Beyond A Joke by Bruce Dessau

Book review by Steve Bennett

Funny people, comedians.

There is, veteran critic Bruce Dessau asserts, something intrinsically odd about those drawn to this occupation, seeking the approval of strangers in such an emotionally exposing way.

Such psychological flaws feed the enduring ‘tears of a clown’ image that has proved so dramatically potent. It could well be a myth, and that there are proportionally just as many unstable chartered accountants as there are troubled stand-ups, but that is outside the remit of Beyond A Joke. This is a chronicle of comedy’s dark side – and it’s clear Dessau has not been starved of raw material, so dense are the anecdotes.

Russell Brand is the hook for this tome, even if it’s slightly behind the curve to think that tales of his wild, lascivious, drug-taking days and Sachsgate exploits lend it any sort of topicality. What is clear, though, is that it won’t be long until another comedian is embroiled in some scandal. The profession certainly has form.

Dessau starts with Grimaldi, the performer born in London in 1778 who became so famous that he defined the clown archetype that endures today. As Andrew McConnell Scott’s recent acclaimed biography spelled out, behind the greasepaint he was far from the jolly figure he portrayed on stage. Chronically insecure, easily depressed and frequently hit with tragedy (both his father and wife died young), Grimaldi was a drunk and a womaniser who lost his fortunes much easier than he earned them.

As the book fast-forwards through the decades and centuries, there’s virtually a scandal on every page: Marie Lloyd outraging public decency with her music-hall songs, Charlie Chaplin’s insatiable sexual appetite, and the gossip that ended Fatty Arbuckle’s career after an actress died after one of his parties, even though he was ultimately acquitted of having any part in the tragedy.

Drink is a constant. WC Fields always played an on-screen drunk and certainly took his research seriously. On set he would keep a flask of martini at hand which he called ‘pineapple juice’, leading to him famously blast at some studio lackey who misunderstood his euphemism: ‘Who put pineapple juice in my pineapple juice?’

More obscure is Rex Jameson, best known – if known at all – for his drag character Mrs Shuttlewick. So fierce was his reputation for drink that at one venue the stage manager locked him in his dressing room before the show to keep him away from alcohol. It didn’t work: Jameson slipped money under the door to a stagehand to buy a bottle of whisky. When he got back, the lad held it up to the door, so the comedian could squeeze a straw through the keyhole.

Equally forgotten today, except in certain pockets of Northern England, is Frank Randle – a mercurial talent constantly accused of obscenity. After one conviction, he hired a plane and bombarded Blackpool (or possibly Accrington) with toilet rolls.

However the majority of Dessau’s stories will be familiar to even the most casual student of comedy history, but he whips though them at entertaining pace. The troubles of Britain’s more famous funnymen have already been exhaustively covered – from Tony Hancock’s controlling insecurities, Tommy Cooper and Peter Cook’s problems with drink (yes, again), Benny Hill’s awkwardly chaste sex life and Frankie Howerd’s more predatory one.

That Bob Monkhouse had problems might come as more of a surprise to those who haven’t read his candid autobiography Crying With Laughter, given that he appeared so together on stage and screen. He had a cold relationship with his mother, but was quite the lothario – even having a fling with Diana Dors, despite her jealous husband’s reputation for violence, which led to a couple of close shaves.

Not every story comes from Britain: Lenny Bruce’s run-ins with the law; Andy Kaufman’s exploits from inter-gender wrestling to the appalling behaviour of his boorish alter-ego Tony Clifton that can only be briefly surmised in Beyond A Joke; and the tragedies of Sam Kinison and Simpsons actor Phil Hartman, murdered by his wife.

Actually, in life Hartman doesn’t fit the archetype Dessau propagates. He was happy, easy-going and talented, respected by all who worked with him. There are other examples – Eric Morecambe seemed singularly untroubled, for example – but they are not the concern here. Even South London’s chaotic alternative comedy godfather Malcolm Hardee, whose unconventional life provides anecdotes galore, was as carefree as anyone could hope.

Hardee proves that modern comedy has thrown up its share of extreme characters, too – from Angus Deayton’s tabloid shame to Frank Skinner in his early, drunken days, fully enjoying the new world of sexual opportunities his on-stage status brought. And, of course, Mr Brand himself.

Russell’s misdeeds are a constant throughout the book, and sometimes the links are a bit clunky and overplayed, as if the historical anecdotes cannot stand on their own merits and have to be related to a person we know. And you might spot a few notable omissions from the bad boys of comedy.

But by filleting the best yarns from dozens of biographies – whether those stories be entertaining, deplorable or a combination of the two – Dessau has created a concentrated essence of comedy’s most memorable anti-heroes. They may all have been emotional, and often moral, screw-ups, but they all gave us a laugh.

  • Beyond A Joke by Bruce Dessau is published by Preface Publishing priced £18.99. Click here to buy from Amazon for £13.99.

Published: 10 Oct 2011

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