It’s Not Funny, It’s British!
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, Dallas radio station WRR-AM’s “Library of Laughs” aired at 10 minutes before every hour and featured recorded comedy. The DJ would play one track from a comedy album by someone like Hudson & Landry, Rowan & Martin, Justin Wilson or Bill Cosby, and while many of the acts had already been around for a while, many (including those just named) were, at the time, current talent.
It was in this brief but punctual venue that my parents were introduced to British comedy in the form of Beyond the Fringe, the hugely successful West-End-to-Broadway revue featuring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. Theirs was the material that had my mom and dad—quite a comedy team in their own right— throwing out catch phrases like “hacking and hewing,” and “you must be out of your…OWW!”
Quite some time later, I found out that the man they quoted the most was the one with the funniest voice, Peter Cook. Actually, all except Miller had funny voices, Alan Bennett stretching out every word almost to its breaking point in his high-pitched “my Brother Esau is an hairy man,” Dudley Moore often using his tenor in the service of some musical satire, and Peter Cook not confining his voice—which came out of the straightest of faces—to any one type of funniness (you may remember him as the cleric with a speech impediment in the movie The Princess Bride). Their stage show consisted entirely of satirical comedy sketches, including “Sitting on the Bench” (a Peter Cook solo that was the source of most of my parents’ quotes), “So That’s the Way You Like It” (the best Shakespeare parody ever), and the incomparable “The Great Train Robbery,” (Bennett: “so, His Grace the Archbishop is your number one suspect?” Cook: “Well, let me put it this way: His Grace is the person we’re currently beating the living daylights out of down at Scotland Yard”).
Happily, many of these skits are available to you in several forms: on DVD—although in this form, the sound on some skits is not so good (such is the case in the Shakespeare takeoff, but it’s not so awful that you can’t plainly hear Miller’s sword-impaled actor: “Now is steel ‘twixt gut and bladder interposed”); on LP, the version my parents heard on WRR—in two volumes, somewhat misleadingly entitled Beyond the Fringe: the Original Broadway Cast, and Beyond the Fringe ’64, as if two different shows were involved; and in a volume of scripts, also misleadingly entitled The Complete Beyond the Fringe—not only does it omit some skits, but there were also several different versions of many of them, so this collection represents just one set of variations.
Beyond Beyond the Fringe
Cook and Moore worked together for some time after their Broadway success. There was the television show Not Only– But Also– (and the reason for the title of the videorecording of skits from this show is too sad to go into), as well as several films, the best of which are the mid-‘60s The Wrong Box and Bedazzled. And running through everything Cook did is his trademark lack of facial expression. Whatever he does and in whatever setting, you never catch him mugging, or even graduating to a smile from a vacant grin. A deadpan genius.
Many of Cook’s writings are available in the collection Tragically, I Was An Only Twin, including contributions to the satire magazine Private Eye and his Daily Mail column “Monday Morning Feeling” (on Richard Nixon in 1977: “He told David Frost and the viewing millions that there was absolutely no possibility of his ever serving his country again—implying that at some time he had actually served his country”). And again happily, you can now read Cook’s scripts for skits from Not Only But Also, many of which are otherwise lost. But it’s especially good to have these scripts if you aren’t terribly good at picking up the heavy accents the duo employs in “At the Art Gallery”:
Pete: the thing what makes you know that Vernon Ward is a good painter is if you look at his ducks, you see the eyes follow you round the room.
Dud: You noticed that?
Pete: Yeah, when you see sixteen of his ducks, you see thirty-two little eyes following you round the room.
Dud: No, you only see sixteen because they’re flying sideways and you can’t see the other eye on the other side. He never does a frontal duck.
Pete: No, but you get the impression, Dud, that the other eye is craning round the beak to look at you, don’t you? That’s a sign of a good painting, Dud. If the eyes follow you round the room, it’s a good painting. If they don’t, it isn’t.
Read that without cracking a smile and I’ll give you five dollars. Any takers? I didn’t think so.