A Thousand Clowns was first presented at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York City on April 5, 1962, with Jason Robards in the role of Murray Burns. Herb Gardner’s first full-length play, it was nominated for the Tony Award for best play and was so successful commercially that Gardner, named the most promising playwright of 1961–62, was able to turn to playwriting full time. A few years later, Gardner wrote the prize-winning screenplay for a film adaptation of A Thousand Clowns, also starring Robards.
The play tells the story of Murray Burns, a cheerful eccentric raising his nephew, a twelveyear- old genius, in New York City. Murray believes in living life fully, even if that means going to the movies instead of looking for a job. When social workers from the Bureau of Child Welfare come to investigate, he must decide whether to accept some level of conformity in order to show himself a fit guardian. The play is episodic and funny, as Murray meets all challenges to his lifestyle with irreverent humor. The text is available in Herb Gardner: The Collected Plays, published in paperback in 2001 by Applause Books.