Claiming our Heritage from Soupy Sales
I think everybody, really deep inside, would some time or other like to throw a pie or get hit by a pie.
Who Had a Lasting Impact (So to Speak) on Me
Nothing sends spirits so high
As the gooshy embrace of a pie.
We lower our defenses;
We give up pretenses;
We find allies on whom we’ll rely.
When we remember that man named Sales,
A force for good nature prevails.
We may not know why,
But with one hit from a pie,
Opposition collapses and fails.
Two Limericks I Should Have Written Fifty Years Ago,
But Better Late Than Never
In the late spring of 2021, millions of people are searching their souls for answers to the question, “If it is time to return to normal life, what does normal mean?”
Experts in mental health keep reminding us that we undertake this search with mixed emotions. Hope, grief, anticipation, regret, relief, and sorrow all compete for our attention.
In that concatenation of mixed emotions, is there any room for humor?
This “Not My First Rodeo” post is a test-run, attempting to answer that question with “Yes.” As one of the last people left on the planet who once thought of getting hit with a pie as a familiar aspect of normal life, I am positioned to reminisce about a very silly custom. This line of thought leads to serious reflections on dealing with unexpected turns of fortune, fine-tuning our sense of proportion in assessing injury, and in recognizing the importance of consent in the building of trust.
How Did This Start?
A Hard-Hitting Discussion
When I was in college, a student threw a pie at a professor who many of us loved.
At the University of California Santa Cruz, we seized every opportunity to take part in intense discussions about the well-being of our community. When an event occurred that had the potential to jeopardize that well-being, we would enter a torrent of discussion, in which we would consider the event from every imaginable angle. When we ran out of angles, we would quickly invent more angles from which we could consider it. When the student hit our professor with a pie, we talked about this for days.
Was the throwing of a pie a legitimate way to express disagreement, or perhaps even a good-humored way to convey an affectionate mockery? Or did the throwing of a pie convey an intolerable disrespect for an elder who had dedicated his life to preparing us for life? Should we defend the pie-thrower’s right to exercise a form of free expression that inflicted no physical injury? Or should we condemn the pie-thrower for insulting the dignity of a mentor whose knowledge and wisdom enriched our lives?
Very early in this process of community deliberation, I reached a judgment from which I have not wavered in fifty years. It came in two parts.
- It was wrong to throw a pie at our professor because our professor did not want to be hit with a pie.
- It would be right to throw a pie at me because I would very much like to have that happen.
Only twenty-years-old, I had arrived at a prophetic, almost oracular understanding of the crucial role of consent in the ethical domain of pie-throwing.
Moved, if not altogether converted, by my ethical insight, my fellow students continued to hold mixed opinions on the intergenerational impact of pies. But several good friends declared that they would honor my preference by hitting me with a pie on my birthday.
Since my birthday was five or six months away, this required me to cultivate patience. But I knew it was worth the wait.
When it was finally my birthday, my friends’ promise was still very much on my mind. So I sidled, crept, sneaked, and slithered my way across campus, peeking around corners and assuming that behind every door was a friend holding a pie.
But my friends had forgotten their promise.
Probably someone arranged for a cake and candles that day.
But no pie.
Launched at Midnight:
Novus Ordum Seclorum
(Motto on the Great Seal of the United States: A New Order of the Ages)
A year or two later, I started graduate school at Yale, which would seem to be an ill-considered move for a person who yearned to be hit with a pie.
At dinner one night in the Hall of Graduate Studies Dining Hall, I reminisced about that disappointing birthday when I slinked around the Santa Cruz campus, expecting a pie around every corner but finding only a forgotten promise.
An architecture graduate student, Jeff Limerick, heard that story—and remembered it.
At a few minutes past midnight on May 17, 1973, there was a knock on the door of my room in the Hall of Graduate Studies. When I opened the door, Jeff placed a cream pie precisely on its target. He was, after all, an architect who drew plans with a steady hand.
To repurpose the famous line from the end of Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him.”
A Custom Emerges in a Society
with a Shortage of Rituals Enshrining Humor
In a series of decisions that no one recorded, Jeff and I settled into a custom of observing birthdays with the throwing of a pie. We did not see this as an exclusive dimension of our marriage, and so welcomed other participants into this ritual, but—this is very important—only with their consent.
Given that knowledge of one’s own birthday is very common, we had to become very, very crafty in order to position the arrival of the pie as a surprise. I will give just one example of the intricate planning that was soon required.
In 1977, Jeff and I were renting a house with three friends who had been recruited into our ritual. On May 1, 1977, Jeff spent his birthday on campus, teaching a class, consulting with students, and remaining very wary when he approached a corner or when a door opened.
Around 7 p.m. or so, he drove home, still wary as he drove into the garage. The door between the house and the garage opened as he got out of his car, and Jeff was entirely on alert as he looked to see who was coming through the door. But it was only our roommate, Michael L. Smith (later the author of an important book on the history of the California Geological Survey—Pacific Visions: California Scientists and the Environment, 1850-1915). As Michael entered the garage, he was carrying what appeared to be a very heavy cardboard box, a state of affairs that was clearly incompatible with pie-throwing.
Or so it seemed.
Lulled into complacency, Jeff confidently walked toward Michael.
With his left hand, Michael suddenly lifted the cardboard box and tossed it to the side, revealing that the box was empty and open at the bottom, and also revealing that he held a cream pie in his right hand, a pie that he placed with precision on Jeff’s face.
It is important to note that Michael’s brother Steven was a clown with Ringling Brothers. So Michael, through the good fortune of kinship, had acquired an expert knowledge on how to make an empty cardboard box look heavy. That is one of the many wonderful benefits of adopting the ritual of pie-throwing: participants get to display skills, talents, and enthusiasms that would otherwise be hidden from the world.
The Dark Side of the Pie
“Non-consensual pieing is a punishable offense in criminal law, and depending on jurisdiction,
a battery, but may also constitute an assault.”
Wikipedia, Accessed on June 2, 2021
The Wikipedia entry on pieing begs for revision. Contemplate this ill-informed, wrong-headed, and mean-spirited assertion:
“In pieing, the goal is usually to humiliate the victim while avoiding actual injury. . .”
Yes, of course, the part about “avoiding actual injury” part is absolutely right.
But “usually to humiliate the victim”?
It is never a good sign when a statement, made as if it carried authority, actually claims an impossible certainty in identifying motives, as if the author(s) had the capacity to x-ray the human soul.
Here’s my first try at a necessary rewrite:
“In pieing, the goal is sometimes to humiliate the recipient, but more often to interrupt the predictability of life with a moment of merriment.”
But even the merriest among us cannot evade the reality that there is a dark side to this practice that cannot remain in the shadows and must be examined in a bright light.
Pieing can convey a message of mockery, insult, or dismissal, and it can convey a message of affection, appreciation, or merriment. These double meanings diverge because of the presence or absence of consent. The difference made by the anticipatory negotiation of consent is stark.
Non-consensual pieing is an affront to dignity and a denial of respect, while consensual pieing is an affirmation of community and camaraderie. Or, to place this contrast in its largest context of meaning, non-consensual pieing represents what’s wrong with the world, and consensual pieing represents what’s right with the world.
In consensual pieing, the pie arrives only after a process of recruitment, invitation, and negotiation has been completed. In other words, everyone should agree to join in the fun before the fun suddenly arrives in front of them.
But our visit to the darker side of the pie is not over yet.
Here is a hypothesis that demands a reckoning. Consensual pie-throwing is so enjoyable because it redirects our darker impulses into a pleasant channel.
An Amateur’s Best Shot at a Social Psychology Appraisal
Ninety-nine percent of our time on the planet, we know that . . .
- It is wrong to throw things at our fellow human beings.
- It is wrong to catch people by surprise when they have slipped into the assumption that they are living in a familiar, predictable, and conventional world.
- It is wrong to scheme and plot behind other people’s backs.
- It is wrong to make a mess, purposefully and intentionally, that will have to be cleaned up.
When we engage in consensual pie-throwing, we receive the gift of the one percent of our time on the planet when we know that. . .
- It is right to throw things at our fellow human beings.
- It is right to catch people by surprise when they have slipped into the assumption that they are living in a familiar, predictable, and conventional world.
- It is right to scheme and plot behind other people’s backs.
- It is good to make a mess, purposefully and intentionally, because cleaning it up extends the fun, demonstrates responsibility, and permits a happy immersion in a shared experience.
In other words, pie-throwing is a licensed and sanctioned vacation from conventional understandings of good behavior.
What’s not to like?
A Sense of Proportion, Reaffirmed
When you see that you are about to be hit with a pie, in the next seconds, you experience an exhilarating shift in mood.
First, a perfectly normal instinctive response:
“Oh no, a pie!”
Second, the corrective that quickly enters the mind of the consenting recipient:
“Oh hurray, a pie!”
With repetitions of this shift in attitude, you receive steady reminders that it is within human capability to embrace and welcome unsettling events, and thereby to reduce any power that those events would have had to upset you. When life takes twists and turns that catch you by surprise, you will be equipped to draw peace of mind from those intensely memorable moments when the pie is in front of you, and about to make contact. Those moments endow you with a sense of proportion, and that sense of proportion, in turn, positions you to recognize occasions when good-natured acceptance will deliver far better results than brittle resistance.
And then there is an even more enjoyable axis of transformation in this picture.
Just before you are hit with a pie, you are just another pleasant-looking person wandering around in the world, with the majority of people in your proximity having no reason to be glad to see you.
A second after you are hit with a pie, your appearance brings so much joy to others that you might as well let it bring joy to you as well.
Soupy Sales, Proponent for Pies
In those days of yore at the University of California, Santa Cruz, when we were immersed in searching discussions of the ethics of pie-throwing, a television show from our childhood was very much on our minds. While I am not a specialist in the field of intellectual history, it is impossible that lively young people in the late 1960s and early 1970s could have discussed pies without frequent references to Soupy Sales. The show—“Lunch with Soupy”—was on TV from 1953 to 1966, absolutely prime time for the shaping of our young minds.
A lot of people grew up watching me,” Soupy Sales said, later in life. “I’ll probably be remembered for the pies, and that’s all right. That’s fine and dandy. I’m flattered.” As the Los Angeles Times said in his obituary, “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.”
Not surprisingly, we now confront a matter of history where precise quantitative calculations are going to be chancy. One complication in counting is that Soupy never monopolized the role of recipient of the pies. In various scenes and skits, the pie-throwing often escalated, and everyone in sight was fair game.
For certain celebrities, getting hit with a pie on Soupy’s show was a sought-after accomplishment. In a number of interviews, Soupy said the idea of hitting celebrities with pies had never occurred to him, until Frank Sinatra brought it up. “I want to come on your show,” Sinatra told Soupy, and “I’ll do it on one condition: I want to get hit with a pie.” It turned out that Sammy Davis, Jr., and singer Trini Lopez shared Sinatra’s aspiration, and the results proved to be a peak performance for all.
(If you think you don’t have time to watch this brief video, take a quick look and see if you actually can stop midway.)
Born in 1926, Milton Supman served in the Navy in World War Two and participated in the invasion of Okinawa. His career in slapstick arose from a childhood shaped by loss (he was only five when his father died) and by unfathomable irony (his Jewish father sold sheets to Klansmen in Franklinton, North Carolina). Anyone determined to keep humor isolated from the sorrows of life and the darkness of human nature had better avoid watching Soupy Sales do the Soupy Shuffle or accept the arrival of innumerable pies.
Every time we watch Soupy take a pie, we are given a reminder of the life-affirming benefits of a sense of proportion.
If we can distinguish injuries and insults that cut us to the core from minor indignities, equanimity is—far more often than we realize—ours to maintain.
Pie Protocol 101
A Beginner’s Guide
On the chance that this “Rodeo” post has made a few converts, here is practical guidance for new practitioners.
- For best results, use an aluminum-foil pie pan, and fill it with whipped cream. Yes, this is a waste of food, but there is no need for a scientific study to prove that cardiovascular health is better served by applying whipped cream externally, rather than ingesting it. Do not even think of bothering with a crust, even if it is flaky (which does seem like the right word in this context).
- Shaving cream is an option, but it is not a good one. Here is a recent public service announcement from an organization with the interesting name, the Missouri Poison Center: “Shaving cream may sting if it gets into [the] eyes and may cause stomach upset if some of it is ingested.” Having been posted on May 2020, this is cutting-edge science, and not “an old husband’s folktale.’” (Note 2021-appropriate rewording on behalf of a fresher, more inclusive form of gender stereotyping.)
- If performed with proper protocol, pie-throwing poses no risk to individuals and presents no public health dangers. The substance is so gooshy, and the aluminum-foil pie plate is so malleable that there is no impact that could possibly cause pain or injury. And yet it is very important to accent here the element of conduct that is essential in avoiding injury. Since only people who have given their consent to be hit with a pie should be involved, everyone can and should be expected to submit and comply. As soon as the pie is in front of the recipient and raised for delivery, protocol requires acceptance, with no resistance and certainly no wrestling over control of the pie.
- For a day or two after the incident, the recipient of a pie will look like she or he is wearing mascara composed of Crisco. When the whipped cream arrives in a successful landing, the area around the eye (the bottom of the eyelid and the rim just below the eye itself) will turn greasy. You could use soap to cut the greasiness, but it is almost impossible to wash this area without getting soap in your eyes, which invariably stinging. The best response is simply to recognize that the greasiness will absorb into the skin over the course of a couple of days (it is better not to think too much about this).
- People who wear glasses confront a thought-provoking trade-off. If they keep their glasses on, they will be spared the Crisco-mascara look. But they will also then need to invest some quality time in de-greasing their glasses. Noting this trade-off calls for a tribute to the wondrous temperament of Jeff Limerick, who always wore glasses and who never complained once about having to clean his glasses after a successful hit.
- When practitioners discuss methods for delivery, the two most-often-considered options are these: throw or push. or But the most skilled practitioners choose a third option: they place the pie, with purposeful calm, directly on the recipient’s face. At that point, there is still the option of twisting, a clockwise or counterclockwise movement that will make sure that a maximum portion of the whipped cream stays in place, but more often than not, at this point, laughter has taken over from action.
- Be alert to—and guard against—the temptation to move too fast. There is nothing sadder than the sacrifice of a valuable pie to overthrowing, overshooting, and missing the target entirely. But even that misfortune, sometimes with whipped cream hitting innocent bystanders, can contribute to the multiplier economic effect of pie-throwing: the income support provided to plucky small businesses specializing in dry cleaning.
- Even in the midst of hilarity—or, rather, especially in the midst of hilarity—use contemporary digital technology to pay respect to Soupy Sales, ideally watching his appearance on “I’ve Got a Secret,” or his 1990 interview with Bob Costas on NBC.
In fact, whether or not you ever throw or receive a pie yourself, take any opportunity that presents itself to watch this master practitioner at work. And if you watch the interview with Bob Costas, do not cheat yourself of the last four or five minutes, when an ardent Soupy enthusiast makes his appearance, providing Soupy with an opportunity to demonstrate the highest level of his craft.
The International Impact of the Pie
Back in our pieing heyday, Jeff and I hosted a number of international visitors: young people from distant nations who were on their way to attend American universities and who stayed with us for a few days to get acclimated, before they traveled to their chosen campuses. Acclimation, for several of our guests, included an episode of Jeff hitting me with a pie, or me hitting Jeff with a pie. We were forthright in explaining that this was far from a widespread custom in the United States, but many pictures were taken, and I feel certain that those pictures were frequently shared when the visitors returned home and told stories of their travels.
And so, in distant lands, there may be a small but (I hope) influential cohort of people who offer their evidence-based testimony that Americans are a tolerant, adaptable, and good-natured people who have a delightful custom of hitting each other with pies.
These good souls may hold Americans in a higher opinion than we deserve today, but I see no reason to correct them.
A Pie-Eyed* Concluding Statement of Hope
(*The phrase “pie-eyed” turns out to mean either “extremely drunk” or “extremely tired,” neither of which applies to me at the moment. And yet, really, how could anyone expect me to resist using this term?)
In an era in which humility is in short supply and rigidity of opinion obstructs any attempt to figure each other out, consensual pie-throwing could be our redemption.
Do I really believe that?
How could I not?
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Soupy Sales image courtesy of: Wikipedia