Another day, but not another dollar for Murray Burns (Jason Robards Jr), because he doesn't have a job, indeed he walked out of his last post as a writer for Chuckles the Chipmunk on television since he couldn't stand it anymore. So he lives in semi-squalor, passing his days by wandering the streets of New York City often accompanied by his young nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) - wait, why isn't he in school, asks Murray? Something to do with him announcing this day as a holiday, but Nick has an important message to impart: the authorities are interested in their circumstances.
A Thousand Clowns was a popular play before it was a cult movie, attracting its fans by dint of its themes of noncomformism, and asking how in the modern world an individual could really plough their own idiosyncratic furrow, especially when they could be an influence on the impressionable. The answer writer Herb Gardner came up with was that they couldn't, which makes it all the more curious that such a defeatist attitude to a premise it initially appeared to be celebrating should attract its coterie of adherents, though one could be of the opinion that the conclusion just made it all the more poignant.
He may have originated the role of Murray Burns on the stage, but some felt Robards a poor choice for the part, though he had a habit of playing iconoclasts before and after this movie, so maybe it wasn't so much of a stretch and besides there was a sense that a dramatic performer playing what could easily have gone to an established comedian offered the material an interesting twist. That said, this was billed as a comedy, or at least a comedy drama, so there were a number of humorous lines which now don't seem so funny, whether because humour has changed or maybe they were too entrenched in character rather than firing off the one-liners so the jokes were as unconventional as the protagonist, not to mention director Fred Coe's haphazard methods of shooting as he got to grips with film versus his stage origins.
Murray obviously sees Nick as his protege, but the rest of the world is less forgiving as they both realise when the city sends a couple of inspectors around - played by William Daniels and Barbara Harris (a stage stalwart in her first film) - who try to persuade Murray that he really should be more responsible. Of course, he thinks he's being perfectly responsible in teaching his young charge to navigate the world he doesn't want to be a part of, but the full force of the stick in the muds who want him to kowtow to what society expects from him is about to exert its pressure. What do they want? For Murray to prove he's a capable guardian to the boy, that's what, though even there he is reluctant.
Anything people want him to do, he will resist, preferring to march to the beat of his own drum, but when Nick pleads with him to go back to work he must make a token gesture to appeasing the one person he feels he owes something to. So he attends a few meetings and realises what he wants to write about is not necessarily what will get him hired, and the horrible inevitability of Chuckles the Chipmunk begins to loom large - is there anything he can do to avoid this soul crushing labour? Mind you, you could argue that writing a mild TV show for easily pleased children might not be the worst thing in a world - try working in the sewers or down a mine, Murray - but there's the message that going your own way in life is very much dependent on what those around you will allow you to get away with. Certainly it's an attractive notion, following your own path, and Harris's Sandra even falls in love with Murray until the consequences of his lifestyle strike home, but that ending does come across as a meek cop-out. Music by Don Walker.