He slung puns and hurled pies better than anyone on TV. But on Jan. 1, 1965, slapstick comic Soupy Sales pushed the joke a tad too far, and the shtick hit the fan. ”We were finishing (the) show and the director told me we had an extra minute to kill,” Sales, 67, recalls. ”So I walked right up to the camera and said, ‘Hey, kids! I want you to tiptoe into your parents’ bedrooms, look in their pockets for all the green pieces of paper with the pictures of the guys in beards, and send them to Soupy Sales at channel 5 in New York.”’
The gag netted only $1 (and a few envelopes stuffed with Monopoly money), but it made Sales the most famous, and widely condemned, ad-libber in America. ”It was the first time I realized how incredibly powerful television was,” he says. ”One woman wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission complaining that I was teaching kids to steal. They were even discussing the show in Congress — how they could stop it from happening again.” Syndicator WNEW-TV took the program off the air for a week.
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.
Though this infamous episode of the show was lost, some of Sales’ TV legacy is still available: Rhino Video is releasing a third video of his vintage & clips early this year. Now mugging in comedy clubs, he is wistful about the old days. ”I miss TV,” says Sales. ”I miss the creative outlet, the energy, the attention.” Not to mention the green pieces of paper with the pictures of the guys in beards.