Neil Innes: The Fab Fool | Comedy historian Jem Roberts salutes the Eighth Python and Nicest Rutle in the first exploration of The Beatles' comedy careers

Neil Innes: The Fab Fool

Comedy historian Jem Roberts salutes the Eighth Python and Nicest Rutle in the first exploration of The Beatles' comedy careers

Writing comedy history non-fiction to get rich is like cosplaying as a slug to get laid, but there are many good reasons for devoting your life to the pursuit: celebrating the greatest feats in laughter-making history, walking that fine line between waffly analysis and all-too-wacky levity, sharing classic laughs while keeping the metaphorical frog alive.

For me, a crucial justification for what I do is the preservation of the anecdotes and comedy tips of the greats – this is a particular passion of mine, not least because comedy geniuses just keep on dying all the time.

You'd forgive me for wondering whether I'm some kind of comedy grim reaper. I first experienced this with The Clue Bible – the official I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again story – which began composition on the very afternoon news broke of the death of a giant of BBC comedy, Sir David Hatch, only a fortnight after he had promised me an abundance of his hard-won comedy knowledge. The Bible was then compelled to be released as an unplanned tribute to Humphrey Lyttelton, who died two-thirds through the book's writing, with similar cordial promises of tell-all chats ringing in the air. 

For The True History of the Black Adder, we had months of communication problems landing an interview with Rik Mayall, not least due to his loyalty to his nonagenarian agent, and had to ultimately give up on deadline, with threats to mine Rik's unique store of wisdom some other day - two years before he left us with so much unsaid. I think it's also true that I was the last person to have interviewed the great producer Geoffrey Perkins, and actors Warren Clarke and Trevor Peacock, and, live on stage, Terry Jones, whose illness was already too painfully apparent at the time, but whose kindness to me throughout many of my book campaigns was unparalleled. 

Douglas Adams did have the excuse of being long gone before I wrote The Frood, and thankfully both Soupy Twists stars, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, are still gloriously with us, but the determination to quiz the finest comic minds among us while they're here to share their thoughts remains central to my storytelling approach to chronicling comedy history. 

And then there was Neil Innes – the nicest guy in or out of showbiz. Having been entrusted with the celebration of some of the very biggest comedy entities of all time – Blackadder, Hitchhiker's Guide, ISIHAC – it struck me very early on that the single greatest outfit in the history of entertainment, The Beatles, had never been examined from a comedy angle ever before.

As a devout Beatle worshipper, my shelves groaned with far too many Beatle books, and yet, viewed through a red-nose-tinted filter, their entire career, the greatest story ever told, suddenly took on an entirely new light. Thus began a decade-long campaign to make my new book Fab Fools a reality, to create a home for everywhere that the Beatley meets the funny. And where The Beatles met funny, you found Neil Innes.

All of my previous books had been 100 per cent officially authorised by the creators of the comedy in question – or their estate – and so writing a Beatle book represented my first ever step into unauthorised territory.

It didn't seem that impossible that Sirs Paul or Ringo – or indeed, Yoko, or Olivia – might see the value in discussing Beatles comedy and give me at least ten minutes on the phone (they’re Scousers, surely they'd love to talk about comedy for a change?), but besides a simple thumbs up from McCartney's office, that never came to pass. And yet, the avuncular approval of Neil, positively the personification of Beatles comedy, could sort of reassure me that I wasn't operating in an unofficial void. 

I'd first seen him live and kicking in 2006 for the original Bonzo Dog Band reunion, featuring Fry, Ade Edmondson, Phill Jupitus et al, but by the time Fab Fools was ready to go public, there was no performer I had seen more often, be it via Bonzos, Rutles or solo tours, the breadth of his achievements gave him reason to be on the road almost constantly, and I was always loath to miss the fun.

He had also kindly agreed to a chat about his appearance on ISIHAC right at the start of what we'll call my career, and it was no surprise when word of Fab Fools' campaign to remind the world that the greatest rock and roll band in history were FUNNY reached his ear, that Neil was prepared to do all he could to help make it a success – albeit with that same ‘what, me?’ modesty which so totally defined him.

Jem Roberts with Neil outside a pubI wouldn't dare claim to have developed any intimate friendship with Neil, but he was one of those rare performers kind enough to give fans at every gig on the tour the impression that they had a special connection, always happy to stop and chat, the colossal scope of his influence on musical comedy belying the relaxed grooviness of this wise, kind Buddha-esque artist, making time for everyone vying for back-stage attention.

And yet, his enthusiasm for the story I set out to tell made it impossible to suspect it was just empty niceness: ‘Include me, I’ll do anything I can – The Beatles were funny! And you won’t be wasting my time, because I am a Beatles fan!’

Having recorded a typically loony exhortation to the Beatles faithful to support the project in the book's original trailer and hung out casually when the 2019 final Rutles tour reached my neck of the woods (even jamming together on My Little Ukulele), Neil and I kept in touch via emails and DMs. Indeed, I lost my father in the summer of 2019, and Ron Nasty was unstintingly supportive throughout the ordeal. He had also tentatively agreed to accept The Bath Plug Award (rewarded for comedy greatness by the Bath Comedy Festival) when next he was in town, with a possibility of launching the book with a special show at the same time. 

It was just before Christmas 2019 that Neil got in touch to suggest that we finally organised a time to colour in all the grey areas that remained after decades of telling the same stories about bumping into The Beatles at Abbey Road, performing in Magical Mystery Tour, and creating the legendary sound of the Pre-Fab Four.

After the festivities, literally half an hour after I had replied with a possible time, his name began to trend on social media with a devastating crack of thunder. Two days before the start of the 2020s, the cheery, hearty, hail-well-met-fellow Neil Innes, the philosopher clown, musical legend and peerless pasticher, Ron Nasty and Nick Cabaret and Nobby Normal and the Puddle Lane Wizard, had painlessly collapsed on the way to his home in France, without any warning – and we were left bereft in a post-Rutles world, shocked and stunned.

I had learned the hard way that no grief felt by any fan could compare to that of close family and friends, and the lack of such a kind heart beating in this world remains tragedy enough. Neil's own Friends At The End, inspired by the death of his pal George Harrison, tells the all too familiar story of sudden painful bereavement as truthfully as can be.

But to have lost yet another chance to archive fresh memories of the creation of comedy gold – let alone Neil's mooted snarky afterword for the book – was also a heartbreaking blow to our plans, forged in such larkiness so very recently. The arrival of Covid, as well as piling tragedy upon tragedy with the deaths of both Terry J and the endlessly lovely Tim Brooke-Taylor, also put paid to any plans to stage any kind of tribute to Neil's vast achievements in music and comedy. 

It's rare enough ever to have broadcast tributes to dearly departed comedy greats these days; I'd been expecting a Hatch tribute show for over a decade when his ISIRTA pal Brooke-Taylor compounded the oversight, although Tim's glorious final hurrah with the I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again Again   team did provide much comfort, especially if you were lucky enough to be there live, just weeks before he left us

But we've lost so many true greats in recent years, and for a glaring instance, when will Rik's fans get to celebrate his extraordinary life and career together, just as he and Ade had quite deliberately avoided doing at 2002's Posthumorous’ tribute to their comedy hero, Peter Cook?

Releasing Fab Fools in tribute to Neil Innes was of course the very least that could be done to cope with the sad madness of his sudden end, and it's testament to the comparable loveliness of his friend (as in, real friend) The Actor Kevin Eldon (himself of course, the greatest Sir George Martin impersonator alive) that he agreed to step in to pen a heartfelt foreword to the book, not just putting his own case for how funny John, Paul, George and Ringo were, but trying to encapsulate the sheer magnitude of comic and musical genius of which we had all just been deprived. He even blagged me onto the excellent Personal Beatles podcast to jaw about it all.

Maybe as vaccines proliferate, we may yet get to stage our own tribute to Neil, and reward that posthumous Bath Plug Award, and Kevin has reassured me that a big, proper Innes-family-led tribute extravaganza will definitely be happening at some point. 

But thanks to the pandemic, rather like Dudley Moore's demise getting lost amid the column inches on The Queen Mother finally hopping the twig, we're still way off paying the proper homage to Neil – and, for that matter, Tim and Terry – that their comedy achievements deserve.

I hope Fab Fools will be considered a fitting kick-off to a whole array of healing tributes to come – for now, it's finally been released online and in independent bookshops the world over, so do grab a copy now – before the curse of a Jem Roberts book can strike again, and we lose any more beloved entertainers. Maybe I should just write books about Johnson's front bench from now on.


• For more about Jem Roberts’ work, visit his website.

Published: 12 May 2021

What do you think?

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.