Praise be to Bob!

Michael Monkhouse pays tribute to his namesake

It's no fun being called Monkhouse.

People always give me the same Bob reference. It wasn't funny at school and it isn't funny now. Plus I hated Bob. Smug git with a suit, mole and slimy game-show-host act. Give me the pleasures of Python, the madness of Rik Mayall, even a barrage of Bottom. But not The Golden Shot.

So when a so-called friend suggested we watch Monkhouse Exposes Himself, I thought he was taking the pee. But he insisted. And a friend's a friend. So I found myself in front of said vid with my arms crossed and a steely determination to hate the guy who'd turned obnoxiousness into an artform.

Two seconds later my resolve fell apart. This guy was good. Forget Family Fortunes, this was damn fine stand-up. I giggled at his gags winced at his one-liners, was won over by his wit. But most of all I marvelled at his poise - as years pass, comics run out of steam; like a fine wine Bob matured with age - and at how one man stood there for hours cracking 'em out like Groucho Marx on speed.

He was accused of sexism, but I was too busy laughing to care, and anyway the ultimate butt was - you guessed it - himself ('I'm so bad in bed I fantasise I'm somebody else'). And racism? Well some of this wouldn't disgrace an Omid Djalili or a Russell Peters ('Arabians do everything the opposite way round - like writing - like in Arabia you commit adultery then you get stoned'). Even the gay gags would get Julian Clary jolly .

Logan Murray's excellent book Teach Yourself Stand-up argues that each generation reckons they reinvent comedy, when all they really do is rediscover it. And John Byrne's equally excellent Writing Comedy, mentioning Monkhouse in the same breath as Ben Elton, opines that ultimately there's precious little difference between the old and the new. It's an idea I embrace, as I hit 36.

Take Alexei Sayle, a guy who'd kick your head in for comparing him to Monkhouse. Yet his finest hour was the Cak! album, combining one-liners, longer routines and a bit of music to spice it all up. A formula identical with Bob's finest hour, the Live And Forbidden vid… Or Fawlty Towers, throwing together contrasting nationalities - the Spanish, the Americans, notoriously the Germans - to breed classic comedy. Not far away from many Bobisms.

In fact, Logan checklists classic features of stand-up - incongruity, surprise, truth, aggression, brevity - and wouldn’t you know, they're all there in the mind of Monkhouse. Laughter apart, budding comics can learn a lot from him.

But nope, I’m not going to rattle off his gags. I'd rather let you discover them for yourself. And quote Beeb script developer Micheal Jacob, urging comedy wannabes to check out screenplays, vids, books - but also biographies – to discover how your heroes made it: 'This homework goes on forever…'

Few bios are as big as Bob's. He hit radio in 1946 with no recommendation, just a single audition garnering a ten-out-of-ten, a 'wow' and an invitation back asap. And for a time all broadcast comedy could boast a bit of Bob behind it: light entertainment, stand-up, chat-shows, a sitcom that was a real roller-coaster of gags so quickfire the audience hardly had time to laugh in between.

For nearly 60 years, Bob did it all. Radio, telly, gigs, gags, the lot. He even pranced round in pantos. Stephen Fry once challenged him to try improv, resulting in this delightful response: 'Give me a subject… Give me a style… Give me a situation… Now give me something funny to do.'

Then there was the small matter of an ad several years after his death: 'Prostate cancer kills more people than my wife's cooking.' Many comics don't make it past 40, he's still working when he's dead. And rightly so.

So we can laugh at him now. Or not. But for me, Mr Monkhouse was one of the finest comics the country's produced. And after one millisecond of Live And Forbidden, I can forgive him Opportunity Knocks.

Click here to buy three Bob Monkhouse stand-up shows - including Live And Forbidden and Exposes Himself – on DVD.

Published: 3 Mar 2008

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