I'm not ashamed to say that Soupy Sales was one of the formative influences on my sense of humor as a preteen and adolescent, along with Rocky & Bullwinkle and the early years of Mad magazine. So I was sad to hear of his death yesterday.
As a youth living in suburban Minneapolis in the early 1960s, I found myself drawn to anarchic and form-busting humor, but there wasn't much to be had. The early '60s were, in a sense, still the 1950s - watch an episode of Mad Men if you don't believe it. The '60s as a time of mass cultural upheaval didn't really kick in until the end of 1963-early 1964, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the arrival of the Beatles.
But, beginning in 1961, when he moved from Detroit to Los Angeles - at least in terms of when it started showing up on TV in Minneapolis - there was Soupy Sales and his weekly kids' show. It was the hippest, most subversive kids' show on TV - barely controlled silliness and anarchy that inevitably ended with him getting a pie in the face.
Later on, the pies would become almost a raison d'etre - the trademark bit of craziness that became a hip thing for celebrities to participate in. Eventually, even Frank Sinatra - who, at a certain point in that era was the definition of both mainstream and hipster cool - made an appearance and got hit with a pie.
But the pies were, you should pardon the expression, the dessert at the end of the show. The best of Soupy Sales - what made me take notice as a kid - was that sense that I was getting a peek into an adult world that I may not have understood, except that I knew it was funny.
Soupy was really doing two shows at once. He was doing shtick for the camera and the kids at home - vaudeville riffs involving slapstick, music, filmed excerpts from silent movies (with sound effects), incredibly silly puns and bits with puppets. But he was also playing to the crew behind the camera, who could always be heard laughing when he'd ad lib something aimed at them, rather than the kids.
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