From Bill Hicks to Joyce Grenfell | Steve Gribbin picks his comedy favourites

From Bill Hicks to Joyce Grenfell

Steve Gribbin picks his comedy favourites

Right Said Fred by Bernard Cribbins

Notwithstanding the comedy cognoscenti’s habitual condescending sneer, the comedy song can be a wonderful thing, none more so than this work of genius from July 1962 (produced, like the Goons records, by the pre-Beatles George Martin).

A seamless mix of fantastically sly lyrics and a brilliantly see-sawing melody (the music makes you laugh before the singing has even begun) and beautifully placed sound effects, this Music Hall-meets-Swinging Sixties-meets-Marxist-polemic has everything I love in a comedy song…it is both populist and subversive in equal measure.

There is not a word out of place in this piece, (I especially like the two middle eights, especially the pairing of 'take off all the handles/and the fings wot hold the candles' is sublime), the artistry employed only serving to emphasise that British workers are actually human beings and not some sort of 'chav' caricature so beloved of our comfortable middle-class commentariat.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

One of my favourite films, because as any gigging comic will tell you, travelling actually takes up 87.3 per cent of our working lives, criss-crossing the world like itinerant beggars of comedy, becoming more familiar with train timetables than with the faces of our own kids.

The travails of travelling are multiplied a thousandfold when you’re trying to get to a’s as if we are in a Greek Epic and the Gods of Transportation are moving us about on a giant map, toying with us: 'I’ll just make that person throw themselves under a train at Watford Junction, that should fuck the whole line up for 24 hours…ha ha ha!'

This film never fails to make me weep with laughter as Steve Martin’s frustration continues to build, culminating in one of the funniest movie scenes ever, where he snaps at the car hire woman in the airport, spraying the f-word 18 times. Partly it’s because I am that traveller myself (I once glanced ostentatiously at my watch as a train rolled in late, only to be admonished by the driver’s announcement as 'the fat short-arsed guy with the guitar' which sent me into paroxysms of rage), but also because there’s nothing funnier than watching someone uptight just really losing it.

A Clown Too Many by Les Dawson

His first autobiography (from 1986) is a beautifully written, poetic, tender and at times maudlin account of his early career from one of my favourite comics, Les Dawson, the man with the face of an Easter Island statue and the temperament of a permanently pissed-off school caretaker.

I love this book because it’s quite unflinching in its portrayal of the harsh realities of the tough Northern Working Man’s Club circuit. With its description of the casual cruelty, being payed off, the brutal heckles and the terrible money, it makes Phoenix Nights look like the Early Learning Centre.

When I was in a band in Liverpool we had to play a lot of those places, and The Concert Secretary, a man (always a man) with the sartorial elegance of a Riverboat gambler and the facial hair of a Planet of The Apes tribute act, would usually offer such pearls of wisdom as: 'A bass player should be seen and not heard;

But most of all I cherish this book because, like Dawson himself, it is in love with the power of words, they are splashed all over the pages like drunken revellers at a post-wedding do, lolling around, crazily bumping into each other and sparking gales of laughter.

And of course, Les Dawson transcends that stereotype so beloved of the metropolitan elites, The Fat Thick Northerner, to show us the flowers in the dirt of a true romantic spirit who can also say: 'Knickers Knackers Knockers!'

Bill Hicks: Gulf War Weapons Catalogue from Relentless (1992)

It’s hard disentangling Bill Hicks the great stand-up comedian from all the myths surrounding him (Modern Sage, Philosopher King, Rebel Outlaw, Rock ‘n’ Roll Preacher), but if anything this routine, recorded just a few months after the First Gulf War, lays all his talents out in one go.

Impeccable timing (the gap between the launch of the missile G12 and it’s explosion is expertly judged, kicking in just when you’re thinking 'Christ, how long is he gonna hold this pause for?') is paired with inspired mimicry of the awestruck, techno-worshipping soldier and the cold, hard logic of the commanding officer.

It’s also what I love about Bill Hicks… controlled rage. Sure, he is mightily angry about the idiocy of war and our obscene obsession with shiny military hardware, but he channels that ire into a wonderfully precise, carefully constructed three minutes of pure comedy venom that is all the more effective for not spelling things out or exploding in apoplectic anger.

It’s a thing of beauty.

Joyce Grenfell: Nursery School

The mighty Joyce Grenfell with one of her most famous sketches from 1958…I’m a massive fan of the comic monologue, be it Bob Newhart or Rob Wilton, but Joyce is the Queen.

To many modern ears, this piece probably sounds impossibly twee, but anyone who thinks that is missing the huge skill and craft behind such wonderful lines as 'George… don’t do that….' And 'You’re not hurt, dear, you’re just surprised….' where Grenfell leaves it up to our imagination, like a whole radio play in just one line of dialogue.

Joyce Grenfell was often seen as a cross between a jolly-hocky-sticks school-ma’am and an impossibly naïve upper class twit, but she was so much more than that. A consummate actress with a superb ear for the idiosyncrasies of upper class mannerisms and speech, she was also a hugely sympathetic observer of human weakness and desire.

And that’s why I love her. She took her experience of upper class life and made it universal, with brilliant comic timing and a satirist’s unerring eye for the absurd and self-deluding in human nature.

'What have I told you not to do before George?' [Pause] 'Well….don’t do it!”

What Time Is it, Eccles? by The Goons

This piece, featuring and Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan as Bluebottle and Eccles from the Goons radio show, was first aired in 1957, and is still one of my favourite sketches.

Wonderfully absurd, but with its own beautiful internal logic, this sketch, written by an overworked and seriously depressed Spike Milligan, deserves to be put in a time capsule and fired off into space so that future aliens can be bamboozled by its playfulness and seriousness about the nature of time itself.

The Goons revelled in their surreal, silly but still authority-baiting subversive comedy, which makes it all the more deliciously ironic that Prince Charles should revere them so much. Because if he had appeared in one of their sketches you can bet your life he would have been mercilessly lampooned as a self-important, pompous, vain, arrogant, idle dullard.

What makes this sketch so brilliant is that not one word is out of place, it is so succinctly written, and you can hear the edge of hysteria in the two men’s voices as they play off each other and the audience. Sellers in particular sounds on the verge of corpsing all the way through.

And best of all is the wonderful pay-off line, as beautiful as a painting by Leonardo da Vinci or a guitar solo by Pete Shelley:

'But, Eccles, how do you know what time it is?'

'I got it written down on a piece of paper!'

Published: 8 Aug 2012

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