MY FIRST NIGHT'S work for a newspaper, I was sent to interview Tiny Tim.
He was the headliner for a Police Benevolent Association fund-raiser. I sat for about 15 minutes with him on folding chairs backstage at a high school auditorium in eastern Pennsylvania.
It was not the saddest 15 minutes I've spent in journalism, though it may have been the most pitiful.
"Sixty-eight," he sighed, repeating like some mantra that year I had just asked him about. "Sometimes, I still think it's 1968. It's so strange. Your body tells you one thing and reality tells you another." His speaking voice, a baritone much richer than his singing falsetto, deepened a little more: "The reality is a lot of kids don't even know who I am."
This was 1980, a valley the river of fame had carved through his unusual life.
He was then more than a decade removed from the generational hit "Laugh-In" as well as his spectacle wedding on the "Tonight" show with Johnny Carson. He had already been divorced from "Miss Vicky" for three years. It was also too soon for the limited resurrection on the talk-show circuit that would come later.
In those few private moments with him, I could not detect, and surmise most of his audience couldn't either, whether Tiny Tim's bizarre act -- the stringy hair, the ukulele, the vaudeville tunes, his bewildered look -- was truly him or a put-on.
It was, I suspect, a little of both. A whole genre of entertainer, after all, has flourished by flouting that timeless admonition of school teachers to class clowns: "We're not laughing with you, we're laughing at you."
Comic geniuses from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen, and physical comedians from Jim Carrey to Seinfeld's "Kramer" have done quite well having people laugh at their appearance and antics. Yet Tiny Tim revolved in an even rarer, darker orbit -- those performers whose personal oddities mix with their stage persona to point where one can't separate one from the other.
The old Elvis, Liberace and Greta Garbo all fell into that category. Exercise guru Richard Simmons is another that comes to mind. One of David Letterman's more popular skits in recent years was the running appearance of two immigrant brothers from Manhattan: Whether the pair understood that audiences were mocking their foreign accents didn't seem to bother them; they were famous and enjoying it.
Tiny Tim was genuinely weird, but he also came off as weirdly genuine. Backstage at that school, he seemed as modest and fragile as anyone could who had cashed in their Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps self-deprecation was simply part of his spiel. But he didn't seek for a moment to pretend that warming up for a sparse crowd in a school hall was one-zillionth as $H enthralling as being wed before half the planet on TV.
Through the tulips
I didn't keep track of his career after that, but it was refreshing to see him mount a minor comeback with occasional appearances on Howard Stern and Conan O'Brien's show. By 1990s standards, his weirdness seemed downright wholesome next to Michael Jackson, Dennis Rodman and Madonna.
Indeed, Herbert Buckingham Khaury touched something in the public's collective heart. He deserved to go as his third wife said he did, after he succumbed to heart failure last Saturday night at age 64: Hearing the applause as he tiptoed through the tulips.
Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/04/96