Deeply insightful about the worst corners of humanity... while being extraordinarily clownish | Ben Van Der Velde picks his comedy favourites

Deeply insightful about the worst corners of humanity... while being extraordinarily clownish

Ben Van Der Velde picks his comedy favourites

Victor Borge

 

I adore Tim Minchin, Bill Bailey and had my mind blown when my Dad introduced me to the lyrical and manual dexterity of Tom Lehrer, but before I knew any of them I was weaned on VHS tapes of this Danish genius. 

Like the best musical comedians he is an obscenely talented man (he could easily have been a concert pianist) being very silly indeed. 

In his pomp he was world famous and performing routines that wouldn't have looked out of place at ACMS (Alternative Comedy Memorial Society) for their perfectly executed and hilarious smart-arsery.  They're the comedy equivalent of tablets of stone brought down from Mount Sinai: Inflationary Language, Phonetic Punctuation and classical variations on Happy Birthday are the sort of routines that should be taught in every school as examples of flawless writing. 

He had it all: musical virtuosity, a really funny accent, brilliant facial expressions and lean, smart writing.  A natural clown with the brain of a genius.

The Goon Show

 

The absolute kings of comedy.  Unmatched, unparalleled and never to be bested. 

On long car journeys my Dad used to play tapes of them to me and I obsessed about the episode The Lost Treasure of Loch Lomond, all about a Spanish Armada that had sunk in Loch Lomond. 

Hercules Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty convince Neddie Seagoon that the waters of the lake have restorative properties (‘See those hills over there? They're 300 years old’) so that he will drink the whole thing and reveal the treasure hidden beneath the waters. 

I played that tape to death and when I discovered there were another 150 episodes it blew my mind that anyone could be that prolific. 

Like listening to The Beatles – who adored them – there's always something new to discover and the Goons always sound like they're having more fun than the audience, but never in a self-indulgent way. 

They packed their shows with every trick in the book: world class wordplay, silly voices, satire, wonky history, bizarre sound effects and improvisation which seemed naughty in the 1950s and still do now.  Throw into that the sort of twisted logic that would have Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll giving a standing ovation, two of the finest comedy performers of all time in Spike Millican and Peter Sellers doing their very best to keep Harry Secombe's joyous, infectious giggle brimming over the airwaves and you have my comedy happy place.

Victoria Wood

 

I used to love watching my Mum and her sister watching Victoria Wood.  Nothing else in the world made them laugh so hysterically and uncontrollably. 

My parents used to be in an amateur dramatics group and one year they put on a revue where one of the group sang The Ballad of Barry and Freda and for a while I thought it was the best song in the world. 

I turned up to as many rehearsals as I could just to heard the line ‘Beat me on the bottom with a Woman's Weekly!’ When I was eight it was my equivalent of screaming ‘Leonard Bernstein!’ during REM's It's The End Of The World As We Know It.

Wood was a masterful user of language and imagery.  The way she used the mundane/absurd axis in the same way as Alan Bennett in her writing was brilliant, but where he is far too cosy and wistful, there's a real bite in her writing and performance that made her impossible to stop watching.

Blazing Saddles

 

Mel Brooks is considered an untouchable God in my family.  Coming from a Jewish background there's always been a strong love of Borscht Belt comedy in the house, but Brooks is on a whole different plane.

The rest of my family prefer The Producers, but for me this is just the funniest, silliest, warmest and most daring comedy film I've ever watched. Every performance is a stand-out: from Gene Wilder's shaky-handed sharp-shooter to Madeleine Kahn's daffy femme fatale, right down to Dom DeLuise's angry camp cameo. 

There's a tedious fashion at the moment for people suggesting ‘you can't say anything any more’ and that this film wouldn't get made today because of the jokes, but what's so refreshing is that whilst there are jokes about slavery, the KKK, the N-word, racial stereotypes and horse-punching, super-strength morons, it's as though they've all been written by Looney Toons. 

That's Mel Brook's true genius: he's deeply insightful about the worst corners of humanity whilst being extraordinarily clownish. 

 

Eddie Izzard

 

Every comedian has at least one iconic stand-up whom they copied unashamedly when they started and Eddie is mine.  When I was 16 my friends and I talked like him, thought like him and could quote his routines chapter and verse. 

The breadth of his subject matter is incredible – who knew you could make the siege of Troy, supermarket trollies and the Book of Noah hilarious, all in the same 15 minutes? 

My favourite thing about Eddie is the way he is unflinching in his silliness.  Years and years of honing his craft (and apparently regularly dying on his arse) have given him titanium-plated self-confidence, but not at the expense of being brash or cocky. 

Having watched all his solo shows endlessly, my new favourite watching habit on YouTube is seeing Eddie do his early shows at Montreal or on American TV.  Almost every time he utterly bewilders the audience for the first couple of minutes and then suddenly he's getting applause breaks for incredibly perceptive observational humour but told using field mice, velociraptors and talking bread. 

Everyone always talks about the rhythm and semi-improvisational nature of his set - he once called his writing ‘molten’ which I love. But the way he doesn't give an inch and brings the audience into his skew whiff version of reality is breathtaking.

Terry Pratchett

 

He's not a stand-up comedian but, along with Eddie Izzard, he's probably the biggest influence on the way I think and write - both comedically and seriously. 

I devoured all his Discworld books from the age of eleven and then kept re-reading them to the extent that I'd rather settle down with a copy of Pyramids or Interesting Times than watch a movie. 

Like some of the other performers on this list, I fell in love with the encyclopaedic breadth of his knowledge, storytelling and joke-writing.  He could make anything funny, no matter how obscure or mundane. 

He is also happy to throw every joke in the book at readers, from daft puns to literary allusions to callbacks that span entire series of books. His novels became ever more sophisticated. I really admire the way he kept describing the Discworld – a flat planet on the back of a giant turtle, resting on the back of four giant elephants – and could always find a new way to wring more laughs out of it, even 30 books into the series. 

His characterisation is immaculate - the exchanges between Machiavellian ruler Lord Vetinari and his grizzled, cynical but always moral chief of police Samuel Vimes are worthy of any Oscar-winning movie, but are shot through with Blackadderish putdowns and Life of Brian-esque commentary on the absurdity of politics, faith and justice. 

For balance, he has also written a song about anal sex with hedgehogs.  If that's not a sign of timeless genius, I don't know what is.

• Ben Van Der Velde: Fablemaker is on at Laughing Horse @ Ushers at 17.05 from August 1

Published: 28 Jul 2019

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