Shakes the Clown (Bobcat Goldthwait) awakes in his underwear on the floor of a bathroom in a strange apartment with a roaring hangover. It is the apartment of his latest one night stand (Florence Henderson) and after being accidentally pissed on by her son, he retrieves his clothes and realises he's late for the birthday party he's supposed to be entertaining at. Off Shakes hurries, stopping at a garage restroom to apply his makeup and menace the station owner, and then he's ready for work. But he has a big problem: although he's a fairly successful clown, he is an alcoholic, and his girlfriend Judy (Julie Brown) is planning on leaving him if he doesn't get his act together...
Sort of what would happen if Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons went seriously off the rails and took all his clown friends with him, this film marked the only directorial effort to date of distinctive comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. He also wrote the screenplay, coming across as a comedy scripted by Charles Bukowksi, at least for the first half, with Shakes looking no further than the next drink and hanging around in his off-duty hours in a clown bar. That is, a bar for clowns to go to drown their sorrows, bemoan their lot with their cohorts and snipe at the others.
There is a clown baddie, too, in the shape of Binky the Clown (Tom Kenny, yes, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants), and if you find clowns disturbing then he's the one you will want to avoid - and if you're scared of them, what on Earth are you doing watching this film? When Peppy the Clown (Sidney Lassick) leaves his popular children's television show (he says he's retiring but everyone knows he's been sacked for being over the hill), Shakes is one of the hopefuls who want the job as replacement, but to his anger Binky wins the post. This doesn't help Shakes' temperament any and he dives straight to the bottom of another beer bottle.
In the film there is a clown society, a hierarchy if you will, that sees party clowns like Shakes in the middle of the scale, and able to pick on and beat up mimes, who make claims to art; however, tough rodeo clowns are above the party clowns and waste no opportunity to intimidate them. The world of these entertainers, set in the city of Palukaville, is portrayed in a sleazy fashion but Goldthwait knows it inside out, with the slog through Shakes' miserable life featuring an absorbing attention to detail, and when he is encouraged by his friends Dink and Stenchy (Adam Sandler and Blake Clark) to stop drinking, he's only one disastrous party away from falling off the wagon spectacularly.
When Shakes is left in a stupor by this latest binge, the halfway-through film enters its next phase and transforms into an unlikely thriller. His boss, Mr Cheese (Paul Dooley) is murdered by the drug crazed Binky, Shakes is framed for the killing and when he wakes up, he goes on the run. In truth, the movie is better in its unconventional first half as the second could have the plot of any number of comedy thrillers, only this one has the novelty of actors in full clown makeup playing it out. Still, there's plenty to enjoy, especially its world weary atmosphere and bitter, expletive-filled dialogue, and the cast show a commendable dedication to Goldthwait's eccentric ideas, including Robin Williams as talkative a mime teacher. That said, Shakes the Clown is probably best as a one-off. Music by Tom Scott.