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poliphilo: (Default)
Comedy is a young person's game.

Ok, there are some comical old people out there, but I can't think of many.

Most comics lose it as they get older. Steve Martin anyone? A lot of the smarter ones retire or find something else to do. Michael Palin, for example, has reinvented himself as an "explorer".

Comedy works by surprising us. The longer a comedian is in business the less likely it is that we'll find his/her schtick surprising.

All comedy is subversive. Even the gentlest. It challenges things as they are. The older, more comfortable, more embedded in the establishment a comedian becomes the less unsettled and unsettling s/he's likely to be, the less in touch with the zeitgeist and the less essentially funny. Witness the career of Bob Hope.

The more you have to lose, the less willing you are to issue the challenge.

The comedians who last the longest are those who are funny by nature. Those who can't help it. Frankie Howerd for example. Frankie's comic longevity had nothing to do with his material and everything to do with who he was- that shamble, that long rubbery face, that unique combination of campness and misanthropic gloom.

The comedian is always a misfit. Out of kilter. Peculiar. Shamanic even.

Comedins lose it because they get scared. They get scared of the weirdness. They get scared of themselves.

Every great comic is a Yorick- that is to say, a death's head.
poliphilo: (Default)
The thing about the Two Ronnies is there's no edge. Just a blokey, saloon bar naughtiness. I quite like Barker's wordplay and Corbett's shaggy dog stories but I come away from one of their shows feeling like I've been ingesting too much carbon dioxide.

Barker was a potentially great comic actor who squandered his talent on middle of the road sketch shows and progressively weaker sit-coms- in the last of which he played a short-sighted old git who is continually bumping into things and mistaking the mustard for the marmalade. He could have been a memorable Falstaff (it was offered him by Peter Hall) but he backed away. This combination in him of poor taste and lack of ambition depresses me.

No way are the Ronnies the equals of Morecambe and Wise- the rival double-act of their generation. Morecambe was a great zany, an anarch, and though his scripts were safe enough, his antics- like Groucho Marx's- rip through the illusions of dignity and manners and caste. Anyone brave enough to go on stage with him wound up looking like a twit.

Or even a twat.

There's nothing like that with the Ronnies. They concluded this year's Christmas compendium of greatest hits with a lamentable skit on Alice in Wonderland- which featured the self-satisfied Ronnies, dressed as a succession of Wonderland characters, singing coyly bawdy lyrics to tired old show tunes. The mismatch in quality between Carroll's imagination and the imagination of Barker (who was probably the author of most of the stupid songs) was embarrassing. You don't spoof Carroll- he's the cleverest, darkest, twistiest, most wildly imaginative humorist in the English language. Go up against him with your stale jokes about drinking and shagging and you wind up looking vulgar and stupid and coarse.

Like a pigeon shitting on a Stradivarius.

I know Barker's recently dead and de mortuis etc- but I'm sick of the chorus of praise, praise and more praise. Yeah, he was handy with a pun, yeah, he was good in Porridge, but he never cut loose, he never took risks, he never did anything (on Telly anyway) that wasn't middle-brow. I look at his career and think, what a fearful waste.
poliphilo: (Default)
Turned out nice again.
Can I do you now, sir?
Stop messing about.
Just like that.
The answer lies in the soil.
And now for something completely different.
Stupid boy!
Don't panic!
You are awful, but I like you.
I shall say this only once.
Rock on, Tommy!
I'm free!
So it's goodnight from me...and it's goodnight from him.
I do not believe it!
Suits you, sir.
I was very, very drunk.

Comedy catch-phrases are tribal passwords. We all know them, we can all perform our version of them, whenever they turn up they guarantee a laugh. They help glue a society together. The odd thing is they're rarely funny in themselves. I guess they work by distilling the essence of a character or situation. Because, of course, a catch-phrase isn't just words, it's an accent, an intonation and a set of accompanying actions. And it briefly conjures up a whole world of hilarity. "I'm free" isn't just Mr Humphries prancing on stage- it's the Grace Brothers store and Mrs Slocombe's pussy and doddering old "young" Mr Grace with his dolly-bird nurses all rolled up into a ball. Of those I've listed, and I could have listed many, many more, only the two Ronnies' sign-off catch-phrase, "so it's goodnight from me..." is anything like a joke. Catch-phrases aren't immortal, but they often outlive the comedians that launched them. The first on my list belongs to the great George Formby, which means it must be at least 70 years old.

And now there's Little Britain- the biggest, most inescapable TV sketch show since Monty Python- and it's stuffed with catch-phrases

Yeah but no but...
I want that one.
Write the theme song, sing the theme song...
Computer says no.
I'm the only gay in the village.
I'm a lady.

The critics, offended by Little Britain's popularity, are ganging up on it. "It's not funny," they say. Actually it is. But even if it wasn't, there's no arguing against catch-phrases, especially when they turn up mob-handed.


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