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Tony Grist

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He Used To Be Funny [Jan. 6th, 2013|12:22 pm]
Tony Grist
I watched a tribute to a formerly much-loved comedian last night. He's been off our screens for about thirty years and I've always thought it sad and unjust, but then I got to look at his material through twenty first century eyes and realized why he had to go. He was dire. Feeble jokes needlessly elaborated, no pace, impersonations of celebs whom no-one under fifty is likely to recognize, much gurning. This guy- no I'm not naming him because he pleased me once- was famous for playing every speaking role in his shows. The effect is airless, claustrophobic, oppressive. How can you have chemistry with yourself and it not be creepy?

Maybe it's just a matter of taste. Plenty of people were standing up last night and saying how funny the man was, But- no- really you couldn't re-run his big- and very expensive- shows now and expect anyone to want to watch. Other shows of similar vintage survive. I think Morecambe and Wise are over-prized- some of their stuff is really ropey- but you can still repeat them at Christmas and people will tune in; There's something there that survives. A few days back they showed a similar tribute to Frankie Howerd- who is older and deader than our man and still glorious. Then there's Dad's Army. Same vintage, still funny in parts. Clive Dunn- who died at Christmas- is a national treasure and all that. Our man- much bigger in the day than Dunn- is not a national treasure. The kids won't have heard of him. Nothing of his stuff that they showed last night made me want to do anything but curl up like a salted snail.

Comedy is one of the great mysteries; what lives, what dies. How can something be funny for a season and then not? And why do some things go on being funny forever? 
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ingenious76
2013-01-06 12:44 pm (UTC)
I suspect you're referring to Ken Dodd.

He was ghastly - but that is me speaking as a snotty 30something who was raised on 80s alt comics, and the "dinner jacket/club circuit" of 70s comedians was lost on me. Sexist, racist, and homophobic. Urrgh.

However...there are quite a lot of 80s alternative comics who I used to find hilarious, and now I think are pretty bad - Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, et al. And then there's also French and Saunders, who descended into self-parody a long time ago.

Edited at 2013-01-06 12:45 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 01:03 pm (UTC)
No, not Ken Dodd. He's never been one of my comedy heroes but I respect him as a "living legend".

He's a clown and one-off. You've got to admire his energy.

I used to love that show Ben Elton fronted. Friday Night Live, was it? I doubt whether I'd like it now. Most of the bright young comics of that generation have faded.
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[User Picture]From: ingenious76
2013-01-06 01:05 pm (UTC)
They've faded because their humour was resolutely anti-Thatcher. Then they went and supported NuLabr, who proceeded to out-Thatcher Thatcher.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 01:36 pm (UTC)
Alexei Sayle now writes for the Telegraph. Isn't that sweet!
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[User Picture]From: steepholm
2013-01-06 01:45 pm (UTC)
It's a very strange thing, the way humour lasts or doesn't. My father loved the Goons, but I (born a bit late) couldn't get into them, though I loved Pythons, which is deeply indebted to them. Now, I find most of Python unwatchable, but still laugh out loud at Beyond the Fringe.

I agree that Dad's Army is still funny up to a point - that point being the one where become involved with a large comedy prop. Same with The Good Life: it helped that the actors knew how to act.

For a moment I thought you were referring to Mike Yarwood - but I see that's not the case. The person you mean was someone I used to watch when he had occasional specials - hell, in those days I watched whatever was on - but I never found him particularly funny. The only sketch I recall finding amusing was one where he was a playing a starlet auditioning for a musical, singing "You say potato and I say potato, you say tomato and I say tomato," all pronounced in the same Brooklyn accent, then adding in puzzlement: "I can't see what's wrong with this relationship!"
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 02:27 pm (UTC)
I'm old enough to have been weaned on Radio comedy. I was too young for the Goons but I loved Round the Horne. Guys from that era- Hancock, Milligan, Sellers, Kenneth Williams- remain my ultimate comedy heroes.

I adored the Pythons. I catch the odd sketch sometimes and some of them amuse me. I think Life of Brian still stands up.

Dad's Army rises above the mass of similar sit-coms by virtue of its cast. I understand they originally wanted Jon Pertwee for Captain Mainwaring. He'd have done an OK job but I doubt if the show would have become a classic without Arthur Lowe.

I remember really liking the guy we're talking about. LWT certainly thought he was worth investing vast sums of money in. People last night were describing him as a genius. It's weird.
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[User Picture]From: heleninwales
2013-01-06 02:02 pm (UTC)
I just had to go and check the Radio Times to work out who you were referring to. I then realised that I don't think I have ever watched any of his shows because it seems the height of his popularity was 1970 to mid-1980s, which exactly coincides with the years we didn't have a TV.

But you're right, it's funny how some humour will last and some doesn't and it's not just down to it being topical. I was never a big Python fan, but loved many of the same people on I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. I also still like Frankie Howerd, but then he always was more or less doing panto. :)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 02:35 pm (UTC)
Frankie Howerd is timeless. He just stands there and burbles. He hardly needs gags at all.
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From: artkouros
2013-01-06 02:04 pm (UTC)
I read a book last year called Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward . It made me go back and revisit some of the early movie comedians. But yeah - tastes change. Even Steve Martin's album that was so hilarious in the late 70's is not as funny anymore.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 02:38 pm (UTC)
But some things last. I think Laurel and Hardy- basic slapstick faultlessly executed- are still as funny as they ever were.

Steve Martin had a golden period. Then he seems to have lost whatever it was he had. Same could be said of Eddie Murphy. Ditto Robin Williams.
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From: artkouros
2013-01-06 03:06 pm (UTC)
I was surprised to learn how much work went into those old films, especially the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin. They would shoot huge amounts of film to capture just the right timing.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 03:28 pm (UTC)
Chaplin was a control freak. Orson Welles came up with the idea for Mr Verdoux and would have liked to direct it- but by that stage in his career the only director Chaplin was prepared to work for was Chaplin himself.

I love M Verdoux- it's one of my favourite movies- but I'd love to know what Welles would have made of it.
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[User Picture]From: fflo
2013-01-07 03:39 pm (UTC)
I hear ya on Steve. But he has something else now. And after checking out his autobio I think maybe it's a natural progression that the core of not-funny behind his funny would be what he'd come to be letting out, putting out there, after a while.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-08 09:32 am (UTC)
Very few people manage to go through life being funny. A lot of comics eventually move out of comedy into other things.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 03:41 pm (UTC)
I disagree. I've tried to be funny on stage and it's horribly difficult. I have no problem using the word "genius" of people like Howerd.

Hill fell foul of political correctness but he was a very funny man. Apparently Charlie Chaplin had all his shows on video casette.

Elton was a flash in the pan. The right man in the right place at the right time. I've no wish to revisit his work.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 07:30 pm (UTC)
I've acted in amateur productions. I was god-awful.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 03:42 pm (UTC)

Re: Low intensity operations, and the trouble with Crossmaglen.

No, not him. I'm not a particular fan, but I don't hate him.
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[User Picture]From: mrwaggish
2013-01-06 04:44 pm (UTC)
Guessing this is someone I've never heard of. I grew up watching whatever made it onto the basic cable channels in America and whatever records my parents and their friends had. Even at a young age, could tell that Are You Being Served was some sort of nadir in human achievement. Even back then, I thought Monty Python was sometimes genius but very inconsistent--pretty much the same now. Fawlty Towers was genius, still is. Very fond of Ripping Yarns as well, possibly more now than then.

Blackadder hasn't held up as well--my standards of cleverness must have gone up in the last 20 years, and for a show that relies on an attitude of being terribly clever, that can be a problem. It might have been that it was still more clever than anything America managed in the 80s...the American sitcom hadn't really progressed after the Honeymooners (which I still love), until the Simpsons finally jolted some life into it.

Beyond the Fringe (the LP) really has stood the test of time, which I wouldn't have expected. And that one-season Stephen Fry pseudo-doc This is David Lander still cracks me up.

No idea if I'll still feel this way in 20 years, but the 90s still seem like kind of a pinnacle for British comedy, almost solely because of The Day Today crowd and affiliates: Morris, Coogan, Iannucci, Baynham, Brydon, Davis. I caught most of them in retrospect--none of it was available in America pre-internet.

On the other hand, the likes of Peter Kay and Catherine Tate make me want to vomit.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-06 07:39 pm (UTC)
Fawlty Towers is arguably the most accomplished British sit-com ever.

I like Blackadder.

I think you're right about the 90s. That's a brilliant generation. Kay may be an acquired taste- he's in a long tradition of Lancashire comedy. Tate seems to have stopped doing comedy and switched to straight acting- a wise move, I think.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-07 08:54 am (UTC)
Agree about 1, 2 & 3. 4 falters a bit (really tricky subject matter) but the ending is extraordinary.
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[User Picture]From: mrwaggish
2013-01-06 10:41 pm (UTC)
Blackadder is definitely the best thing Ben Elton ever did. But sort of like Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, they just aren't as great as they want to be, maybe because they're trying too hard to ape an earlier generation. Was that the 80s?

I should add in People Like Us to the 90s--remarkable stuff predating Gervais's watered down version of it. Sort of fitting that Tate has joined the American Office in its death throes, where she is being loathed by all.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-07 08:59 am (UTC)
I never saw People Like Us.

I like Tate as an actor. She was rather good in Dr Who, I thought.
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[User Picture]From: fflo
2013-01-07 03:41 pm (UTC)
Somehow you put me in mind of browsing the humor section in the old Second Story Books (Baltimore location), years ago, struck by the fleeting temporal context thing with respect to the funny. Sure suddenly seemed to become a cultural study/curiosity awful fast, much of what I found there in the dust.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-07 06:23 pm (UTC)
I remember as a kid browsing through bound copies of the Victorian humour magazine Punch. The art-work was great- Tenniel, Leech, Cruikshank, Du Maurier- but none of it was the least bit funny.
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[User Picture]From: mokie
2013-01-08 05:55 am (UTC)
I wonder if some of it is saturation and the shoulders of giants. One comic breaks ground, a slew of similar acts follow in his footsteps, building on and refining the model he created, and when you go back to the original, it feels clumsy and unoriginal.

I've gone back and watched the shows that made Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy famous, and I can't feel what makes them different from a handful of comparable stand-ups, besides the earlier dates.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2013-01-08 09:42 am (UTC)
Stand-up is particularly vulnerable to the passage of time- chiefly, I think, because the frisson it creates depends so much on the rapport/antagonism between performer and audience. Who'd want to spend time with Bob Hope now?
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