'I find this hysterical... but am I supposed to?'

Will Franken chooses his comedy favourites

The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus Box Set

A bit of a cliche, perhaps, but structurally I'd be nowhere without Monty Python, especially the Flying Circus episodes. They were the ones who taught me the artistic beauty of presenting a comedic framework that mirrors the workings of the frenetic subconscious. Whether smooth, crude, overtly logical or, at times even tenuous, their use of transitions demonstrated superbly that a comedic thought is never finished, but rather morphs into something new and equally, if not more so, sublime than its predecessor.

One could argue - as indeed I have - that the Flying Circus is Joyce’s Ulysses transformed across space, time, and genre and infused with hundreds of belly laughs in the process. Of course, enough can’t be said about the actual content - a hodgepodge of highbrow, lowbrow, irreverent absurdism, and even acerbic satire. It truly was the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach to comedy that said ‘enough’ to linear convention.

My favorite episode to this day is the finale of season three, The British Show Biz Awards, punctuated throughout by Eric Idle’s over-the-top rendition of a sanctimonious Richard Attenborough.

Brewster McCloud (1970), directed by Robert Altman

It’s hard to single out one Altman film, but since there isn’t any definitive box set of his works, if I had to pick just one, it would be Brewster McCloud. Altman has a specific knack for two things that are very dear to me in my own creative process; a) overheard snippets of conversation and b) extremely weird scenarios and characters.

The feeling I got the first time I saw an Altman film was the same feeling I had after listening to Zappa’s Uncle Meat, reading Waiting For Godot, and even watching my first episode of Flying Circus - that is,’I find this hysterical. But am I supposed to?’

Altman stylistically went against the grain of everything that’s supposed to make a great screen comedy work, but succeeded anyway. Rather than bring an hilarious line to the forefront, it’s almost inaudible background noise. Take the scene in Brewster where two cops find a joint on the ground. One asks if it’s marijuana. The other responds that there’s only one way to find out. The first agrees and prepares to light it up before the other says, ‘Have to take it down to the lab.’ Brilliant.

Preston Sturges Collection

Luckily, there is a great box set of the works of 1940s-era American director Preston Sturges. It’s missing a few gems, such as the 1948 Rex Harrison black comedy Unfaithfully Yours, but nevertheless still contains some hysterical essentials like Hail the Conquering Hero, Christmas in July, and, my personal favorite, Sullivan’s Travels.

Like Altman, Sturges was adept at concocting delightfully convoluted storylines. Consider the schizophrenic vacillations of Sullivan’s Travels. A rich Hollywood director disguises himself as a bum in order to research his next project about poverty. His true identity is stolen and he’s found guilty of his own murder. The inmates on his chain gang are taken out on Sundays to watch cartoons where everyone laughs and Sullivan learns a valuable lesson. The poor don’t want to hear about poverty. They want to laugh.

Thus, Sturges accomplishes what every comedian secretly wants: to make folks laugh AND cry. Consider the touching placard that opens up the film: ‘To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.’

A Comprehensive Anthology of the works of Jonathan Swift

From Sullivan’s Travels, we travel backwards to Gulliver’s Travels. I tend to think of the 18th Century as the Golden Age of Smart-Asses with Swift being lord over all. A time where a gentleman never laughed out loud, but smiled wryly. And a razor sharp wit held just as many persuasive possibilities as a sword.

I was obsessed with Modest Proposal for many years. So much so that I committed the entire work to memory and made a few extra bucks during college summer sessions, visiting various literature courses on campus and doing a recitation of the work along with an accompanying slide show. I never tire of flipping through Directions to Servants either. Until recently, there’s always been a tinge of class warfare in comedic works, beyond Swift to Twain, through The Little Rascals and even, one might argue, up to Revenge of the Nerds.

It’s to Swift that we should tip our hats in this regard. All the essential lessons of true satire are firmly enshrined in his works: 1) Subvert the reigning orthodoxies, 2) stand aloof from society in order to accurately ridicule it, and 3), above all else, BE FUNNY!

Peter Greenaway’s The Falls (1980)

What is The Falls? Well, the obvious answer is The Falls is a movie by director Peter Greenaway, better known for the cult hitThe Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. The real question is, is The Falls a comedy? I certainly consider The Falls a comedy even though I’ve seen it all the way through over ten times and haven’t laughed once. But, boy, has it done a number on my brain.

It’s the most fascinating and excessive piece of experimental cinema I’ve ever had the privilege to see. A mockumentary on the survivors of the unexplained VUE (Violent Unknown Event) all with last names beginning with the letters F-A-L-L. What renders this a masterwork of film comedy for me is the fact that, like all good satire, the utter absurdity of it all is presented with multitudinous straight faces for well over three hours.

Greenaway never drops his guard once, containing all the beautiful madness he’s woven together within an unflinchingly serious framework. One might argue that the obsessiveness with which Greenaway created this world and relates it to the viewer in such straightforward tones is just another comic layer to this already heavily multi-layered film.

Peter Cook’s four 1993 Appearances on Clive Anderson Talks Back

If any one performer embodied the invaluable characteristic of being able to (quite literally) write on his feet, it was Peter Cook. A man who was almost as fascinating for his creative process as he was for the works he created. Something that I admire and try to emulate within my own work. That is to say, begin with a face and a voice. Let the “real” you disappear in so doing. And then let that character do your writing for you. It’s almost a sort of comedic possession.

It could be argued that Cook’s only rival in completely inhabiting a character to the point of disseminating and ultimately losing one’s true self entirely was Peter Sellers - but even Sellers, great as he was, didn’t do his own writing.

So why the Clive Anderson clips? Why bypass the immortal One-Legged Tarzan sketch or the equally hysterical coal miner monologue? Firstly, I believe the characters in those clips (House, Latchley, Daley, and Beauchamp) represent a diverse cross-section of Cook’s range. Secondly, though I hesitate to use the word ‘inspiration’, I do enjoy seeing Cook having fun later in his career despite his self-destructive tendencies. And, most importantly, they’re extremely funny.

Sadly, Channel 4 have not allowed any clips of this show to appear online

  • Will Franken is playing at The Soho Theatre, London, from February 28 to March 9. Click here for a review of the show from the Edinburgh Fringe.

Published: 25 Feb 2013

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