24 April 2007

Follow that: reading about Tommy Cooper

In his article about Tommy Cooper in British Comedy Greats, Barry Cryer quotes Eric Morecambe:
That bugger just has to walk on and they laugh.... I have to start working. (p.56)
As Cryer observes, that was Morecambe being 'typically self-deprecating'. If ever there was a comedian who made you laugh before he opened his mouth, it was Eric Morecambe, who could get a laugh out of a line that wasn't all that funny, who could get a laugh because the line wasn't funny. Frankie Howerd was another comedian whose material could be almost irrelevant: he was just funny, and even if it was appalling material, he'd get a laugh out of his own discomfort, his awareness of how bad it was. Come to think of it, that's just why I like David Letterman.

Cryer showed me, though, that I don't even need to see Tommy Cooper to laugh. Just reading about him is enough.
Shortly after coming on stage, he would look into the wings and say, 'Come off? I've only just come on.' (p.56)
Not only did I laugh when I read that, I kept thinking about it through the day and laughing again. Of course it helps if you can picture Cooper in action. If you've seen him you don't forget him, and you can imagine his sad, startled, dismayed look as he said it.
The opening of Tom's act was unique - the band would play his signature tune 'The Sheikh of Araby' and he wouldn't come on. I repeat: he wouldn't come on. After a deathless pause, the audience would hear his voice, muttering that he was locked in his dressing room. This was, of course, Tom behind the curtain, on a microphone. I can vouch for the fact that it was one of the funniest openings if an act I have ever seen. He would then emerge, to rapturous applause. (p.56)
This is uncanny. Not only do I not need to see Tommy Cooper for him to make me laugh, but it works even if I'm reading about not seeing him...

I had to say the next one out aloud a couple of times before I realised how brilliant his thinking was. As Cryer tells it:
One of his favourite jokes was: 'A man walked into a bar and went, Ooooh! It was an iron bar.' [Cooper] put the stress on the word 'bar', not 'iron'... (p.57)
Cryer pointed out this technicality to Tommy Cooper:
He gazed at me, uncomprehendingly. 'Did they laugh?' he said. 'Yes,' I admitted. 'Shut up,' he growled. And then he laughed. (p.57)

I heard an interview with Matt Lucas of Little Britain, talking about the difficulties of being a comedian opening for Blur. He said it reminded him of when Tommy Cooper was disastrously engaged to open for The Who. After a dreadful reception from an audience that really only wanted to see The Who, he walked off and said triumphantly, 'Follow that!'

You know, I didn't even have to be there.
Annabel Merullo and Neil Wenborn (eds), British Comedy Greats, London, Cassell Illustrated, 2003

1 comment:

J. said...

Funny stuff.

Another comedian who transcends his material would be Dave Chappelle.