Rubbish, piffle, tommyrot, drivel and utter bilge

Monday, February 8, 2010

What's Funny; ICONS 2

Rowan Atkinson is a man who understands the joy of slapstick. I, too, am that sort of person. Slapstick, though, it seems, is a divisive issue. This is understandable. There is such a thing as bad slapstick. When Rowan transforms into the bumbling Mr. Bean, he is, in my opinion, elevating the art of slapstick and mime to its highest level. He is this generation's Jacques Tati.

Some people, though, hate mimes and exponents of slapstick with a passion. To them, good or bad, it's all the same. My mother is one of those people. She loves Rowan Atkinson in 'Blackadder' or 'Johnny English' - but in Bean she just sits there with a screwed-up expression on her face and occasionally mutters 'twit' and 'I'm sorry, but I just don't find this funny'. I finally figured out what it is.

To her, slapstick, however well done it is, is a mite too close to being clowning for her liking. Because she hates clowns. Clowns are just not funny. They're stupid, that is her standpoint. And I can kinda see that.

When she was quite young she was taken to a circus. She hated the whole thing, especially the clowns, and the ripe animal smell. Maybe that's why she has a look on her face like a bad odour has just parked itself underneath her nose whenever Bean starts falling about. She doesn't like Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy, either. It's probably a good thing she hasn't seen any Three Stooges films.

Anyway, that segues me nicely into the 2nd instalment of the occasional series:
Rowan Atkinson is one of the funniest people alive. How he can take almost nothing, the minutiae of life, and turn it into funny stuff is amazing. After Monty Python, there was little in the way of 'subversive' comedy on either side of the Atlantic, save for perhaps George Carlin and Richard Pryor. On British TV it was just sitcoms and comedians telling 'jokes' and doing impressions so terrible that they were hard to recognize even when wearing full make-up and wearing signs saying the person's name. I remember a show called Who Do You Do? that was pretty good most of the time with people like Freddie Starr and Peter Goodwright (who would do obscure people like Fred Emney), but the worst offender, to me at least, was Mike Yarwood. His best impressions were Denis Healey (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Ted Heath (Conservative P.M.), but even those were ridiculously lame - Denis with the bushy eyebrows and "what a silly billy", Ted with the heaving shoulders while chuckling. I laughed, but deep down I wanted accurate impressions. I hated the way Mike would always end his show with a lame song, starting off by saying "and this is me". I thought, we know it's you, Mike! Did you think for even a second that you had us bamboozled?

Suddenly in 1979 along came this show on BBC2, at 9 o'clock at night, once a week, with all these funny people in it - a chubby guy with a silver tongue, a blonde with an acid wit, and this weird-looking rubber-faced guy who walked into lampposts. I had found it. Suddenly there was comedy nirvana.

Not The Nine O'Clock News  had its teething troubles, but by the second series it was taking Britain by storm. All the lads in my class would come to school quoting the rude bits from the sketches and songs. It was amazing for us in our early teens to hear words like tits and bum on air. I often had to fight with my mother to get to stay up to watch it. Their take-offs on news magazine shows of the day and pop music were outrageously funny. Songs about trucking, bigoted policemen, squashed hedgehogs and talking gorillas were just the norm for these guys. Even 30 years on I have no trouble quoting "Gay Christian", "The Bouncing Song", "Gob On You" and "Constable Savage" in their entirety. The cast was Mel Smith ( now an acclaimed director), Griff Rhys Jones (comedian, actor, and documentary host), Rowan Atkinson of course, and Pamela Stephenson (married to Billy Connolly, she gained a doctorate in clinical psychology in 1989 and currently hosts a show on British TV called Shrink Rap, where she interviews celebs). Though the show only lasted three short years, just 27 half-hour episodes, three LPs and a stage show, all you have to say to someone of my generation is "Gerald The Gorilla" and instantly you are on the same wavelength. That, 30 years on, is funny.

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