Going beyond ‘Why did the chicken cross the road’
A certain philistine education minister may greet me with unpleasantries for suggesting a certain amount of sketches that every child should learn prior to leaving school. With fewer families sitting around a television set in front of the same programmes, the shared experience is diminished.
Which is no good if future generations are oblivious to the joys of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Unless of course siblings or parents have the series on DVD or via Netflix. Which is also a real shame because of Britain’s rich comedic legacy (and the aforementioned education minister may agree with me to some extent).
To be truthfully honest, I never really understood comedy sketches properly till my teens. I understood slapstick, beloved of children’s comedies like Rentaghost, Chucklevision and The Sooty Show (yes, Sooty is still a legend in my book – up with Del Boy Trotter, Father Dougal Maguire and Brian Potter). I understood satire from my early teens, and I didn’t understand – properly – what a joke was prior to reaching seven years of age. Yet in 1987, I brought the house down at Tameside Theatre with this joke in front of Jim Bowen:
What goes ’99 clunk, 99 clunk’?
A centipede with a wooden leg.
The stage didn’t faze me, being in front of a near capacity audience during Robinson Crusoe. At around that time, I started to understand the more obvious jokes – courtesy no less, from the jokes section of Uncle Ben’s column in the Stalybridge and Dukinfield Reporter. Oh, and a certain school in West Didsbury oft mentioned on this blog.
If future generations are unable to understand certain sketches, or even the basic tenets of joke telling, what hope is there for the future Eddie Brabens, John Cleeses, David Renwicks, Caroline Ahernes and James Cordens of this world?
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Act I: Basic Tenets of Joke Telling
Before anybody asks if there’s such thing as a new joke, well I can safely say there is no such thing as a new joke. A lot of modern jokes are old jokes, though adapted for present situations. Any music hall joke on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway could easily be adapted to read ‘Northern Rail’ or ‘Transpennine Express’. The average joke tends to feature any one or more of the following elements:
- Word play: sometimes with a degree of lateral thinking or use of punning;
- Satirical elements: maybe with the odd popular cultural reference. Could easily be changed to refer to present day celebrities, politicians and local figures;
- Double entendre: the odd bit of cheekiness within a word or phrase with a double meaning;
- Shaggy dog stories: whereby the audience’s expected punchline differs from the one actually heard or read;
- ‘Knock Knock’ jokes: often reliant on word play, though reception of the joke could vary according to regional accents;
- ‘Doctor Doctor’ jokes: reliant on person A stating a supposed ailment, often with a humorous reply from the second person;
- ‘Waiter…’ jokes: see also ‘Doctor Doctor’ jokes section: retread of above style of jokes only with issues concerning food, drink or poor service;
- ‘There’s an Englishman, Irishman and a Scotsman…’ jokes: fairly popular in the less politically correct 1970s and 1980s, depending on one person in the joke – often the Irishman – doing something daft.
If you’re familiar with children’s comedy shows, comics like The Beano, or some of the clips on You’ve Been Framed, you may well have come across the practical joke. For example, this could mean something simple like putting a bag of flour on a door, hoping an unwitting accomplice enters caked in the stuff. Or, it could be something more complex like the stunts seen on Candid Camera and Beadle’s About.
Candid Camera was based on a early format designed for radio, known as Candid Microphone. This was followed by People Are Funny, a televised precursor. Typical pranks would include getting people to drive a car with no engine, or hoodwinking viewers into thinking they were eating a goldfish from a bowl (when it was actually a carrot).
Beadles About, in a nutshell, was Candid Camera turned up to eleven. The pranks were more elaborate, with its most famous one involving an alien in Dorset (1996).
And of course, even the greatest comedians were privy to playing the odd practical joke. The legendary Tommy Cooper tipped a taxi driver by saying ‘have a drink on me’. Instead of a crispy pound note, he gave him an unused tea bag.
Need I say more: slapstick is a bastard offspring of the practical joke. Or rather, it is often the practical joke played to its simplest level. Sometimes, foreign objects (such as a banana skin on a a pavement) could provide the humour, as could defective equipment. Likewise with buckets of water, custard pies or gunge tanks.
Though slapstick is often a staple of young children’s comedy programmes, it was also used to good effect in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Plus, Frank Spencer (played by Michael Crawford) did all the stunts himself.
Sometimes, the malaprop would make for part of a joke. This was used to good effect by Hylda Baker as Nellie Pledge in Nearest and Dearest, and by Arthur Bostrom as Officer Crabtree in ‘Allo ‘Allo. A malaprop would usually be the mispronunciation of a certain world, or a wrong phrase uttered for comic effect. For example, when he or she is meant to say ‘Sean Connery’, he or she says ‘Sean Coronary’ instead.
Or, the malaprop could focus on one person’s inability to pronounce certain letters. A seminal example of this appears in the Only Fools and Horses episode entitled Stage Fright. Del Boy pairs his beloved Raquel with another singer called Tony Angelino at a night club. Whilst performing the duet, it turns out that Mr Angelino (played by Philip Pope – who also composed the music for Not The Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image) couldn’t pronounce his Rs. So ‘Crying’ was ‘Cwying’. This was summed up to great effect when Raquel and Rodney returned to Nelson Mandela House:
Raquel: …Please Welease Me, Congwatulations, and The Gween Gween Gwass of Home.
Rodney: And that was followed by a medley of Wock and Woll!
Del Boy: Shut up Wodney!
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Act II: Comedy Sketches Every Child Should Know
From my past experience, I have suggested a number of sketches which every child should know. (Please note, this section contains spoilers).
‘Fork Handles‘ (The Two Ronnies, BBC 1976): four candles or fork handles? This sketch featuring Ronnie Barker was seen as a precursor to the highly successful sitcom Open All Hours (BBC 1976 – 1985). It shows in just under seven minutes how confusing our pronunciation and command of the English language can. The shopkeeper tries to offer the customer four candles when all he wants is fork handles.
‘The Dead Parrot Sketch‘ (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, BBC 1971): what does this sketch tell you about? How not to complain about a defective item? Several words to describe ‘dead’? That Bolton is not a palindrome? Well, all three points are correct.
‘Nice Video, Shame About The Song‘ (Not The Nine O’Clock News, BBC 1982): with the rise of music videos, Messrs Atkinson, Smith, Rhys Jones and Pamela Stephenson parodied such songs were style came before substance. This was well observed in…
‘Little Mouse‘ (Look Around You, BBC 2006): the second series of Look Around You had a spoof 1980s video in its first episode, with equally pretentious lyrics as the NtNOCN clip. Even the obligatory country house as seen in 1980s music videos. For younger children, this is a better clip to show instead of ‘Nice Video, Shame About The Song’.
‘All The Right Notes…‘ (Morecambe and Wise, BBC 1971): their 1971 Christmas special had among its guests the famous conductor Andre Previn, erroneously referred to as Andre Preview. Eric Morecambe attempts to play Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with all the wrong notes. After Mr Previn asks him what he was playing, Eric’s reply and stance was faultless.
‘Kitten Kong‘ (The Goodies, BBC 1972): the screwball comedy series featuring Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden brought us some wonderful moments, often with a nod to some contemporary issues. This sketch sees the trio form a veterinary clinic with a patient being a 23-year old kitten called Twinkle. A growth serum sees the kitten wreaking havoc.
Bee Gees Sketch (The Kenny Everett Video Show, ITV/Thames Television 1979): required viewing among late-1970s and early-1980s families was the one-time Capital Radio DJ’s comedy show. His most memorable sketch was a skit on the Gibb Brothers, with close attention played to the massive chew sets (sorry, couldn’t resist it!) and falsetto vocals, by means of a special kit. A second sketch involving the group was just as memorable.
‘Two Soups‘ (Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV, BBC 1984): a real team effort courtesy of an inept waitress played by Julie Walters, and a couple (Celia Imrie and Duncan Preston) trying to order soup.
‘Spam Spam Spam‘ (Monty Python’s Flying Circus. BBC 1970): hysterical could be quite an understatement with this clip concerning a processed pork product! Courtesy of this clip, Spam became a byword for the repetitive use of any given words or phrases. Especially so in a digital context, which was later used to denote unethical website promotion practices and the peddling of dodgy goods.
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Act III: Comedy Moments Every Child Should Know
As well as the sketches, there are some comedic moments which have been entwined into our culture. For instance, anyone trying to sell bottled tap water (as Coca Cola once fell foul of with Dasani) is often associated with an episode of Only Fools and Horses where Del Trotter tries to sell Peckham Spring water.
Being as there are so many magic comedy moments, I have in terms of brevity only included a short number. Otherwise, this article would grate.
Only Fools And Horses (BBC One, 1989): Del Falls Over Bar: in the first episode of the sixth series, entitled Yuppy Love, Del Boy shuns The Old Nags Head for a wine bar. Shortly after Trigger arrives, Del Boy tries to chat up one of the female customers. Cue hilarity moments after.
Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975): Basil Fawlty Lashes Out On Car: after a botched attempt at staging a gourmet night, our short tempered proprietor gives his ‘trusty’ red car ‘a damned good thrashing’ with a branch. To comic effect.
Hi-De-Hi! (BBC One, 1988): Peggy Ollerenshaw Becomes A Yellowcoat: after a successful eight year run set in the Maplins camp in Crimpton-on-Sea, Perry and Croft decided to end the series by turning its ‘potty chalet maid’ (played by Su Pollard) into a Yellowcoat. This fulfilled an ambition she had since the start of the series in 1980. The ‘Goodnight Campers’ singing near the end saw the cast in real tears.
Tommy Cooper’s Glass Bottle Trick (ITV/Thames Television): one of the greatest magicians, and a few bottles, seemingly coming out of nowhere.
Dad’s Army (BBC, 31 October 1973): ‘Don’t Tell Him, Pike…!’: in the episode entitled The Deadly Attachment, our heroes are sent to guard a German U-Boat crew till a military escort arrives. A chance encounter with the Germans and the platoon sees Captain Mainwaring added to the U-Boat captain’s list for referring to Adolf Hitler as a ‘tinpot dictator’. Then Pike sings a song in response and is added to the list. Cue Captain Mainwaring’s reaction.
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Act IV: Comedy Quotes and Catchphrases Every Child Should Know:
If you happen to be a thirty-something (like myself) parent (unlike I) and have a knack of alienating your offspring with choice quotes from television programmes and film, don’t panic. This little list below is a selection of well known quotes from comedy and light entertainment productions.
‘Izzy whizzy, let’s get busy’ – The Sooty Show (when performing a magic trick, voiced by Harry Corbett, Matthew Corbett or Richard Cadell).
‘Lovely jubbly’ – Del Boy, Only Fools and Horses (his way of saying ‘all is well’. The word ‘jubbly’ comes from a pyramid style shaped ice lolly).
‘Good moaning’ – Officer Crabtree, ‘Allo ‘Allo (the French policeman in the said sitcom, played by Arthur Bostrom who always mixed his letters up).
‘I ‘Ate You, Butler’ – Inspector Cyril Blake, aka Blakey, On The Buses (the authoritarian inspector played by Stephen Lewis, in reference to one of the main characters [Stan Butler] played by Reg Varney).
‘Don’t panic…’ – Corporal Jones, Dad’s Army (often used by the character played by Clive Dunn to reassure his fellow comrades).
‘A-HA!’ – Alan Partridge, Knowing Me Knowing You (often used at the start of the spoof chat featuring Alan Partridge, played by Steve Coogan).
‘Just like that!’ – Tommy Cooper (hilarious magician extraordinaire – need I say more).
‘Eee I can crush a grape’ – Stu Francis (Bolton born comedian, one-time presenter of Crackerjack and Ultra Quiz during the 1980s).
‘There’s somebody at the door!’ – Rod Hull, The Pink Windmill (the aforementioned phrase said by Rod Hull would often be repeated by a half a dozen children from the Central Television Workshop. They eagerly await a mystery caller, though the arrival of Grotbags or Croc are just as likely).
‘I’m in charge!’ – Sir Bruce Forsyth, Sunday Night at the London Palladium (though many people think of Strictly Come Dancing or Play Your Cards Right with Brucie, he is an all round entertainer and comedian too).
‘It’s a cracker!’ – Frank Carson (the late great comedian who rose to fame courtesy of Granada Television’s The Comedians, and later seen on most family orientated shows).
‘I didn’t get where I am today…’ – C.J., The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (Reggie Perrin’s boss played by John Barron, often in response to his inferior and prefacing for instance ‘…by being upset by being ‘sent to Birmingham”).
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Feel free to add to the list or comment on the existing selection of quotes, comedy moments and seminal sketches which every child should know. If there’s any American comedy programmes worth adding to the list, feel free to add them. (Whereas my rote knowledge on UK comedy is Barclays Premier League, my knowledge of US comedies is in the Manchester League Reserve Division).
S.V., 04 June 2014.