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I was going through some of my comedy research and reread an article by Peter Cook’s biographer, the biologically unrelated William Cook, on Bedazzled, Peter’s most successful film appearance by far. It got me thinking – the article highlights, amongst other things, why Peter Cook and Dudley Moore succeeded as a double act until the balance between the two of them began to go off-kilter, and I decided that now is as good a time as any to write about the two of them.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore mean a lot to me, as anyone who’s charted the development of my this-will-never-be-finished novel Londinium knows. I used their comedic rapport as the basis for the main characters that I write for, and I can pretty much confirm that they were the double act that made me realize I loved double acts and had loved them for a long time beforehand without knowing it. They also taught me a thing or two about how a double act has to have the perfect balance between the two performers to work well.
Let’s start with a little background: Peter and Dudley were brought together by Beyond the Fringe. They’d never worked together prior to that. Peter was a tall, upper middle class fellow from Torquay, a seaside paradise in Devon, whilst all 5’2″ of Dudley hailed from Dagenham, a working class suburb of London. Peter found himself at Cambridge, and Dudley was a Magdalen College Organ Scholar at Oxford. Through the work of John Bassett (a jazz musician whose group Dud played piano for), they were brought together with two other performers, Alan Bennett (of Oxford) and Dr. Jonathan Miller (of Cambridge), and Beyond the Fringe was born. To make a long story short, Peter and Dudley clicked and ended up working together after their BTF days were over – Dud was offered a show by the BBC, and to make sure things went smoothly he invited Peter to be a guest on episode one. Peter stayed.
The show known as Not Only…But Also (and which I frequently shorthand as NOBA) was a smashing success even as the satire boom caused by Beyond the Fringe in the early 1960s was settling back down – namely because Peter and Dudley were just funny no matter what they were doing. Peter was a fantastic wordsmith, and something about him often seemed to be otherworldly when he went into monologue-delivering mode. Dudley, who did less of the writing unless it was writing music, was the superior actor – indeed, it was his acting skills that made him stand out to the BBC during Beyond the Fringe and prompted them to offer him a television show.
And that is really the important part – Peter needed Dudley’s acting and rapport with the audience, and Dudley needed Peter’s writing and bizarre-yet-hilarious ideas. That was their formula for success, and as long as they kept it in balance, they worked brilliantly together. I personally think things were at their best during this period because they were having fun – their ongoing attempts to corpse one another (which Peter generally won, although Dud would occasionally give him a good run for his money) make them just feel so approachable and so much fun to watch:
It was such a big part of NOBA’s appeal that nowadays Peter and Dudley are the quote on the TV Tropes page for corpsing.
In all seriousness, though, the corpsing reveals to me something that I personally believe is a key point in a double act’s success – both halves of the act find each other funny. If you don’t make each other laugh, things often go sour pretty quickly. The best double acts will frequently tell the public, when asked about it, how funny they find their other halves to be. If you watch harmonious double acts closely, you can catch moments when they can’t make eye contact because they know they’ll laugh and ruin the take. (Catching these moments is a favorite hobby of mine, as people who know me well know. I have my reasons.)
The article I mentioned at the beginning of this post pegs Bedazzled (1967) as the moment that everything began to fall apart. And to be fair, that’s a somewhat accurate assessment. The film was directed by Stanley Donen, who gave both performers ample room to breathe and be themselves, and it works brilliantly – it’s a great film and I regularly list it amongst my favorites. (All of my favorite films are comedies, which should shock nobody given that I write this blog.) What William Cook asserts is true, though – Peter does, in fact, feel somewhat distant, and Dudley provides the warmth (and the soundtrack, which I listen to frequently). It’s again Dudley’s rapport with the audience that carries the film – he makes charmingly adorable facial expressions, shows emotions ranging from confusion to frustration, and, in the end, breaks off and goes his own way instead of relying on Peter (playing George Spiggott a.k.a. Satan) to help him win the woman of his dreams at the cost of his soul.
It’s that ending that always gets to me. This movie, at least to me, is a mirror of their relationship behind the scenes – Peter uses his mastery of the English language to keep Dudley under his control (he did the bulk of the writing in their partnership and more frequently went out of his way to corpse Dudley), but in the end, Dud ends up rejecting him and going on alone. And in real life, that’s what happened. Peter slowly declined into alcoholism, so Dudley ended up with more writing influence (as well as a job as a sort of babysitter when they were on tour). They began recording Derek and Clive in the 1970s (which is a bizarre story itself), but when you watch the filming of the third album, released as a sort of documentary called Derek and Clive Get the Horn, you can see the relationship has completely shifted. By this time, Dudley was having considerable success in Hollywood, and Peter actually took out his frustrations verbally during the recording. Dudley actually walked out on Peter and didn’t show up for the third day, and the double act was more or less over. They reconciled later in life and occasionally got together for interviews and one-off performances and the like, but their careers went separate ways after that.
The thing that gets me, though, is that whenever Peter Cook worked with other people, that spark that he had with Dudley was missing. The two of them had a chemistry that just worked out brilliantly, and I’m fairly sure they both knew it. On Parkinson, they referred to their double act relationship as a marriage:
Ironically, when asked why it’s like a marriage, they say they’re getting divorced, which happened only a few years after this was shot. Years later, they again referred to the double act as a sort of failed marriage:
That, amongst other things, tells me that there was an underlying affection there – the two of them were genuinely great friends, and it shows – even though their friendship shifted into a love-hate relationship during the tough years in the 1970s. The double act never officially ‘broke up,’ but they went their separate ways career-wise and reconciled their relationship after things were stable for both of them. They remained associates and became friends again later on. When Peter died, Dudley called his answering machine to hear his voice for the next three weeks or so as a coping method. They genuinely did like each other an awful lot, and the fact that they managed to reconcile and get back on good terms with one another later on is a testament to that.
After all, there’s no point in being in a comedy marriage with somebody that you flat-out hate.
Let’s talk about the way The Onion isn’t doing satire the right way anymore.
That’s an awfully blunt way to start this blog post off, but sometimes you have to be blunt with these things. Some people don’t get it if you’re not being blunt, and I get the impression that the folks over at The Onion right now might be some of those people. Frankly, they’ve lost sight of what satire is. Last night, this abominable thing appeared on Twitter:
Of course, this was not received well because it’s entirely uncalled for – who says that about a nine-year-old child? – and the tweet was deleted. CEO Steve Hannah issued an apology to both Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I imagine that whoever sent that tweet doesn’t have a job anymore. (At least I hope so.) A beautiful commentary on the tweet appeared on Tumblr last night. I reblogged it because I think everyone ought to read it.
This is not satire. This is the exact opposite of satire. This is saying things for pure shock value.
The Onion had a perfect opportunity for satire last night. When Seth MacFarlane made that horrible joke about Wallis being old enough for George Clooney sixteen years from now, essentially turning a nine-year-old into a sex object, the obvious joke to make would have been something along the lines of, “I’m Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC. Why don’t you have a seat over there, Mr. MacFarlane? I have the chat logs.” They completely blew it, however, and instead perpetuated the sexist, pedophilic humor by writing that tweet. Somewhere up in Comedian Heaven, more than a few people facepalmed.
Let’s talk a little bit about what satire’s supposed to be. In that post I reblogged on Tumblr last night, note-a-bear defined satire as such:
Satire, for the record, is not merely replication of vile realities with a change in the tone of your voice (or just your name to give the appearance of humorous intent). It is actually a rhetorical construction, it serves a purpose beyond an easy (and most certainly beyond merely crude or crass) laugh. Satire is an effort to expose the inherent hypocrisy and/or harmfulness of some system of power.
This is an excellent definition of satire. Satire doesn’t simply ‘say’ things. Satire goes beyond that. The proper way to write satire is to make it look almost like you’re taking it seriously, but make sure that there’s a facetious element to it. If we look at, say, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s shows, they’ve got this down pat. They report news ‘stories’ and produce ‘editorials’ that are done with mock gravity and seriousness, and yet the way they expose things for what they are is what makes it so funny. Their stories make a point, which is what satire is all about.
Satire has its roots in Greco-Roman writing, but it’s come and gone various times over the course of human history. It popped up in the early 1700s at one point, more or less hanging around until the mid-1800s when it was thought to be not gentle enough and so it faded into the background. The satire that appeared for the rest of the century was lighter (see Gilbert and Sullivan, for example), but it didn’t exactly make any blatant attacks. It remained that way until the early 1960s, when two of my biggest comedy heroes comprised half the cast of Beyond the Fringe. Satire became the cool thing to do for a while, then again faded out – it had been a fad. As culture shifted and more and more targets became acceptable, satire came back into vogue, and it holds a fairly strong place in today’s comedic culture.
There’s a reason that I have a picture of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on my bedroom wall (and have since 2007). Peter and Dudley, the two aforementioned cast members of Beyond the Fringe that I adore to death, knew how satire worked. Peter helped rescue and fund Private Eye, the UK’s equivalent to The Onion, and wrote articles for it on a somewhat regular basis. He also impersonated Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to his face. However, it’s important to note that the two men were fully aware that Derek and Clive, the drunk recordings they released later, were not satire at all – that was shock value humor, and they knew it. Of course, that shock value humor influenced a ton of people – possibly even Seth MacFarlane and his team of writers. Depressingly, people weren’t picking up on their very intelligent earlier work.
The Onion was founded in 1988, and it for the most part has succeeded in its role as a satirical mouthpiece. There are even cases of it being taken seriously, which I find hilarious. (Literally Unbelievable chronicles many of these incidents.) To this day, it still seems to hit the nail on the head when it comes to political articles, but when it comes to pop culture, it’s declined steadily over the past few years. The writers are going for shock value and trying to get people to click on things. They’ve bought into social media’s need for pageviews and hits, so their stories are becoming less satirical and more stupid. The Onion is becoming a source for people who like low comedy, and those of us who enjoy satire are becoming disillusioned and angry.
I used to want to write for The Onion. I’m not so sure I want to anymore. The people there have lost sight of what satire truly is, and it’s just not the same. We don’t need to use shock value to be funny. Not everyone needs to swear or make dirty jokes. We can be funny without that. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that, and especially unfortunately, many of them seem to be currently working at The Onion.