This is the comedy event of the year
that is

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This is a brief history of things that have been…

Here’s the deal: back in the dark ages of modernity, about half a century ago in what must have been the late 1950s, a guy called David Paradine Frost went to Cambridge University and was a member of The Footlights. The Footlights was a student club dedicated to humour, which nobody could join – you had to be invited. Other people went to Cambridge University and were members of The Footlights. People like John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, who went on to be members of Monty Python. People like Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie, who went on to be Goodies. People like Clive James, Douglas Adams, Griff Rhys Jones, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Germaine Greer, Miriam Margoyles, Eleanor Bron, Alexander Armstrong, Ben Miller, Michael Frayn, Jonathan Miller…

One of the most revered people to have been a member of the Footlights was a guy called Peter Cook. He had graduated in the years before people like John Cleese and Clive James even got to Cambridge, but he was still highly revered and spoken off respectfully by people who had known him, seen him or heard of him, who were still present. While Cook was still an undergraduate he had written professionally for established comedians. He’d written two whole shows for Kenneth Williams of Carry On infamy.

One of Cook’s creations was a character called E. L. Wisty, who essentially delivered stream-of-consciousness monologues in a lugubrious monotone – kind of a forerunner of The Sandman. After Cook graduated, he and another Cambridge/Footlights veteran, Jonathan Miller, had been recruited along with two Oxford University graduates, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, to appear in an Edinburgh Fringe Festival show entitled Beyond the Fringe. It was important because it was a new kind of revue that more-or-less launched what became known as the British satire boom – a new wave of contemporary absurdist humour, dealing with contemporary absurd life, came to the fore and, like contemporary music, fashion and art, took a firm hold. People describe the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s in England – the pre- and post-Beatles age – as being a shift from black and white to colour.

As events unfolded, the person who made the most of the so-called satire boom was not Peter Cook – even though he helped fund and launch a live venue, the Establishment, featuring live, cutting edge comedy; and came to be associated with an important satirical publication, Private Eye – but someone who bloomed later than Cook, and sustained that later bloom: David Paradine Frost. Employing the best comedy writers to follow, he established a weekly satirical show entitled That Was The Week That Was – or TW3 for short – which would provide a satirical wrap-up of the week’s events. Frost also did serious journalism. He is the same Frost upon whose interview with President Nixon the film Frost/Nixon is based. But fronting TW3 (and later, The Frost Report), is how Frost first made a name for himself.

Frost gave so many comedians their professional start – employing many as researchers on his serious show, employing many as writers in his satirical shows. He was instrumental in ensuring the Pythons – and Tim Brooke-Taylor – got their pre-Python/Goodies breaks with the shows Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last The 1948 Show. And when he got wind of Monty Python’s Flying Circus taking off, he apparently asked if he could be a part of it, providing the links between sketches. “Piss off, David, you can’t be in this one,” is how Eric Idle summed it up in the doco Life of Python. By Monty Python: The Complete And Utter Truth – The Lawyers’ Cut, the only reference to Frost comes from John Cleese, and it is utterly reverential.

Fact is, some people seem to resent Frost his success. Or at least, they once did. And it’s possibly because he never seemed as talented as genius Peter Cook on campus (but then again, who did?) whereas, after university and initial success, Cook seemed to be permanently stalled while Frost was amazingly successful. Adding insult to injury by seeming to deliver every line in a kind of lugubrious, E. L. Whisty monotone. You can hear it in action in the theme song – Frost provides the ‘brilliant wordplay’. (Note use of inverted commas; also note that the youtube clip of the themesong sometimes fails to load – in which case, it lives here.)

The main vocalist was Milicent Martin, and it was produced by George Martin (any relation, I wonder?), head of the Parlophone label and producer of a lot of comedy records – Goon Show albums, as well as albums and singles by Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, albums by Flanders & Swann (who are sent up by Armstrong & Miller as ‘Brabbins and Fyffe’) not to mention the cast recording of Beyond The Fringe – prior to signing and producing The Beatles.

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Britain’s That Was The Week That Was had an American equivalent. It went by the same title. One of the regular contributors to that show was a Harvard Mathematics lecturer who had already written to volumes of satirical songs of his own. His name was Tom Lehrer. He would provide a topical song each week. At the end of the year, the best songs were compiled for an album that proved very popular indeed. It was called That Was The Year That Was. Every sophisticated Aussie household with a sense of humour had a copy. A generation or so later, Tom Lehrer proved one of the inspirations that helped launch Sammy J.

There is a new tradition of satirical shows going by the name That Was The Year That Was. It started a few years ago and is now an annual event at the Sydney Opera House, featuring a host of brilliant comics giving their take on the year that was (who better, eh?!) The third one is upon us. December 29, December 30. Go buy tickets. Then come back and read some of the interviews with comics…

Tripod; (and again; and again; and again;)
Fiona O’Loughlin
Jeff Green

 


Comedy Duos – Twice the Fun?

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I’m on ABC Local Radio Overnights tomorrow (Sunday) morning across Australia. As Rod Quinn’s guest, I’ll be bringing in a bunch of samples as we discuss comedy duos. I’m on from around 4 am EST (which I think is 2am in Western Australia and somewhere in between, when you’re somewhere in between the eastern states and WA). Since I’m doing it live, and there’ll be talkback, if you’re an insomniac do listen and phone in. Don’t make the questions too hard – I’m working off the top of my head.

My playlist will be drawn from the following:


1. ‘The Cuckoo Song’ - Laurel & Hardy (sort of)

A logical place to start: Laurel & Hardy are a – perhaps the – seminal comedy team and this ditty – which existed independent of them – became their signature tune.


2. ‘Smokers’ – Fry & Laurie

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were Cambridge students who graduated to Edinburgh Fringe shows as part of the Footlights (the student club that gave members of Monty Python and The Goodies there start along with so many others I shan’t get caught up listing here), like so many university revue-educated wits before them. They first came to prominence in episodes of Black Adder before landing their own excellent sketch show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, which is where this sketch originated. Nowadays Fry continues to write books and make documentary series while serving as Twitter’s biggest celebrity user, while Laurie enjoys massive success as the main character in the US medical drama series House.


3. ‘Pregnant Women Are Smug’ – Garfunkel & Oates

How’s this for a ‘comedy duo’? Their name itself is a joke on ‘duos’, referring to the ‘lesser sidemen’ in music duos. The point, in comedy, is that even if it looks like only one comedian in the duo is doing the work, the other one is still necessary for the comedy to work: it’s all about the dynamic. (“What was it that Dudley Moore used to do?” the question has been posed. “He made Peter Cook look funny” is the standard answer. He did much more than that – without him as a foil, Cook was more-or-less lost; his work never shone as brightly after cuddly Dudley made it in his own right in Holywood.)

Garfunkel & Oates are two young Californian actors, Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci – Kate’s a regular in later episodes of Scrubs. Their sideline are these cute satirical songs. I’m hoping they become popular enough to visit some Aussie comedy festivals, in time.


4. ‘Six of the Best’ – Peter Cook & Dudley Moore

I could bang on about the genius of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore for days. Suffice to say, as a duo, what they did on stage was magic, and in many ways I see Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh as their present-day equivalent. For its time, groundbreaking social commentary, since Moore plays the elderly schoolmaster, Cook, the arrogant and disrespectful student, reversing the power structure just as the young generation appeared to be taking control – or at least becoming the dominant element in popular culture – in the ’60s. It’s funny because it was revealing the unspoken truth. Of course a lad on the threshold of manhood could intimidate an elderly schoolmaster, but respect for age, experience, intellect, class and position prevented it from taking place. It’s less funny now that the scenario being enacted is one that more-or-less takes place in schools all the time now.


5. ‘Chocolate’ – The Smothers Brothers

The Smothers Brothers – Tom and Dicky – illustrate why the comic song works so well within the parameters of ‘comedy duo’. The ‘straight man’/‘funny man’ dichotomy creates humour through the straight guy trying to deliver the song as it should be performed, while the clown continues to subvert expectations. Within this song, many of the traditional elements of the folk song are turned on their head.


6. ‘Bob Geldof’ – Mel Smith & Grif Rhys Jones

After working on the sketch show Not The Nine O’Clock News with Pamela Stephenson and Rowan Atkinson, Smith & Jones continued to work with each other on the sketch show Alas Smith & Jones (the title’s a piss-take of the early ’70s cowboy series Alias Smith & Jones). One aspect of their work together were their ‘chats’, naturalistic dialogues derived, no doubt, from initital improvisations, not unlike the work  Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in ‘Pete ’n’ Dud’ mode – two old mates talking bollocks over beer.


7. ‘Sarah Jackman’ – Allan Sherman

Allan Sherman was mostly a solo act, coming out of a Jewish television/showbiz background (the titles of many of his albums began with the words, ‘My Son…’ like My Son The Nut and My Son The Folk Singer – as though his parents were still disapproving). He was a producer of the classic Tonight Show ever so briefly – but not good enough at it. After he was sacked, he returned as a performer, doing what he did best: song parodies. Indeed, the first time you watch the Walt Disney animated masterpiece Fantasia, you may think yourself a little crazy when you realise the melody of Ponchielli’s ‘The Dance of Hours’ (ostriches doing ballet) sounds almost exactly like ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fuddah’; that’s because Sherman took ‘The Dance of Hours’ melody and wedded new lyrics to it. And he did it well – every syllable is where it should be.

For the duration of this song  – a parody of the French children’s song, ‘Frère Jacques’ – Sherman’s part of a duo with Christine Nelson. The song takes the form of a ‘catch-up’ phone call, one imagines by someone who has grown up and left the old neighbourhood, catching up with all the comings-and-goings. There’s a good deal of social commentary from its time – the early ’60s – with cousin Shirley ‘married early’, brother Bentley ‘feeling better mentally’, cousin Ida a ‘freedom rider’ and – my favourite – Sonja’s daughter Rita, now a ‘regular Lolita’!


8. ‘Who’s On First’ – Abbott & Costello

One of the seminal pieces of comedy from a classic comedy duo. Essentially the Abbott & Costello signature piece, it was recorded a number of times – in various films and on radio and television shows. This is an excerpt.


9. ‘Hawk Hawkins’ – Smart Casual

Ben and Nick Mattick are Roger David and Fletcher Jones (I may have the charaters in the wrong order), AKA Smart Casual. They first appeared on the Sydney comedy scene a few years ago, getting to the national final of the Raw Comedy competition on the strength of songs that had the good sense to be more than one gag repeated ad infinitem accompanied by 12-bar blues, or all of their jokes, delivered to opened-ended chordal vamping – which is how so much ‘musical comedy’ is unfortunately presented. (See what I’m saying, comedy n00bs? The tokenistic inclusion of music will fool the masses as easily as any other comedy corners you may find a way to cut. But people who ‘know about’ music and ‘know about’ comedy won’t be be impressed.)

Part of what makes Smart Casual’s material work is something that Garfunkel & Oates also know full well: if the joke is a quickie, so too must be the song. This year Smart Casual featured in Comedy Zone – the show the Melbourne International Comedy Festival puts together from the best new talent around Australia. ‘Hawk Hawkins’ was their Raw Comedy finale and has served them well. I suspect they’ll soon be ‘resting’ it as they move on to new material.


10. ‘Happy Darling?’ – Eleanor Bron and John Fortune

Eleanor Bron and John Fortune came to the fore as part of England’s so-called ’60s satire boom. Bron went to Cambridge University and was a contemporary of Peter Cook’s. She also has a major role in the Beatles film Help! – among other things, she’s the woman being sung to in the clip for ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’. During the 70s Bron and Fortune developed a series of sketches about relationships under the title Is Your Marriage Strictly Necessary? which John Cleese cites as one of the inspirations for Fawlty Towers.


11. ‘The Phonebook Song’ – Scared Weird Little Guys

The Scared Weird Little Guys are another two-guys-and-a-guitar comedy duo specialising in genre pardies and clever-silly songs. They comprise Rusty Berther and John Fleming, who met in a capella groups, having cut their teeth in barbershop quartets and the like. (Their first shared project was a five-piece a capella combo, ‘The Phones’.) ‘The Phonebook Song’ is a classic live number that demonstrates vocal prowess. At the very end, it refers to another novelty song built around clever rapid-fire syllables.


12. ‘Sweet Fanny Adams Part 2’ – Mel & Sue

Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins were (and possibly still are) an English comedy duo who, earlier this century, were likened – and perhaps burdened by the comparison – to ‘French & Saunders’. The BBC Radio 4 show, The Mel & Sue Thing, and subsequent Edinburgh Fringe shows, demonstrated a clever, funny approach to sketch comedy. ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ was a regular feature of the show – the serialisation of Jane Austen’s last – and lost – novella, the perfect antidote to the costumed period dramas that still occupy BBC television broadcast schedules. Part of their ‘Mel & Sue’ persona sees them share a bed in their pyjamas in a very ‘Morecambe & Wise’ manner. Mel pops up in a Vicar of Dibley Christmas special.


13. ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ – Morecambe & Wise

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise met as kids in a touring vaudeville troupe and perfected their comedy in partnership very early on. Being in the right place at the right time, they were the ones who made the transition from the vaudeville stage to television most successfully, becoming the most watched comedians of their age as they broke viewing records, particularly for their Christmas specials, in which regular non-comedic television personalities – news readers and the like – would appear in guest roles. ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ was, by the end of their long career, established as their signature tune.