'The only comedian who has made me laugh out loud, in a shop'

Simon Evans on his comedy favourites

I have chosen pieces that have really made me laugh, rather than anything I believe to have been influential on me professionally. I never wanted to be a comic anyway so I’d be hard pressed to identify the comedians that inspired me. Other than the ones I could see were earning a lot money.

Harold Lloyd

From an early age and to this day I think most of the biggest belly laughs I’ve enjoyed have come from physical comedy, something I have absolutely no aptitude for whatsoever. I’ve picked a couple of very obvious candidates,starting with Harold Lloyd.

Here’s a handy starter pack, I think my favourite is the clip at 2.24.

Or the priceless sequence from Safety Last, starting around 13.00 minutes in, in which Lloyd conceals his late arrival at work. The section from 15.00 is as funny as anything I’ve ever seen.

Department stores, with their pretentious emphasis on decorum and finesse, remained a great setting for comedy all the way up to Are You Being Served? of course. But with the greatest of genuine respect I think Lloyd shades Croft & Lloyd.

Laurel and Hardy

The other physical comedy chouce has to be Laurel and Hardy. I think this was where as a child I first saw grown ups being as hapless in their dealings with the physical world as I was and I hope that still happens.  This montage should do the trick.

Scholars of course emphasise that it was Stan Laurel who was the master craftsman, dreaming up new scenarios and choreographing them so perfectly, while Hardy would turn up after a round at the golf course just in time for the first take. But I think Oliver Hardy holds the distinction for me of being the only comedian who has made me laugh out loud, in a shop, just at the sight of a still photograph of his face, purely for the depth of feeling, the battered indignity of his expression. As a duo, more Simon and Garfunkel than Wham, I’d say.

 

 Cheers

Watching great sitcoms was for many years as much about the ritual as anything, the time and the place, the sense of the cycle of the week having at least brought you back here again, for all the other shittier things it did to you in the meantime. That has of course pretty much vanished now. I don’t think any ritual ever satisfied me as much as the appearance of Cheers did on a Friday night on Channel 4.

Channel 4 had a virtual monopoly on classy US sitcoms for years and it served them very well. Cheers stands out for me for the extraordinary warmth it achieved without sacrificing anything in the surgical precision of the dialogue. It was particularly well known for what I now know are called its ‘cold opens’ – the scene which just begins without fanfare and leads into the titles and song.

Cheers’ writers were masters at the art of delivering perfect vignettes of what Cheers was all about (as they were of every other aspect of writing sitcoms). It was not unusual that the sheer perfection in miniature, together with the sentimental nature of the theme song, would spring a tear of gratitude to my eye before the damn thing had even properly started.

 

Trading Places

I’d like to include this next clip from a very funny movie but more as an example of something I’ve always loved as a concept. It’s Denholm Elliot, who I loved in many great roles, both as scene stealer and as lead. He had great range but there was always something compellingly untrustworthy about him, which he had in common with the likes of George Sanders and Cary Grant.

However debonaire and charming he appeared there was a reptilian detachment to him too. It’s a kind of detachment which when it suddenly finds its true voice is devastatingly funny. This tiny clip from the trailer, at 2.38 (he has just been taking a phone message from his supposed social superior) is perfect..

Gielgud of course brought a equally brilliant take on  British butlering panache to Arthur. 

School For Scoundrels

Two of my favourite British comedy actors were Terry-Thomas and Alastair Sim, who both shone in the classic School For Scoundrels. This scene, however, features Ian Carmichael as a gull prey to the ruthless scheming of Peter Jones (in later years the voice of the Guide in The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy of course) and Dennis Price, probably best known as the lead in Kind Hearts and Coronets. In the second clip, after attending the eponymous School (based on Stephen Potter’s hilarious Oneupmanship books) Carmichael gets his own back of course. But for now he is a chump. Lines from this scene were for me as common currency as those of Withnail and Python.

And...

  The Secret Policeman’s Ball

Finally, I’d like to nominate one from the more recent past (though still terrifyingly long ago) – The Secret Policeman’s Ball. VHS copies of the first two shows (recorded off the telly I think) were played into the ground in student days and long after as the default post pub watch. They were extraordinary gatherings of talent and yet had the look and feel of a student review and if I had to pick one event which represented the Changing of the Guard for me, this would be it.

This sketch, in which Cook and Cleese share a park bench, is for comedy enthusiasts almost too holy to watch objectively. Like the scene in Heat when De Niro and Pacino face each other on screen for the first time, or the first time you could get cheese AND onion in a single crisp.

 

  • Simon Evans is at the Soho Theatre from Wednesday until Saturday, before continuing his UK tour. Dates.

Published: 15 Apr 2013

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