Twisted Metal: The Strange History Behind Evil Clown Sweet Tooth

With Peacock's Twisted Metal adaptation underway, we examine the many iterations of PlayStation's iconic clown baddie.

TWISTED METAL -- "NUTHOUZ" Episode 107 -- Pictured: Joe Seanoa as Sweet Tooth
Photo: Skip Bolen | Peacock | Sony TV

Of all the video games to make a TV show out of, Peacock made a hell of a choice with Twisted Metal. Once a thriving franchise and synonymous with Sony’s various consoles, the series has been silent for eleven years after the ill-fated PlayStation 3 reboot. While the direction of making the show a comedic and colorful American take on Mad Max is an interesting choice, it’s not like it’s an especially easy series of games to be faithful to. With eight titles to its name and one canceled release, Twisted Metal’s continuity is as mucked up as the Halloween movies. There have been several sequels, a sequel that retconned away previous sequels, a kid-based reimagining, a reboot, and another reboot that turned out to be a stealth sequel to the original games. It’s all very confusing.

Throughout all of those games, one character who has always been there is Sweet Tooth, the psychotic clown. Now a chaotic entity on the streaming series played by Samoa Joe and voiced by Will Arnett, Sweet Tooth went from a novelty character choice to a larger-than-life marquee who eclipses the rest of the cast. Here is the character’s full history from initial conception to television.

The SingleTrac Era: Send in the Clowns

1995’s Twisted Metal, originally planned to be called High Octane, told the story of a deadly contest across Los Angeles that mixed the Purge with an over-the-top demolition derby. Hosted by Calypso, a demonic genie in a three-piece suit, the competition featured various drivers battling for supremacy and destroying both their opponents and the city itself in order to earn an audience with Calypso and be offered one wish. Whether it’s something as mundane as money or something as outlandish as resurrection, proof of extraterrestrials, ownership of a hellspawn, time travel, or Calypso’s very soul, each driver had their own reason to enter the contest.

Then there’s Needles Kane. Similar to Frankenstein’s deal, “Sweet Tooth” was originally just the name of the vehicle and not the driver. Even the iconic flame-headed clown look was just a logo on top of the deadly ice cream truck. As the game was meant to originally have live-action cutscenes, Needles appeared on the select screen looking like a wide-eyed and unhinged visualization of what Krusty the Clown would look like in real life.

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Needles was depicted as a lunatic in a clown costume who was willing to leave a mountain of wreckage and broken bodies in exchange for a paper bag from his childhood that he considered his best friend. While one of many playable drivers, he was relatively more prominent due to having some connections. One driver was a ghost fighting for his chance to come back to life. His ending revealed that he was killed outside of a circus, presumably by Needles. Meanwhile, a cab driver named Charlie Kane entered Twisted Metal in order to find information on his missing son. The tragedy of his search was that he would have to kill Needles in the contest in order to discover their familial connection.

1996’s Twisted Metal 2 would feature the flaming clown head with the logo, but the box art would feature four different cars – also, the Eiffel Tower to show that this contest was no longer contained in LA. As the game had a more comic book aesthetic with animated stills, they redesigned Needles so that his clothing was more classical Pagliacci with the baggy onesie and fuzzy buttons, but this time gave him a head covered in fire. There was no in-story explanation for it at the time. The drooling psycho was just constantly on fire and never referenced it.

Sweet Tooth was not part of the base roster, but a hidden character whose stats made playing with him a handicap. That didn’t completely hinder his impact, as the game’s final boss was an insane Charlie Kane now driving Dark Tooth, a freaky cross between an ice cream truck and a monster truck. Outside of that crazy boss battle, there were no outright connections to Sweet Tooth on the roster.

Well, except for Roadkill…

The driver of Roadkill’s name was Marcus Kane. The game in no way suggested a relationship between the two outside of the last name. This is a game that outright named one of its drivers Ken Masters, like the guy from Street Fighter, so this could have just been a creative oversight at the time. Marcus was a crazed homeless man, insisting that the world was wrong, like they were in a simulation of some sort. He wanted Calypso to let him wake up. When granted his wish in his ending, it was played as ominous despite his happy reunion with his family, as if something was still very wrong.

The 989 Studios Era: What a Joke

For 1998’s Twisted Metal III, development was given to 989 Studios. Interestingly enough, without the Twisted Metal franchise, SingleTrac created two vehicular combat titles with Critical Depth and Rogue Trip to fill the void. Each game featured a character with a similar unhinged, marketable goofball vibe, such as Captain Cutlass (a pirate host of a kid’s show who got fired and turned to bloodlust) and Richard “Dick” Biggs (a hockey mask-wearing fast food chef who drives the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile). Neither quite had that staying power, sadly.

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Sweet Tooth’s mug was plastered all over the cover of Twisted Metal III. Once again a hidden character, Sweet Tooth (they stopped calling him Needles for a couple games) was redesigned with a more suit-like clown outfit. As the game used cartoony CGI animation, his head appeared to have hair styled to look like flames. That is, except for his drawn character profile picture, which kept the flames intact. I guess they just couldn’t figure out how to make it work in those cutscenes.

For the first time, the game’s commercial focused entirely on Sweet Tooth, set in a clown-based prison where all the convicts discussed how Tooth was out on parole and living it up in an ice cream truck. This culminated in a guy wearing a rather unflattering Sweet Tooth costume that looked like something out of Party City.

When 1999 came rolling, 989 Studios went all-in on Sweet Tooth. The plot of Twisted Metal 4 was that Sweet Tooth had grown tired of being a contestant. Flanked by his loyal army of vertically challenged clowns, Sweet Tooth usurped Calypso, stole his powers, and became the new host and even final boss of the Twisted Metal contest. He would be the one granting and twisting wishes this time around.

They also figured out the fire effects with the animation this time, so his head was inflamed again. As the big boss of everything, he wore a ringmaster uniform. He also remained mute throughout the game with another clown speaking for him.

This was very different for the commercials. For a brief period, Sweet Tooth would appear in commercials for not only Twisted Metal 4, but PlayStation in general. Once again, he had fire-like hair instead of literal flames. He spoke and seemed more like an irritated and sarcastic Steve Buscemi than anything else. Had Twisted Metal 4 earned a direct sequel, this live-action version could have had more juice as a Sony mascot. Instead, the series went into a very different direction.

The Incognito Entertainment Era: Brutal Humor

It was 2001 and the PlayStation 2 was brand new. Incognito was made up of some former SingleTrac employees and got their hands back on the Twisted Metal name. This time, they decided to do a dark and gritty reboot in the form of Twisted Metal: Black. Once again, it was Calypso doing a car combat tournament, but almost all of the contestants were patients in an insane asylum, broken free for a chance to make their desperate wishes come true.

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Front and center was Sweet Tooth, debuting his now-iconic design. He was huge and hulking, though not entirely in shape. His voice was a deep, satisfied growl. His clown makeup was replaced by a porcelain mask. His head was on fire, but this time it was explained as a curse put upon him by a maniacal preacher. This version of Sweet Tooth reveled in bloodshed, like it was all he could think about.

Much of the cast revolved around him. One man was a serial killer who wanted to be #1 in town. One man wanted revenge, as his wife was one of Sweet Tooth’s victims. One girl wore a porcelain mask, forced upon her by the same man who designed Sweet Tooth’s. Needles’ unnamed little brother was involved. Most of all, everyone feared Sweet Tooth.

This all made sense upon unlocking the final character Minion and decoding his pre-level text. Minion’s driver was actually Marcus Kane from Twisted Metal 2 and the entirety of Twisted Metal: Black took place inside Sweet Tooth’s head with Marcus as his prisoner. No wonder all the authority figures had bad endings.

Incognito rode the wave of Twisted Metal: Black’s success. They released Twisted Metal: Small Brawl as a late PS1 title, which reimagined the characters as kids playing with RC cars. Sweet Tooth was portrayed as a mischievous little scamp. They were going to make a sequel to Black called Twisted Metal: Harbor City, but it never got finished and only became playable as a bonus disc for the PlayStation 2 port of Twisted Metal: Head-On in 2008.

Head-On was originally a 2005 release for the PSP and acted as the “true” Twisted Metal 2 follow-up. It went back to the comic art style, but kept Sweet Tooth’s modern design and personality. It also made it apparent that Marcus Kane and Needles Kane were the same person, dealing with a split personality. How that makes sense in a car combat tournament is a discussion for another time. “Working together” the two drive boss vehicles Dark Tooth and Tower Tooth.

The Eat Sleep Play Era: Your Material Needs Some Work

Incognito members later founded Eat Sleep Play, who were responsible for the PS2 port of Head-On. In 2012, they released Twisted Metal for the PlayStation 3, which had a very different campaign mode from all the games before it. Rather than getting to choose from over a dozen drivers and seeing their story through, the game only had four major drivers, each leading a gang of followers, and a streamlined one-player mode that had you playing through as only three of them. This included Sweet Tooth in the game’s first act, which gave him a full-on backstory.

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In this reality, he was ice cream truck driver and family man Marcus Kane, who went insane and succumbed to the voices in his head, becoming Needles Kane. He retained his Twisted Metal: Black design, albeit with no in-story explanation for his scalp flames. Shockingly, he was killed off at the end of his act due to a wish gone awry.

The mid and post-credits scenes revealed that his son Charlie would be taking up the mantle while Calypso chose to resurrect Needles’ daughter Sophie and turn her into another psycho clown. It was a cool hook for a sequel that would never happen, making the whole one-shot game feel a little too cynical for its own good. Not that a blood war between evil and evil would really improve on that, but at least we could have potentially seen Calypso get his just desserts.

That wasn’t the end for Sweet Tooth, at least. He would pop up in Sony ads, at one point seen playing chess with Sackboy. He would also be one of the first characters revealed for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, the PS3’s Smash Bros. knockoff. In that game, Sweet Tooth would be paired with fellow David Jaffe creation Kratos as rivals.

Sweet Tooth has made plenty of guest appearances in other games, like Hot Shots Golf 2, War of the Monsters, and even Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5. Unfortunately, after his PS3 games fizzled, Sweet Tooth and his brand simply vanished. Hell, the whole car combat genre went the way of the dodo.

God, I’d kill for a new Vigilante 8 game…

The new Twisted Metal show is smart about how to handle Sweet Tooth. Played physically by Samoa Joe and vocally by Will Arnett, Needles is introduced as almost a villain-of-the-week, before being a charismatic wildcard loose in the dangerous world that the season tries to build. Even when you start to accept him as something of an anti-hero, we get a look at his origin story and, man…dude’s messed up. Believe me, you’ll roll your eyes when you understand where he got the nickname “Sweet Tooth,” but you’ll scream expletives when you understand where he got the nickname “Needles.”

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It works to perfection. Needles Kane is not the protagonist, nor should he be. Sweet Tooth is a dangerous force of chaos. A threat to everyone, good or evil. He should not be the main character, nor even the main villain, but the soul of the corrupted, broken, and bizarre reality that houses him.

All 10 episodes of Twisted Metal are available to stream on Peacock now.