Murray Burns (Robards) is an unemployed television writer in New York City who has been jobless for five months, since he left his previous gig writing for the children's show Chuckles the Chipmunk. Murray is guardian to his 12-year-old nephew Nick (Gordon), who has been with Murray since Nick's irresponsible, unwed mother dropped him off seven years ago and disappeared.
When Nick writes an essay for his school about the wonders of unemployment insurance, the school contacts the state Child Welfare Board. Two social workers are sent to the studio apartment shared by Murray and Nick. The female social worker, Sandra Markowitz (Harris), is utterly charmed by Murray and soon falls in love with him. However, the male social worker, Albert Amundson (Daniels), is outraged by Murray's joblessness and free-spirited attitude, and recommends that Nick be removed from Murray's custody. In order to maintain custody over the boy, Murray must do what he dreads most—get a job.
The film was adapted from Herb Gardner's 1962 Broadway play of the same name, with pretty much everyone in the cast except for Barbara Harris reprising their stage roles.
Was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won one for Best Supporting Actor (Balsam).
- Answer Cut: Murray says his supervision by the Child Welfare Board "sounds like a parole board." Cut to Chuckles the Chipmunk shilling potato chips: "Yes, it certainly does!"
- Bad to the Last Drop: Sandra gamely drinks "yesterday's coffee" and even pronounces it "good to the last drop", although her face gives her away.
- Book Ends: Begins with Murray hollering at his neighbors, followed by a montage of New Yorkers walking to work. It ends with him attempting to holler at his neighbors, then joining the throng.
- Department of Child Disservices: Subverted: the Child Welfare Board, personified by Albert, recommends that Nick be taken away from Murray, who from an outside perspective appears to be a sub-optimal parent at best.
- Depraved Kids' Show Host: Chuckles the Chipmunk (a.k.a., Leo Herman) is not so much depraved as he is egotistical, boorish, insulting, self-hating, neurotic, and desperately unfunny. He also, by his own admission, doesn't "get along too good with kids." (The self-named brand of potato chips he shills on his program is lousy too.)
- Establishing Character Moment:
- When Murray is shown in the first scene walking out into the street and shouting at all his neighbors to clean their windows, he is immediately established as a free-spirited eccentric.
- When Albert merely issues an annoyed grunt in response to Murray's joke about poisoned Crackerjacks, he's established as a humorless prick.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The movie found ways around the restrictions on nudity in the Section VI of the Hays Code: Nick's "favorite toy" is Bubbles, a battery-powered electric statue shaped like a topless hula dancer whose chest "lights up". Even Albert appears to have a "strange interest" in Bubbles...
- Going to the Store: It's revealed that seven years ago Nick's mom dropped off Nick with Murray, went off for cigarettes, and never came back. And since nobody ever knew who Nick's father was, he's been with Murray ever since.
- ISO-Standard Urban Groceries: Taken to the point of singularity, when Sandra and Murray are coming back home with the standard grocery bag with the standard loaf of French bread. They greet a neighbor, who also has the standard paper grocery bag, which also has the standard loaf of French bread.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Nick gives a deeply satisfying one to Leo in which he tells him that not only is Leo unfunny, and personally very dull, the chips he hawks on TV are terrible.
- Shout-Out: The aliases Nick uses are real people. Dr. Morris Fishbein was editor of the "Journal of the American Medical Association" for 26 years. Rafael Sabatini was the author of many adventure novels, including the original Captain Blood.
- Sibling Yin-Yang: Non-conformist Murray markedly contrasts with his conventionally-minded brother, Arnold (Balsam).
- Title Drop: Murray talks about how sometimes when you go to the circus they bring out the clown car and "a thousand clowns" come out.
- Title Theme Tune: The song "A Thousand Clowns" was co-written by Oscar-winning actress Judy Holliday, in what was her last film credit, as Holliday died of cancer before this movie was released.