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My First-Ever Academic Comedy Writing

In 2007 (my senior year of high school) in my European History class for our final project we got to write about any topic in European history after World War II.

I picked the 1960s satire boom in the UK.

Just now, I found two of the write-ups that were featured on my poster (these are on Beyond the Fringe and TW3), which means I have rediscovered my first stab at academic writing about comedy.

Here they are under a text cut.

Beyond the Fringe:

A bit on Beyond the Fringe:

Comedy was eternally revolutionized when John Bassett brought Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. Cook did the bulk of the writing, but the others contributed (Bennett and Miller wrote some sketches, as well, and Moore was responsible for some extremely brilliant musical parodies). Beyond the Fringe first premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1960 (its name came from the fact that it was attempting to do something beyond the scale of the festival and was doing this outside of the festival’s boundaries). Its reception did not initially hint at its potential, but before long audiences fell in love with it. It moved to London the next year and became a smash hit, kicking off the satire boom. The four performers eventually took it to Broadway, returning for a farewell performance (which remains as the only filmed performance of the show that survives to this date).

The cast broke many boundaries with the show, including taking shots at authority openly (something they had learned from The Goon Show, a radio series of the 1950s performed by Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe). Peter Cook was even daring enough to imitate the Prime Minister at the time, Harold Macmillan; when Macmillan attended a performance, Cook acknowledged his presence with a throwaway line about spending his evenings going to the theatre to watch four young satirists with a stupid grin on his face. The audience was shocked and stunned into silence, but that did not deter Cook at all, and he kept going.

Jonathan Miller went on to become a film and opera director, whilst Alan Bennett became a renowned playwright. Cook and Moore would reunite in 1965 for a television program entitled Not Only…But Also.

TW3:

That Was The Week That Was:

When the cast of Beyond the Fringe went to America, another satirist took center stage. David Frost, who had taken over Peter Cook’s position as head comedian in the Cambridge Footlights upon Cook’s graduation, starred in a new BBC television program entitled That Was The Week That Was. TW3, as it became known, was, like some of the sketches in Beyond the Fringe, critical of the government and its various figures. Before Beyond the Fringe and TW3, this was naturally unheard of. TW3 was cancelled just in time for the 1964 General Elections – the government believed that the show would be far too influential and convinced the BBC to remove it from the air. The show’s style may be compared to programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in terms of some of its material.

It is important to point out, however, where David Frost got many of his ideas. He did not always give some of his writers (including an up-and-coming John Cleese and the absent Peter Cook) enough credit, which led Jonathan Miller to famously refer to him as “the bubonic plagiarist.” Frost also visited the cast of Beyond the Fringe in America and nearly drowned in their swimming pool. Cook selflessly saved him, and Frost repaid him by stealing his satiric thunder (Cook later repeatedly said that his only regret in life was saving Frost from drowning). Frost had, in fact, been imitating Cook’s style since Cook had left Cambridge.

Frost made other notable forays into television, such as The Frost Report (a show featuring, amongst others, John Cleese and the two Ronnies). He went on to become a serious political commentator and is best known today for his role in Richard Nixon’s admission of his [Nixon’s] involvement in the Watergate scandal.

Not everything in here, as my further research has shown, is entirely accurate with regards to David Frost – Peter Cook didn’t actually speak much about rescuing him from drowning and that line was actually a throwaway joke by Alan Bennett. In addition, it seems to be Peter himself who nicknamed Frost ‘the bubonic plagiarist,’ a nickname that actually stuck with Frost in comedy circles for a very long time (and which I still call him myself because seriously, ripping off other comedians is not cool).

Anyhow, I think I’ve come a long way since 2007 in terms of academic writing, at least. The scariest bit is that I clearly remember that I wrote these entirely from memory at the time – I was my source for the poster these appeared on.

This was the genesis of a potential PhD. topic.

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