I posted Part 1 and Part 2 the last couple of days, so …here is Part 3 – the penultimate part – of a conversation in London’s Soho Theatre Bar back in the mists of 2017 in which comedy festival judge and linguistic advisor Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy. I continue to talk less than fluently through my own anal passage…
LOUISETTE: So you admire skilled and talented people…
JOHN: Yes, but skill and talent are not the same thing. Malcolm Hardee – the highly-regarded British comedian, philosopher and nudist – always used to say he didn’t like mime or juggling, because they are skills not talents and “a tragic waste of time”.
If an average person practises for 12 hours a day for 5 years, they could probably become an excellent mime or an excellent juggler. But, if they practise endlessly trying to be a good comedian, they would not necessarily end up an even average comedian because there is some innate talent required to be a good comedian.
If you have two good jugglers or mimes, they can probably be as effective doing each other’s routines.
If you have two good comedians, even if they deliver the lines with exactly the same intonation and pauses, they very possibly cannot be as effective doing each other’s material.
LOUISETTE: Because there is something in the person…
JOHN: Yes. Though it depends on the jokes a little. People CAN do Tommy Cooper jokes and impressions quite successfully because the jokes are very short and simple and the timing is built-in to his very specific style of delivery. But I have seen people steal short, snappy, very funny Milton Jones jokes and they can’t deliver them as effectively as he does.
LOUISETTE: Some funny people are born writers and some are born performers.
JOHN: In days of yore, you didn’t write your own jokes; you bought them. Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin used to write for Bob Hope. Well, that still happens, of course. (Famous comedian A) has a scriptwriter. And (Famous comedian B) buys loads of gags. I know the guy who writes for (Famous comedian A) and he was watching some TV panel show recently and one of his jokes from a few years before turned up. Which was fine; he had been paid for it.
JOHN: Interestingly, I WOULD have gone to see Bob Monkhouse and I have no idea why… I… I dunno. He was the Michael McIntyre of his time and he would have been the same every night.
LOUISETTE: He was a different comedian to McIntyre with a different relationship to the audience.
JOHN: I suppose the attraction of Monkhouse was that you could throw any subject at him and, off the top of his head, he would have six or ten cracking good jokes about it. No tricks. He was just like a joke encyclopaedia.
As a kid, I never rated Ted Ray – who was a generation before Monkhouse but had that same encyclopaedic joke ability. But maybe that’s because I was just a kid. Maybe if I saw him now I would appreciate his ability more. Though, to me, he never had Monkhouse’s charisma.
Monkhouse had a terrible public reputation for being smarmy and insincere – largely from his stint presenting The Golden Shot – but I don’t think he was. He just really was hyper-sensitive. I only encountered him once. We had him on Tiswas and he famously liked slapstick: he had acres of slapstick films and idolised the great slapstick performers but, when he agreed to do Tiswas, the one thing he specified up-front was: “You can’t shove a custard pie in my face.” No-one had any idea why.
The pies were made of highly-whipped shaving foam, not custard, so they wiped off without damage or stickiness, but he wouldn’t have it. No problem. He said it up-front. No problem, but very strange.
LOUISETTE: You like the encyclopaedic part of Monkhouse and his ability to tell pre-prepared jokes well. But what about, at the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Vegas? He appeals to your love of more anarchic things?
JOHN: Malcolm Hardee phoned me up one Sunday afternoon and said: “You gotta come down to Up The Creek tonight to see this new comedian Johnny Vegas. You and me will love him but the audience might not.” No-one had ever heard of Johnny Vegas, then.
I went and saw him that night and Malcolm and I loved him and the audience loved him. You could feel the adrenaline in the air. You had no idea what he was going to say or do next and I don’t think he did either. I remember him clambering through and over the audience in the middle of his act for no logical reason.
He had no vastly detailed act. He just reacted to the audience’s reactions to what he did. Utterly brilliant. I said to Malcolm: “He’s never going to be a success, because he can’t do 2-minute jokes on TV and repeat them word-for-word and action-for-action in rehearsals, camera rehearsals, dress rehearsals and recordings.”
And I was wrong, of course. He HAS become very successful on TV. But not really as a comic. He made it as a personality – on panel shows where he could push the personality angle.
There was amazing adrenaline in the air that night at Up The Creek. You can feel adrenaline in a live show. But you can’t feel it through a TV screen.
A few years later, I saw Johnny Vegas perform an hour-long show at the Edinburgh Fringe and Malcolm had seen the show for maybe seven nights before that – every night. And Malcolm used the word “genius” about Johnny and I said: “You almost never ever use that word about anyone,” and he said, “Every time I’ve seen this show in the last seven days, it’s been a totally different show.”
Not just slightly different. A 100% totally different show.
LOUISETTE: No. Tell me.
… CONTINUED HERE …