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It’s been twenty years today since Peter Cook left us, and a group of people from Tumblr, myself included, rewatched a lot of his material, including both sketches and the 1967 film Bedazzled, in his honor. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on how brilliant his writing actually was again and just how influential his material was for generations of comedians afterwards.
I figured this would be a great time to reflect on it all with those people he influenced, as well as some of his compatriots, so here’s this lovely documentary someone posted on YouTube in six parts to watch and enjoy. I figure it’s better to watch funny things instead of spend the entire day crying.
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.
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.
This is the first post in what will likely be a lengthy series of posts about double acts and how they work. I think about this way too much.
I have an awful lot to say on the subject of double acts. I adore them to death and I’ve found that there’s a dearth of scholarly exploration of them and their psychology.
I’ve found two books on Amazon that cover the topic of comedy teams – one by Leonard Maltin and another by Lawrence J. Epstein. Neither of these books appears to specifically delve into the concept of the double act itself, instead focusing on how all the different comedy teams covered operated. I’m going to try to explore the psychology of the double act in more depth here and see what my brain spits out.
The origins of what we know as the modern comedy double act are something I briefly discussed on another blog last week:
The double act itself has its origins in the 19th century in music hall and vaudeville – a straight man would stand up with a comedian [initially elsewhere in the theatre, later on stage] and repeat the comic’s lines so that the audience would know a joke was coming up, i.e.:
First Performer: So I went to the races last week, and…
Second Performer: Oh, you went to the races last week?
Audience: (shuts up)
First Performer: (tells joke)
And so forth.
By the end of the 19th century, though, double acts evolved into what we know them as today.
This is, of course, an extremely abridged version of what actually happened, but it gets the general point across. As time went on, the performer repeating the comic’s lines developed into what we know as a proper straight man today, delivering lines that would instead set up jokes for the comic (i.e. acting as a feed). By the time Weber and Fields popped up in the late 1800s, the dynamic had evolved into something recognizable to us – two individuals bantering and cross-talking on the vaudeville or music hall stage to the delight of the crowd. Often, things got rowdy between the pairs, and slapstick violence was incorporated. Weber and Fields were particularly adept at arguing, and indeed, arguing became a very common element of double act routines. The characters on the stage just never got along no matter what, and audiences loved it.
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, things began to take a more genteel shift, with Gallagher and Shean emphasizing less slapstick and more singing. (Al Shean was the uncle of the Marx Brothers.) Although the team’s Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean song was wildly popular, the two fought often and broke up twice, revealing another commonality we find in many double acts – they often don’t get along in real life.
The most famous double act in the history of the world, however, got along perfectly fine.
I could go into great detail about how Laurel and Hardy were initially paired together in 1927 and whatnot, but that’s covered in a purposely bad PowerPoint I made and put up on Tumblr. (It’s a meme, guys.) What I’d like to approach here instead is the psychology of their particular double act and why it changed the preset rules. As mentioned, before these two showed up, the characters double acts portrayed generally didn’t get along on stage – and when they did get along on some level, like Gallagher and Shean, they didn’t get along off-stage. Stan and Ollie pretty much got along everywhere. Their characters were clearly friends, and as unintentionally destructive as they were you knew their friendship would be intact at the end of every single film in some way, shape or form. (Yes, even The Flying Deuces.) The characters stuck together no matter what, and if a threat arose towards one of them, both of them would stand firmly together to face it. Well, not always, but at least if they ran away they always ran away together, too.
Off-screen, they didn’t see each other very much initially due to differing hobbies (Ollie spent most of his time golfing and Stan preferred to fish – and edit basically everything, write new scripts, etc., but he was a workaholic to the max). As they worked together more and more and even toured together, however, they became very close and by the time they retired from performing they were undeniably best friends. It was at the point that when Ollie passed away Stan kept jotting down ideas for gags they could perform together until he joined Ollie in Comedian Heaven eight years later. (In my webcomic of the same name, they’re still inseparable and as such are easily my favorites to write for, but let’s not get sidetracked here. I could ramble about how cute they were forever.)
Here’s the point, though – up until Laurel and Hardy became the most famous double act in the world, double acts mainly entertained people by either being violent towards each other or by singing comic songs and bantering back and forth. The key to Laurel and Hardy’s success as an act is the fact that their act revolved instead around the relationship between the two characters, a model that redefined how double acts work. Most double acts that came after them relied on the interplay and bonding between the two characters (or, in the very interesting case of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the relationship between the actual actors) – the Stan and Ollie model stuck.
In the double acts that follow (Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and Morecambe and Wise) we see that the characters are good friends, even if they do bicker over things. The actors, of course, were often another story. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello reportedly had a rocky relationship, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had a major breakup before reuniting in the 1970s and reconnecting. Morecambe and Wise, however, followed the Stan and Ollie model to a tee, with their characters sharing a bed on screen (like Stan and Ollie did) and by being extremely good friends in real life. In other cases, such as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the characters’ interactions suspiciously mirrored the real-life tensions between the two comedians – Cook and Moore’s fictional alter egos got into it more and more until they broke up.
Most English-language double acts since the early 1980s have come from the UK, with US double acts mostly evolving into the characters we see in buddy movies. (Note the main photo for the Wikipedia article.) However, some American comedians in larger ensembles (SNL, the cast of Whose Line is it Anyway?, etc.) often end up falling into double act roles the longer they work together, which reinforces the fact that double act partners do frequently become friends. (Not that these friendships always last, of course, but that will be a good post for another time.) Double acts often appear in fiction, as well, with two fictional characters filling the traditional roles of the characters the comedians portray. It’s clear that the double act is very deeply engrained in popular culture – and indeed in human culture, since humans quite often do ‘pair off’ socially.
In subsequent articles, I’ll explore the psychology behind many of these pairs specifically and discuss them in greater depth, hopefully tracing the development of the double act from its origins in music hall and vaudeville up to the present day – and what each depiction’s social ramifications are and what these portrayals can tell us about the social climate and culture from whence they came.
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.
I rewatched It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the first time in years last night. (A large portion of the cast of that comic I’m doing appears in this thing, amongst other reasons.) Besides possibly disturbing my parents a little bit by recognizing the way Buster Keaton (who cameos) walked, I did a little bit of thinking last night – and it’s true, comedy really does travel in cycles stylistically.
When comedy films first started appearing, Mack Sennett more or less ran the show. Sennett films relied on heavy slapstick – watch anything featuring the Keystone Kops and you’ll see what I mean. Watching Sennett’s Chaplin, Arbuckle and Normand films reveals…basically the same thing. There were no scripts back then – the actors would just go out with the director and a cameraman, find a scene somewhere, and improvise a little story. They’d then add title cards later after the film was edited and cut.
Then one day, Charlie Chaplin decided to believe all the critics calling him an artist, and things changed drastically. Films became longer, with proper plots carried throughout them. There weren’t scripts, because there was still no dialogue, but by the middle of the 1920s, the Big Three – Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd – were well-established, with Harry Langdon more or less keeping up with them (until he decided he was an artist, too, but let’s not get into that now). These films moved away from slapstick and became more situational, with the characters spending most of their time on film trying to get out of bizarre – yet realistic – situations.
And then sound came.
Now, you don’t need sound to make a comedy, but when sound arrived, everyone decided that now was the time for snappy scripts and puns. There was an over-reliance on dialogue, which naturally ruined quite a few potentially good films. By the time films and moviegoers had gotten used to sound, quite a few of the great comedians of the 1920s had fallen off the wagon. (The Big Three continued to make and appear in films, but their work during this period isn’t considered their best output, and Harry Langdon did quite a few talkies, as well, but eventually joined the writing team at Hal Roach Studios.)
If we look at the sort of comedy that was popular during the 1930s, we see two or three distinct branches. The first branch, which involves scripts heavily reliant on wordplay and puns, is primarily dominated by the Marx Brothers, but there were quite a few other acts falling under this umbrella, as well. Remember Wheeler and Woolsey? No? Anyway, they were here, too.
The second branch involves a return to slapstick. Columbia decided that at the height of the Great Depression what people really wanted to see was three idiots beating each other up for twenty minutes, so they signed these three and set them to work. Apparently Columbia was right, since they turned out to be a massive draw at the box office.
The third branch – my favorite – is probably the best-remembered of the three because they seem to be involved in almost everyone’s childhoods, even now. To be fair, the thing that makes Laurel and Hardy so special to me is that the two of them ended up becoming best friends over the course of their careers, which is the most adorable thing ever. From a comedy standpoint, they’re very different from the other two branches because of their pacing. Whilst the other acts relied on quick, snappy dialogue and non-stop cartoon violence, Stan and Ollie took things very, very slowly. They reacted to what happened to them – slowly – and stretched sequences that would have taken other comedians thirty seconds to do out over several minutes. It worked brilliantly.
By the 1940s, things needed to be freshened up some, and although the Stooges and Stan and Ollie were still around, it was Abbott and Costello who popped up and grew in popularity during the war years. (This may have reflected the general culture in America at the time, as Bud and Lou’s comedy style was more aggressive.) They hung around in the ’50s for a little while, but Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis picked up the baton from there and brought comedy into more of a screwball direction. At the same time, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road To… movies were further solidifying the genre. Television comedy also began its rise, with many radio stars eventually making the jump and bringing sketch comedy and sitcoms to the small screen.
Which brings us to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which came out in 1963. There are elements of several styles of comedy in this movie – which makes sense, because there are several styles of comedians in it. If we take a closer look at it, we can dissect it a little bit:
- Mack Sennett would have loved this movie. There’s plenty of slapstick violence in here – the film even ends on a banana peel gag, a staple of the Sennett era. Although there isn’t a pie fight, there’s a bit where an entire gas station is systematically dismantled and destroyed by Jonathan Winters, which is close enough.
- There’s a ton of situational comedy, too. The entire movie is fueled by one situation – Jimmy Durante’s character hid money somewhere in Southern California under something called a ‘big W,’ and everyone’s attempts to get there first place them into precarious situations: hitchhiking with strangers and ‘borrowing’ their cars, flying an airplane after the pilot passes out drunk, locked in a hardware store basement, and so on.
- The script is phenomenal. It allows all the comedians making cameos to get their trademark lines in (ZaSu Pitts gets to show off her Midwestern accent as the switchboard operator, Jack Benny gets to deliver a “…Well!” and Joe E. Brown gets to scream “HEEEEEEEEY!” near the end). It also lets the feature players shine (Buddy Hackett’s delivery of “What are you, the hostess?” to Mickey Rooney as they’re trying to land a plane is my dad’s favorite line in the entire film). The script is snappy and rapid-fire where it needs to be and quiet when all the audience needs to follow the plot is the action.
- For a three-hour movie, the pacing is incredible – you never get bored because the plot never drags for a second, even when the scene cuts to the police station for a breather.
You watch this film, and cameos aside, the films of the 1910s and 1920s are back – in color and in a much longer format, but there you go. Styles of comedy tend to cycle around. In the early 1960s, there was a satire boom which started in the UK and made its way to the US. Although Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were at the forefront of the movement by being in Beyond the Fringe, lasted as a double act for twenty some-odd years afterwards by moving into sketch comedy, satire itself faded quickly out of vogue, only to return with a vengeance in the 2000s. My brother loves films like Dodgeball. Dodgeball is pure slapstick.
Think for a moment about what you like watching. There might just be some older – or newer – films in the ilk of what you’re into. Why don’t you go and check those out for a change and see what you think?