of wacky characters — of both the human and puppet varieties — notable guest celebrities (a varied list, from Frank Sinatra to Alice Cooper), short, punchy sketches, and thrown pies. There’s no “official” tally, but Sales claimed that he’d been hit by more than 25,000 pies over the course of his lifetime. An impressive legacy for any comedian to leave behind, to say the least.
Sales also appeared in a number of films, most notably the 1966 comedy “Birds Do It,” in which he starred as a janitor who gains the ability to fly following a freak accident. His song, “The Backwards Alphabet” was featured on the soundtrack of filmmaker John Waters’ “A Dirty Shame.” Most recently, Sales appeared in the 2005 comedy “Angels with Angles,” which also featured notable screen legends Rodney Dangerfield, Adam West, Julie Carmen and Frank Gorshin.
While you’re out today, pick up a pie at the bakery. Don’t eat it. Throw it at someone you love and laugh so hard you cry. Soupy, wherever he is, will certainly be looking down with a smile on his face.
“I don’t mind you guys comin’ ’round my house,” Soupy Sales once said to the off-camera guys cracking up at his jokes, “but why’d you have to bring cameras in?” His afternoon TV show, aimed at kids and running in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York off and on from the 1950s through the ’70s, had the seeming informality of a friendly fellow you’d hire to entertain the tots. He’d crack venerable jokes, play with puppets, teach the occasional verity (“Don’t eat just before dinner”) and, at the end, get a custard pie in the face. Simple stuff, really, but delivered with a brio that kept generations of children giggling. So his death Thursday, at 83, in a Bronx hospice after years of declining health, has to raise a tear, and a reflective silly grin…
…In a line of TV kid-show comedy that stretched from Pinky Lee and Kukla, Fran and Ollie in the early ’50s to Pee-wee Herman in the ’80s, and is all but extinct today, Sales was the sweetest and goofiest. Outfitted in sweater and bow tie, his elastic features sporting a nonstop smile, as if he was laughing at his last or next joke, Soupy was also a Mr. Rogers for kids who didn’t watch PBS. Yet there was educational value to his work. Dipping deep into the stock of humor that had sustained stand-up comics from vaudeville and the Borscht Belt, he taught kids what was funny.
Still is, if you look at YouTube clips from his old black-and-white shows, or can track down any of the three Soupy Sales DVD collections.
Complete show from 1965 Part I:
Part III (this includes him doing his hit song “The Mouse”):
Barry Mitchell (a friend of Sales) puts it all into perspective on ABC World News Tonight:
SOME WEBLOG REACTION:
–Joe My God:
Soupy’s show was a big part of my childhood, partly because I could only watch it at my grandparent’s house in Newark as we didn’t get it in North Carolina. Watching Soupy was a big holiday tradition for us whenever we were in town. My dad thought he was the funniest man alive – until Flip Wilson came along.
His brand of silly and subversive humor (for the 1950s and ’60s, at least) influenced later comedians from Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman to Pee-Wee Herman. His trademark gag was smashing cream pies into the faces of celebrities and world figures who’d beg him for the embarrassment.
Soupy was also a great guy, which I learned about a dozen years ago. I was doing a weekly radio gig with Cleveland Wheeler at some station probably bought, sold and rebranded several times since then. Soupy happened to be on the show one Friday when I was in the studio. I stuck around much longer than usual just to kibbitz with him.
Someone dug up an aluminum pie tin, a can of whipped cream and a towel to drape over my chest and shoulders. An assistant piled up the foamy sweetness about four inches high. Soupy milked the routine like a pro, rared back and smashed the gooey mess into my kisser. Laughing like a little kid, Soupy told me I had joined an exclusive club — well, as exclusive as an estimated 20,000 targets can be — including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and JFK. Nice.
The assistant began cleaning up the mess but I told him to save the pie tin. No way that I was going to let a souvenir like that slip away. Soupy graciously autographed it: “To Steve, a great guy, a wonderful writer. With lots of love and custard, Soupy Sales.” If you look closely at the photo, you can still see the indentation of his palm and thumb.
In the mid-1980s, Soupy hosted a radio show on WNBC-AM in New York. Every weekday, Soupy and his cast would talk to guests, engage in comedic bits and take phone calls from listeners.
I remember every Tuesday being “Gripe Tuesday”, with Soupy and company hearing from listeners about things they just had to gripe about. My younger sister, who was nine at the time, once called Soupy to complain about the lack of things to do during spring break – he encouraged her to get friends together and write and draw their own stories or invent new games.
The noon hour was devoted to “Lunch With Soupy”, where a guest would drop by to “dine” with the Soupman, take listener calls and participate in comedy bits with “Jerry the Waiter”, a character based on Curly Howard of Three Stooges fame. The interviews were always clean and non-confrontational – a nice change of pace to some of the alternatives that continue to flood the TV and radio airwaves.
Some critics contend that Soupy Sales wasn’t a good fit for WNBC – for one, he was a visual comic performing for the ear. So what if he couldn’t throw pies on the radio? He was funny, and he made me, my family and friends laugh.
Listening to Soupy also got me to find out more about the man. When he was scheduled to appear on a game show or talk show, I made sure to watch it (or get my parents to record it). While visiting what is now the Paley Center for Media to work on a college paper, I snuck in a little free time to watch some of Soupy’s TV comedy work. The man knew how to be funny to people of all ages – a craft that few of today’s comics can say.
If you’re wondering why one of your puppets (everyone should have one in their closet) is looking a little extra weepy this morning, it’s because Soupy Sales has been called to heaven. The comedian, children’s host and owner of the best stage name in the business passed away last night at a hospice in New York. One of Soupy’s friends said that he had a lot of health problems, and that’s why he was in the hospice.
….Rest in peace, Soupy. In heaven, the pies don’t hit you, you hit the pies. And now I want pie.