Clowns in America

May 19, 2017 — Leave a comment

Image credit: FX

Once you know Baskets (FX/Fox TV) is about clowns, you know it’s going to be sad. Similarly, anything co-created by Louis CK is going to tend towards bleakness. Indeed, the story of Chip Baskets, aspiring bouffon cum rodeo clown, has many themes in common with CK’s abandoned Louie: the universal hostility of strangers, the evil of beautiful women, the pointlessness of art – if we can call clowning, and thus comedy, art – and the public’s disregard for it.

Isn’t this, then, just Louie the unsuccessful years? Perhaps, but it’s set in small-town California, so there’s a pall of suburban despair covering everything; the lines are even more deadpan; and Chip Baskets – a great name in any fiction – is played by Zach Galifianakis, another funny man with one eye on culture. I’ve been a fan of his since he played a feckless cartoonist in the brilliant, long-lamented Bored to Death and he brings the same puppyish charm to this character, even when he’s attempting to portray a stroppy, self-absorbed and fairly pretentious rodeo clown.

So, it’s essentially a programme about a millennial trying to become a clown, and, as in common in contemporary comedy, he is his own worst frenemy. He flunks out of the French clowning école because – American, natch – he doesn’t speak French, somehow manages to marry the world’s most disinterested woman – French, obvs – and goes back to California with her to live in separate hotels. This premise is the weakest element of all and requires the most suspension of disbelief, even considering that everything comes after is the other side of outlandish. Every story needs conflict and this woman, Penelope, certainly provides that, but denying Chip her company isn’t funny enough to be a running gag, which lends her character redundancy in a show already loaded with pitfalls, or pratfalls, for the protagonist.

The best lines go to insurance claims assessor Martha – ‘I hate goodbyes even more than hellos’ –  whose presence doesn’t bear explaining but is the only person to tolerate Chip’s hauteur, and Mrs Baskets, Chip’s mother played by that glorious old pro, Louie Anderson. It’s good to see him on the telly – a quick Google will display his manifold manic facial expressions – and, though I now realise I’m a year behind on this show, I can entirely see why he won an Emmy.

Whether you’ll like Baskets depends on whether you consider black comedies to be quiet joys or, like most clowns, simply unfunny. There are enough finely delivered lines, of the sort that play on the corners of one’s lips, and well-wrought performances for Baskets to work, but then again, I considered Louie to be an existentialist masterpiece. And like that show, many will revile Baskets – O, the tragedy of art!

Jacob Knowles-Smith

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