“Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone…”
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
I wouldn’t mind betting, way, way back, before the fifteen hundreds, somewhere or other, a farm labourer’s worn trousers fell down and his wife laughed uproariously. Such are the simple things which tickle our funny bones. Our most famous bard, Shakespeare, was no fool and soon cottoned on how to get ’bums on seats’ – apart from tragedy, that is! Apparently, satire was regarded as a higher genre than other brands of comedy, and was thought to be morally improving. There is some evidence, though, that rules and conventions in comedy were loose in Shakes’ days. One of his most popular comic characters Sir John Falstaff, was celebrated for his verbal dexterity. As he said: “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause of wit in other men.” (The Merry Wives of Windsor was called “An excellent, conceited comedie of Sir John Falstaff.”). A few more examples of Shakes’ wit: “I do desire we may be better strangers.” (As You Like it, Act 3 scene 2) and “Mine eyes smell onions.” (All’s Well that Ends Well, Act 5, scene 3.) A few, more bawdy quotes, are best left unquoted…
Fast forwarding to the Silent Movies…who couldn’t take to the diminutive, pathetic figure of Charlie Chaplin known as ‘The Little Tramp’ as he tugged at heart-strings from the silver screen? Charles Chaplin was Jewish and his real name was thought to be Israel Thornstein, but it was never corroborated. Born in London in 1889, he moved to the USA aged 21. He was suspected to be a Communist and was investigated by the FBI, but there was no reason to believe he was a spy. Nevertheless, Hoover blocked his return to the US after a trip abroad. He made such gems as The Little Tramp, The Gold Rush and The Great Dictator, but it wasn’t until 1972 that he returned to the US and received an Honorary Oscar for his outstanding work. He also received a Knighthood in the UK two years before his death at 88. He may have been small in stature, but he left a lot of smiles on a lot of faces over the years as he slipped on banana skins, had vivid, messy food fights with film adversaries and got up to all sorts of amusing mischief.
Buster Keaton was a contemporary of Chaplin’s and his dead-pan acting delivery appealed to many. He was also clever and daring, as he carried out most of his own audacious screen tricks. Then there were Laurel and Hardy, who entertained millions with their humorous nonsense; and the fast-talking wise guy, Phil Silvers.
Leaping forward, what a wealth of fabulous talent we have seen since those early days, on stage, film and TV…It does, of course depend on what lifts your lip corners. Taste is so variable. One of my favourite acting comedians was Gene Wilder. Born in 1933, he is well known for being in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and with the great Richard Prior in Stir Crazy. Wilder’s debut was via TV. He directed and wrote some of his own films, including The Woman in Red. He was married four times; and often worked with another Bright Guy, Mel Brooks.
Shifting away from individuals for a while, we have also been gifted with some highly entertaining TV comedy series. One of my favourite US shows, was Mash – and in particular Alan Alda (who was Christened Alphonso Joseph D’Bruzzo…). Alda won the Emmy Award six times and the Golden Globe Award as Hawkeye Pierce in his TV role.
More recently he has been in The West Wing (with which I am not familiar). Another favourite was Frasier – I was fond of all five of the main actors and the writing was excellent. With Kelsey Grammer as Frasier, David Hyde Pierce as Niles Crane, Peri Gilpin as Roz, Jane Leever as Daphne and the late John Mahoney as Martin, they gelled beautifully. Taxi was also great fun and ‘home-grown’ Brits, the loveable couple, Morecambe and Wise. It would also be criminal to leave out Only Fools and Horses with its great, quirky Cockney humour. And, back to individual talent, what about the attractive Dave Allen and his original humour and the often hilarious Dick Emery and Les Dawson. Also, how can I leave out cuddly, funny Dudley Moore!
Feminists will be champing at the bit at the late inclusion, but there have also been some wonderful female entertainers over the years. Who could not like ‘dippy’ Lucille Ball or her ‘side-kick’ Vivian Vance, crazy Phyllis Diller, or the outrageous Joan Rivers… And the late, lamented Victoria Wood was a force to be reckoned with.
The Goon show was a crazy part of our family for years, as was Monty Python: “It is a deceased parrot!” I am lucky to have a husband and three sons who are all devoted fans of humour. It all helps the medicine go down!!
Many more talented people, British and American have made me laugh like a drain over the years, and last but not clichéd least, is the brilliant Woody Allen. I have guffawed and spluttered over his writing, his films and mad jokes for years. Bring it all on!
A final word from Groucho Marx:
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read!”
© Copyright Joy Lennick 2021