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Worshipping Dodd

John Fleming witnesses Knotty Ash's finest

Morecambe and Wise were not famous.

Yes, they were justifiably famous in the UK. But go to some village in western China and ask them who Morecambe and Wise were.

M&W are, and always were, total unknowns except in the British Isles.

Fame is relative and mostly regional.

To save my life, I could not tell you who the world water ski champion is. But presumably he or she is a Big Name if you follow water skiing.

The world is full of champions, each famous in their own little world.

I see quite a lot of club comedy and what is still called alternative comedy. Some of the acts are called comedy stars; some may even think they are stars. Audiences even flock to and fill large venues to see some of these people who have appeared in TV panel shows.

But they are not big stars even in the UK. They are minor and transient cults with a few disciples. Admittedly they have more disciples than Jesus did when he started but, just because you can get more than twelve people to listen to you in a room above a pub in Camden Town, don’t start thinking you are more famous than the Son of God.

Unless you are known and regarded in awe by a random 50-year-old housewife in a bus queue in Leamington Spa, you are not famous in UK terms. If you can fill a big venue at the Edinburgh Fringe with 23-year-old fans for 27 nights, you are not famous. You are a very minor cult.

Last night, I saw Ken Dodd’s show Happiness at The Pavilion Theatre in Bournemouth. Ken Dodd is unquestionably famous in the UK and the venue was filled with a well-heeled middle-of-the-road, middle-class Middle England audience of the type TV commissioners mystifyingly ignore. This audience was the great TV-viewing audience en masse on a rare trip out to see a live show.

Upcoming shows at The Pavilion include The Gazza and Greavsie Show, Roy Chubby Brown, Joe Pasquale, Jethro and Jim Davidson. Never, never, never underestimate the Daily Mail. Their readers are the mass audience. Admittedly Dylan Moran and Russell Kane also have upcoming shows at The Pavilion, but the phrases ‘sore thumbs’ and ‘stand out’ spring to mind.

London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer has a routine in which he says his ex-manager told him he will never become famous unless he can be a true professional and tell the same jokes in every show and repeat each show exactly.

Last night, the first half of Ken Dodd’s five-hour show proved the danger of being too experienced and too professional a performer if you are on a long tour.

There was an audibility problem.

This was partly because the sound system at The Pavilion was occasionally indistinct, and partly because Ken Dodd, after 55 years in showbiz and on his seemingly endless UK tour, has been doing the same routines and telling the same stories for too long. He came on stage and spoke what, for the first part of the show seemed to be a script which he had got so used to he didn’t actually perform it: he just threw the words out. He galloped and gabbled through the words and syllables with the result that perhaps a quarter of what he was saying was indecipherable.

And this was an ageing audience with possible inbuilt hearing problems. I half expected the colostomy bags to break during the show to create a tsunami that could have washed the entire population of Bournemouth into the English Channel.

When an established act, instead of saying ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ says ‘lay-ge-me’ and all the other words and phrases are gabbled and elided indistinctly in much the same way, he is not performing an act, he is going through the motions on autopilot. He has heard the jokes 1,000 times; the audience has not (well, not most of them).

His saving grace was an astonishing gag rate of perhaps one potential laugh every ten seconds. And the material is gold. You couldn’t go wrong with that material. But Doddy was getting laughs because the jokes (when heard) were good, not because of any technical skill in the delivery.

There are very few successful gag tellers in modern alternative comedy – Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine are exceptions not the rule. Most successful alternative comedians nowadays tell stories: not necessarily funny stories, but stories told funny.

Ken Dodd mostly told gags in the first half and funny stories in the second half (in which he found his feet more). But it struck me that his slightly more old-fashioned (or let’s say traditional) approach was very similar to inexperienced circuit comics today.

He told stories as if they were gags, with token links between each story, but with no over-all arc. If he told ten stories, the first and second might have a token link and the seventh and eighth might have a token link, but there was no overall progression, no shape, no thread to the stories. So the overall effect was like getting beaten round the head with gags by a mugger for five hours, not drawn into a personal fantasy world by a con man, which is what a stand-up comedian is.

It struck me Doddy’s unlinked gag structure was very like comics new to the current comedy circuit who have some material but can’t stitch it into a unitary act. They can do 10 or 15 or 20 minutes but are not yet capable of putting on a 60-minute Edinburgh show.

I suppose the transition from beating people into submission with barrages of gags rather than bringing them into your own personal world with smoothly-linked stories is a relatively recent development which Doddy has no need to embrace.

Because he is so experienced and so good, I could not tell how much of the second half was scripted and how much he was just plucking and throwing in gags and stories from a mental storehouse.

One ad-lib which surely must have been planned and, indeed, ‘planted’ was a piece of banter with the audience in which Dodd asked a woman: ‘How many children do you have?’

‘Eight!’ came the unexpected reply.

Dodd professed bewilderment at this and meandered for a couple of sentences about her husband, then asked: ‘Have you sewn up the gap in his pyjamas yet?…. (pause)… You know what they say… A stitch in time saves…” (Immediate audience laughter – though strangely not as much as it deserved)

This cannot possibly have been an ad-lib. It had to have been planted in the audience because he feigned bewilderment at the initial reply of ‘eight,’ which he would not have done were not a lead-up to the punchline.

There were also glimpses of an unexpected (to me) Ken Dodd – a ventriloquist act with a Diddy Man doll that almost verged on being post-modernist and a sequence in which he was doing a series of very passable regional accents and which went into a whole non-Ken-Dodd realm.

Small numbers of the audience left during the single interval, but at the end of Ken Dodd’s Happiness show, people rose from their seats to leave while still clapping. The standing ovation was warm and heartfelt and passionate but perhaps was more for being a national institution than for the show itself. Even if his fame hasn’t spread to Western China.

Posted: 25 Apr 2011

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