I haven’t blogged for a while, I have been suffering quite badly from depression among other things, and it’s been hard to get myself to do things. To keep myself going I watch a lot of comedy, and I got thinking about writing a poem about it, about the people that make me laugh, who go back as far as the early days of cinema. I started out by borrowing the title of an Elvis Costello/ Roy Orbison song and eventually wrote the rest in one evening. I’ve also put together a gallery of some of the people I was thinking of, not used this feature before so as usual I’ve gone overboard. Most of the captions from my own recollection from books and DVD extras etc. I hope you like it. To absent friends!
They knew you from an early age,
Working the crowd long before a wage,
Daft kid spoiling the photographs,
It’s all worthwhile if someone laughs,
The hard life of a humourist,
Becomes much harder when no-one’s pissed,
Add sentiment to slapstick games,
They’ll root for you, they feel your pain,
They see you failing your romance,
Disaster strikes down every chance,
But don’t take it all to heart,
That’s the nature of your art,
A smile holds back a thousand tears,
Show your strengths and hide your fears,
That things going right going wrong goes wrong,
That the music ends before the song,
Let all that land on your persona,
But don’t let it usurp it’s owner,
Become the plucky underdog,
This contraption’s most important cog,
Be the creative destructive spark,
The firefly knife that cuts through the dark,
If it works, and you make it big,
Then give it all at every gig,
If it doesn’t, if no-one laughs,
Then dust the death off of your arse,
It happened to them all you know,
Can’t guarantee a perfect show,
Stan and Ollie, Charlie, Eric and Ern,
All of them, they had to learn,
To get there it was going to take patience,
To deal with all of these frustrations,
And many found, even at the top,
The heartache doesn’t really stop,
The struggle to retain success,
To remain yourself amid the stress,
Can tear apart a man inside,
Witness how poor Tony died,
He had an audience millions strong,
But he felt too much had gone wrong,
So if you still want to be a clown,
Kiss the heights, absorb the sound,
Make sure your feet still touch the ground,
If they don’t, it’s such a long way down.
Laurel and Hardy brought comedy from the silent era with memorable style. An Englishman and an American, many generations have grown up watching them. Their regular costar James Finlayson also has a cult following, with his excellent timing and facial expressions, he made an excellent foil for the duo, and his annoyed grunt was shortened for the catchphrase of Homer Simpson.
Chaplin with his youngest co-star, Jackie Coogan. Charlie still has one of cinema’s best known characters. Appearing in a great many films as the little tramp. His range should not be underestimated though, he made some truly wonderful films after the silent era, with a far more eloquent voice than many expected. The Great Dictator was a brilliant satirical work, finished with a poignant and heartfelt speech. It is even more powerful when considering that he portrayed a thinly veiled caracature of Adolf Hitler while World War II was actually happening. Jackie would have many difficult years before being cast as Uncle Fester in the original Addams Family sitcom, completely unrecognisable from the child star, he found a new audience and the show lives on in the hearts of many, after several remakes and a Broadway musical.
Harold Lloyd took his great character to dizzying heights, performing his own stunts before Hollywood had established it’s safety standards. His groundbreaking work is still appreciated today, and some of his most famous stunts have inspired much more recent performers, including action comedy star Jackie Chan.
Buster Keaton was another very physicall comedy actor, who was extremely prolific in the silent era. Most notably ‘The General’, his imagination and physical fitness allowed for amazing scenes in a time before there were many special effects. He didn’t appear in many ‘talkies’ but notably appeared in one of his friend Charlie Chaplin’s most poignant films: Limelight.
The Three Stooges were the embodiment of Slapstick. As the name suggests they were best known as a trio, Moe Howard, his brother Curly (or sometimes another brother, Shemp) and Larry Fine. Originally the Stooges of Ted Healy, they soon eclipsed him when their characters found an audience, and their antics were part of many an American childhood, so much so that they had to make a public service announcement warning children not to copy their rough style, which led to eventual health problems after many years of working together.
Once you’ve seen a Marx brothers film, you’ll never forget them. The five brothers, later the trio of Julius (Groucho), Adolph (Harpo), and Leonard (Chico) Marx grew up performing songs and comedy onstage, and developed distinct and memorable characters who created havoc wherever they went. They complimented each other perfectly, but fourth brother Zeppo was an underrated straight man in their earlier works. They are probably best remembered for their excellent war satire Duck Soup, but they packed a great deal into every film.
Tony Hancock, star of one of the first British sitcoms, previous comedy shows had musical interludes. Hancock’s Half Hour filled it’s advertisement free running time both on radio and TV with some extremely creative plots; often accomplice and future Carry On star Sid James’ get rich quick schemes, but also minimalistic observations of boredom and loneliness that still managed to be compelling and hilarious. These programmes were written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who later created Steptoe and Son. Tony’s depressive illness made him very insecure, and coupled with alcoholism, led him to drive away many of his friends and colleagues. In 1968 while working on a new programme in Australia, Tony took his own life. Sadly Tony is probably the least well known performer here, but I am a big fan of his work and I identify a lot with his character, who shared some of Tony’s real life problems.
Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise had Britain’s most successful comedy show throughout the sixties and seventies. The perfectly matched pair followed the tradtion of funny man and straight man, but Wise was also very capable of getting laughs. Many celebrities joined them in sketches and shared the glory in brilliantly written and performed parodies and routines. There were many classic sketches but one I’ll never forget is the simple act of making Breakfast to the tune of the song “The Stripper”
The Monty Python team brought new life to the sketch show format, mostly by breaking it, and creating timeless catchphrases still prevalent from the playground to the lecture hall. The surreal and irreverent tone was unlike anything most people had seen at the time. The team’s success sparked many seperate projects, both in comedy (Fawlty Towers, Ripping Yarns, A Fish called Wanda) and a wide range of other ventures, from history and travel documentaries to feature films (Terry Gilliam had the most success with Brazil, Time Bandits, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Graham Chapman died tragically young in 1989, but his contribution is still fondly remembered decades later.
Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson had a long turbulent partnership that produced many anarchic comedy shows, most notably The Young Ones and Bottom. Both also provided memorable turns in Blackadder, with Rik’s performance becoming a once per series tradition, tearing through the storylines in a manner similar to the devastation the pair caused to sets and props in the name of comedy. Rik died in 2013, his energy lives on in the chaos he wrought and the lives he touched.