“'I’m tired of making my life harder than it has to be.” - Chip Baskets
Baskets is therapy. In re-watching the show recently, I was stuck again by the powerful emotions invoked in a program that is essential a fucking comedy. Set in Bakersfield, California, Baskets is a show about a family (isn’t everything?). But it is also a show about an clown trying to stand out as an artist in a world of more mainstream tastes. It is a story about twin brothers, identical only in looks (Zach Galifianakis playing both parts), dealing with their mid-life strife in vastly different ways. It a show about a woman - a mother, played by the enigmatic Louis Anderson who turns in the performance of a lifetime - looking to understand her grown up children as she confronts her past and rediscovers herself again in her old age. And beneath all this beats a very poignant, silly, stupid and Kirkland branded heart of gold. This is Baskets.
Zach Galifianakis conceived of Baskets as a throwback to physical comedy which has largely escaped the television zeitgeist of late. There is plenty of that, including weird awkward moments, uncomfortable silences and understated middle class whimsy. Melancholia prevails all throughout Baskets and it is hilarious. There is so much bittersweet pain and no character better exemplifies that hilarious (and heartbreaking) pain more than Chip Baskets, the main character turned french clown turned rodeo clown turned Arby’s employee and turned rodeo clown (again). What does it mean to be an artist/clown in a world that isn’t quite interested in that vision?
“We can’t all be florists. Or dishwashers. Some of us have to be artists” -Chip Basket.
Being an artist means letting go of certain notions and maybe accepting that just because things aren’t quite what we expected them to be, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for us. Being challenged as an artist means challenging ourselves as much as it means to challenge the audience. Chip learning to adapt his French clown persona Renoir into something that the mainstream public will lap up like Costco sample sizes is a difficult undertaking for a man who simply doesn’t fit in anywhere. He tries, of course, journeying on his roller skates after his scouter is wrecked in the first episode. His perception is half the battle. Self centered and myopic in vision, Chip views the world like someone who has spent time in prison, be it a prison of his own creation. His shifting perspective of the the world around him is the first step in his growing as a human being. Chip realizes throughout each season of the show that he does not inhabit the center of the universe like some fat, bloating and sparkling star. He inhabits a universe filled with many other stars, each one of them interesting and motivated by complicated self interests. He is always his own worst enemy, struggling to fill a hole left over his troubled childhood. He uses clowning. He uses his imagination. He wants so much to be loved and perhaps his greatest difficulty is allowing himself to open up just enough to really feel the love which is abundant all around him. Because, inevitably, it’s what we all want. And aren’t we often blind to it? His displaced affection for his green card seeking french wife (Penelope played by the deadpan Sabina Sciubba) who is nothing but honest with him regarding her motivations - which is that she is marrying him only to get her green card, something she repeats many times over to deaf ears - only sends Chip further down a path of self destruction. His French New Wave size wound, figuratively also self inflicted in France where he studied “french clowning” in a prestigious “french clowning academy”, festers in the hard light of the California sun. Oh Chip. Poor Chip. There is so much of the sad artist in Chip. So much of the French clown we learn to both pity and love with equal amusement. We meet Chip in season one when he essentially scraping the bottom of the barrel. It doesn’t appear that it will get any worse. But over time, Chip learns to let go and become a better person. He learns to accept and, more importantly, to fucking LISTEN to the plain words that are being spoken around him. His reveries are bittersweet dreams. We see through Chip’s rosy colored glasses throughout the show in stunningly shot sequences that both evoke French Cinema and mocks it in true cinematic form. It isn’t that we can’t be dreamers in this world, it’s just that we can’t only be dreamers. We still have to get up in the morning and go to work. We have to form connections with the people around us - real connection, not made up one’s that exist solely in our heads - and nurture these connections with honesty, empathy and generosity. We watch as Chip’s relationship with Martha - his Costco Insurance Adjuster, played by Martha Kelly whom we adore beyond words - go from a chauffeur sided tentative acquaintanceship to one of real friendship. It’s a lovely thing to witness. Chip, kicked out of the motel and forbidden to sleep at the rodeo where he works (yes), eventually circles back to the scene of the crime, his childhood home. Living with his mother again, adapting to her quirky and ever optimistic personality, calling her for bail money after hitching a ride on a freight train that ends in tragedy, Chip can only admit to the patterns that have resulted in this freakshow of a life. He realizes how important family is to him. His fraught relationship with his twin brother Dale (“I’m just so full beans!”) doesn’t necessary get any easier but coming home does allow for the men to deal with some of the trauma leftover from their childhood. They go about it pretty much ass backwards, screaming for their mother’s escaped cat Ronald Regan after one of their more destructive fights, one of them wearing a clown costume while the other tries to stomp a nose bleed, before ending back at the bridge where their father “fell off” when they were both nine years old. They find their mother’s cat on the bridge and then reflectively come together in a moment of sincerity, admitting that so much of who they are today is a result of that death and the pain that came out of that troubled childhood. And it makes sense. We find solace in laughter because sometimes it is easier to laugh than to cry. We are all Chip, at one point or another in our lives. The beauty of Baskets is how well the show balances the polar extremes of what it means to be a human being. We are all sad clowns. Hilarious, broken, clumsy and beautiful. Figuring out how to listen is half the battle. Learning how to really see things for what they are is the other. And in the same vein that we are all Chip, let’s get to talking about Christine! Because Christine Baskets is who we need to be as we navigate this shit storm of a life. It is never too late to forgive. It is never too late to love again. And it is never too late to start living.
(Continued in Part Two next week!)