Those of you who still don’t roll over and pretend to be asleep when I mention my Patreon campaign will know that patrons of a certain level (Okay, it’s 3 bucks a month. We’re not talking high finance, here) get to determine which 5 for Friday posts will be among those I blog each month. Thanks to patron Narrelle M Harris, this week I’ll be discussing five TV comedies that have influenced my writing, my performing, and my approach to art.
I grew up in a time when an episode of a TV show was shown once, at a specific time, and if you missed it, well, you might just never see it. As I grew into a teen, and then a comedy obsessed young adult, the list of shows I obsessed over grew and grew into, well, an obsession. One I should have followed all the way to a PhD thesis, but that’s a story for another time. I compulsively purchased books of sketch scripts, and spent hours picking apart and analysing Beyond the Fringe, The Goon Show, Round the Horne, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, A Show Called Fred, Steptoe and Son, Hancock’s Half Hour…… the list is enormous, and largely British. I recorded scripts on tape– sometimes with friends, sometimes solo– playing with voice, and timing, and pitch. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I collected LPs– and did up until my second marriage. And I watched: over and over, episodes of every show I could find: first on TV, and then, when video cassettes became available, on tape, then disc. I am a fan. I could easily have become an historian. Here are five shows that changed the way my brains works.
5 FOR FRIDAY: AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
1. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
To people of my generation, this is probably an obvious choice. In the early days of videos, Monty Python movies were ubiquitous: we all had at least one, and we all watched them. It was a rite of passage to sing The Philosopher’s Song (try it: Post the words “Immanuel Kant was a real pissant” on Facebook and watch the responses roll in). And I have them all, in a beautifully presented box set, with all the trimmings, including the German TV specials they learned phonetically. But it was the series itself, with its classic sketches, yes, but as many that are just plan surreal as funny, and the ones that don’t work at all, and the ones that should work but strike somewhere 30 degrees to the left and slightly up of the target, that I obsessed over. 42 episodes of the best comedy writing education a boy could ask for, because very few shows have ever run the gamut from the domestic to the dadaesque as quickly, constantly, and unapologetically as this deservedly iconic series.
It’s been more than 30 years, and it still makes me laugh. Every damn time.
Spike Milligan was a genius, and a polymath whose artistic output has been the measure by which I have failed my entire life. To say that I was obsessed with him for years would be understatement: I idolised him. As a human being he was an utter shit, but as a comedic, performance, and literary artist he was unparalleled.
There was nothing on TV like Q. There’s been nothing like it since. Milligan was beyond unique: he was touched by the divine. There have been plenty of shows that showed his influence: the Pythons, for one, openly acknowledged it. But Milligan was impossible to recreate. Love, yes. Aspire to be like, certainly. But you can’t capture a hurricane. At best, you can measure it, record its impact, and admire its awesome power.
It’s all rather confusing, really…
3. Australia, You’re Standing In It
There are few real thruths in the Universe, and it is a truth given to all British emigres to this red and dusty isle to know one thing with pure and utter certainty: Australians simply aren’t half as funny as they think they are. This was the show that cemented that truth in my parent’s thinking. It was rough. It was hit and miss. It was deliberately stupid. And it was the father of While You’re Down There, and The Big Gig, and eventually, a series of comedy shows of varying quality such as Fast Forward and The Comedy Company that dominated network television for well over a decade. For a young boy trying to come to terms with the idea that there were more ways of art and humour and thinking than the closeted safety of the Little Englander working class wot folks like us should always stay within and don;t get ideas above my station, lad, it was like lightning up the taint.
It was also, in the way it was presented, and in the way it was structured, utterly anarchic. The dark god at its heart was a man I still admire: the inimitable Rod Quantock was intelligent, articulate, and a million years beyond his contemporaries. He brought an edge and an intelligence to the show that Australian television comedies have rarely, if ever matched.
Most definitely not my mother’s comedian.
4. Not The Nine O’Clock News
The last gasp of the Oxbridge Mafia, that legacy of comedic brilliance that had started with Beyond the Fringe nearly 20 years previous. My parents hated them. They were everything they despised: young, middle-class, educated, artistic, and not feeling they had to apologise to any ‘real working people’ for any of it.
And they were funny. Really funny. They spoke to me in a direct way that the comfortable, Hello mother comedians my parents loved (and which I, also, loved and still do) never did. They skewered the things I wanted to see discussed: the music I listened to, the shows I watched, the social issues that worried me. This was the first show that talked directly to me as someone of my own burgeoning personality, not just the beholden vassal of my parent’s class and interests. They not only shared my developing artistic taste, my nascent atheism, my growing disillusionment with the traditions and assumptions of my elders, they addressed them, and then poked holes in them as gleefully as they did those thoughts that came before. These were my people. They still are.
Three perfect comedic personas and Pamela Stephenson.
5. The Dave Allen Show
When I was a kid, it was a rare show that broke through the bedtime barrier, and that I was allowed to stay up late to watch. The FA Cup and Wimbledon finals. The occasional news show. And Dave Allen. My parents loved him, which was rather weird, considering that he was so often the opposite of those other comedy shows they loved– Morecambe and Wise, The Dick Emery Show, The Two Ronnies— and because he was (as I’ve unpicked over the years) pretty much the exact philosophical opposite of my parents as people: acerbic where they were bitter; fondly tolerant of racial and cultural foibles where they were bigoted; angry at hypocrisy and injustice whereas they were, generally, just angry.
But I loved. Not just his comedy: as a kid, I loved him. He made me laugh, often without knowing why. he made me feel warm– he was a good-looking, charming man who looked down the lens and made you feel safe to laugh. He was a father figure reaching through the screen to put an arm around your shoulder and say “Come here, son. Let’s be a little cheeky. No harm done.”
It was all a carefully crafted persona, of course, and as I grew older, I never lost my love for the man’s work, but I grew to love and appreciate the man’s work– that crafting, that careful and superbly precise art that went into every sketch, every joke, every pause. Americans believe Jack Benny is the king of comedic timing. They’re wrong. Allen is the great craftsman, the master of all things. His shows have aged, but they’ve aged well: what was once edgy and controversial is now amusing and comfortable, but they are still so eminently watchable because Allen’s technique was beyond compare. He was the greatest comedic education a boy could have.
Allen at his best: the perfect combination of verbal, visual, and cultural humour.
There you have it. My thanks, once again, to Narelle M Harris for her patronage and his vote. If you’d like to influence the course of future 5 for Friday posts, head on over to my Patreon page and have a look at the levels of patronage available. You can control the vertical, you can control the horizontal. Okay, not the horizontal.
Goodnight, and may your God go with you.