Murray Burns is an arrested adolescent, constantly declaring his own holiday (Irving R. Feldman’s birthday) so that he can play hooky to fly kites, wave goodbye to departing ocean liners, and take to the streets at dawn to exhort his neighbors to fall out for calisthenics and volleyball. Except there’s one problem: Murray’s not a teenager. He’s over forty and the custodian of his 12-year-old nephew Nick. The social workers assigned to Nick’s case are not amused. Unless Murray can demonstrate a "substantial change" in his situation (like get a job), Nick will be removed and placed with foster parents. A Thousand Clowns is the very witty and sometimes genuinely poignant tale of Murray’s two fights: to keep Nick home with him, and against pervasive boredom wherever he finds it.
Prior to his life of selected serendipity, Murray had been a successful writer for the children’s television show "Chuckles the Chipmunk." He claims he left not because he wasn’t reaching the boys and girls out in television land, but because "the boys and girls out in television land were starting to reach me. One of Murray’s many mottoes is: "You’ve got to own each day, or otherwise the years go by – and then none of them belong to you." And for him, sage advice consists of: "In a moment, Nick, you’re going to see a horrible thing – people going to work." Nick’s supposedly in Murray’s care, but in many ways he’s the wiser and more responsible of the two.
Herb Gardner adapted the screenplay from his successful Broadway play, and it’s a marvelously dense collection of one-liners shared across two wonderful performances – Jason Robards (who also starred on stage) as Murray and Barry Gordon as Nick. A Thousand Clowns was one of the first of many counterculture/anti-establishment films, a genre that reached its zenith in the early 70s. But unlike many of the films that followed it’s hardly dated, except for its characters’ clothing styles. The main reason it maintains evergreen status is that the things it pokes most fun at aren’t temporary trends in politics, society, or specific individuals.Gardner chooses perpetual targets like conformity, television, advertising, and dullness. And unlike gag-laden scripts from say, Neil Simon, the humor here always works because you almost never see the punchline coming.
Even the "bad guys" aren’t stereotypes. The social workers (William Daniels and Barbara Harris) aren’t buffoons, they’re presented more as well-meaning people stuck in a job that requires them to make difficult and sometimes unpleasant choices. Martin Balsam won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Murray’s brother Arnold; he’s part of the mainstream against which Murray rebels. He tells his brother that while Murray may be gifted with an unbalanced genius, he’s less fortunate – "I have a talent for surrender." Murray is marginally impressed, telling Arnold "You’ve got that wise stare that people stick in their eyes so that nobody will know that their head’s asleep."
The film’s origins as a play are apparent – there are a few scenes grafted on to get the action out of Murray’s apartment occasionally, and Fred Coe’s direction doesn’t attempt much beyond pointing the camera at the actors and letting it roll. But the verbiage tossed back and forth by Robards and Gordon more than make up for any visual austerity. They’re obviously enjoying themselves immensely in a world where they’re more aware of the joke than just about anyone else.
"Timeless" is an adjective that’s tossed around too frequently, but A Thousand Clowns more than qualifies. You may have to view it more than once to catch all the rapid repartee, but repeated viewings are far from a chore. And as Murray always says – you can never have too many eagles.
– Bob Aulert