It’s all ambiguous with Tiny Tim.
Context is everything. That’s the first thought that came to mind at the beginning of Johan von Sydow‘s Tiny Tim: King for a Day (written by Martin Daniel) since I was born in the 1980s and knew the subject only as his “has been” self at the tail end of both his career and life. In my mind the celebrity he won was therefore always of a complicated sort: toeing the line between laughing at the “freak” and laughing with the entertainer. What I never truly knew until right now was that the celebrity that afforded him “has been” status was in fact earned. After starting as a panhandler who eventually performed in the shadow of a flea circus, Herbert Khaury (Tiny Tim‘s given name) became a star.
The film provides the answer as to how that happened beyond the usual luck that goes into such things like Tim finding his way into New York newspapers and clubs to build the kind of following that would ultimately get him in a room with George Schlatter, the producer of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”. That stuff is obvious. That stuff can be assumed. What von Sydow adds to Tim’s rapid journey upwards is the context that’s able to answer two equally important questions: “Why him?” and “Why now (the 1960s)?” We’re taken back to a difficult childhood under the wing of parents many say never loved him, the diaries of a confused soul struggling to discover his identity (sexual, religious, and otherwise), and the people who adored him.
We learn how Tim’s androgyny and eccentricities became a catalyst that ushered in a new era of being with hippies and “free love” replacing the conservative and gendered norms of the previous generation. We recognize Tim as an almost unwitting iconoclast carving a path forward for America’s youth at a time of political unrest and upheaval—a shining beacon of kindness and innocence that wasn’t just some act to be dissolved the moment the cameras turned off. And we’re exposed to the problems inherent to that specific personality within industries as volatile and opportunistic as record labels and Hollywood. Because while there are those women who adored the childlike infatuation that came with his friendship, stories of Tim crossing some legal lines inevitably appear as well.
Tim’s widow Susan M. Khaury Wellman and his closest friend Johnny Pineapple tell most of those warts and all anecdotes about his personal life’s good and bad. The industry folk like Jonas Mekas, D.A. Pennebaker, and Wavy Gravy talk about his otherworldly genius. And the slew of former partners (whether it be managers, producers, bandmates, etc.) reminiscing about their time with this unique soul affectionately labeled “out there” to the point of certifiable insanity add colorful history. All angles are therefore covered to understand the reality that everything providing Tim his fame was eventually going to also end up being the things that secured his infamy since his drive to be loved never faltered despite the changing eras causing the usual avenues towards that end to tragically disappear.
King for a Day is thus as much a celebration of Tiny Tim’s greatness as it is a cautionary tale about the cost that comes with the resulting celebrity. Not everyone can sustain what it is that makes them an invaluable commodity because being a commodity at all means you’ve relinquished control to the consumer’s desires. It’s one thing to tell a nation what it was they needed and another to prove to them that they still needed it long after the craving was satisfied. Because for every Susan (who admits falling in love with Tim at age twelve—the moment she saw he “came from the same distant planet” as her) saved by his mirror are hundreds who simply enjoyed the distraction until the next one arrived.
That’s when the troubled childhood rears its head and the toll from living a performance comes into focus. Was Tim equipped with the tools to differentiate between life and the stage once the latter became the former in such a profound way that he thanked God (Weird Al Yankovic narrates his diary entries) for the transformation? Could he love a woman beyond lustful fantasies steeped in objectification when marriage proved yet another “show” (his first nuptials aired on “The Tonight Show” to become the second highest-rated television program ever behind the moon landing) within a tour of hundreds each year? Seeing Tim end up the punch line he strove so tirelessly to avoid becoming is therefore that much more heartbreaking because he did escape it for a time.
The sad truth is that his story becomes that much more compelling because of it too. This roller coaster life of extreme highs and devastating lows becomes just as much a treatise on society’s commodification of human beings as it does any failings on Tim’s part. There’s nothing unique to divorce or aging or career slumps. What stands out is the swiftness with which an audience chews up and spits out the latest fad they deigned to bestow value upon today. That’s not to say Tim is on par with the D-list reality TV stars of our current world. No, he had the talent and charisma to earn his place at the top even if the pedestal was built upon similarly shallow affection on our part as voyeurs.
Getting the real story from those who loved him beyond the “act” (even if the “act” was the person) is crucial to comprehending the difference and realizing that Tim demands to be remembered as more than a flash in the pan curio. He dreamed big and won despite an abusive childhood, Catholic guilt, infantilized notions of sexuality, and years of struggle to regain the magic. So as much as people say the world needed Tiny Tim in the 60s, you might say Tiny Tim needed the world as it was in the 60s even more. Because even if his stature didn’t last, it saved him and allowed him to be himself on a stage greater than any of those who denigrated him in youth ever rose to themselves.
 Tiny Tim
 Jonas Mekas, photo by Johan von Sydow
 Animation by Marko Mestrovic