The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator says: ‘Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.’ There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says ‘OK, now what?’
Everyone knows that you can’t analyse humour, any more than you can capture music in words. Trying to work out why something is funny is like dissecting a frog to find out what makes it tick. The joke came top in a survey and the organiser has his own ideas about why it was so popular:
Professor Wiseman said the gag almost certainly originated from a 1951 Goons sketch written by Spike Milligan. He thought the joke contained all three elements of what makes a good gag – anxiety, a feeling of superiority, and an element of surprise.
“It plays on the death theme and it makes us feel superior to the complete idiot who does not understand,” he said. “It also has the surprise element as we don’t see the death coming.”
“I think Spike was a genius with that great kind of surreal humour,” he added. “He actually once wrote a sketch about finding the world’s funniest joke so it’s a fantastic quirk.”
Now all this comes as no surprise to us British post-war baby-boomers. We grew up laughing at Spike’s anarchic comedy and our forced landing in sober-sided adulthood was cushioned by two TV shows that owed a huge debt to his madcap legacy – Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Not Only … But Also.
I was too young to hear the Goon Show broadcast live, though I’ve heard most of it since. My first dose of Milligan was Silly Verse For Kids, a Christmas present for 1959. My brother and I would roll around the floor to stuff like this:
Today I saw a little worm / A-wriggling on his belly / Perhaps he’d like to come inside / And see what’s on the telly
There were holes in the sky / Where the rain gets in / But they’re ever so small / That’s why rain is thin
The following year, what reduced us to quivering jelly were the letters to Harry Secombe written on a sea voyage in A Dustbin of Milligan. One joke, reconstructed from memory, is typical Spike – he reminds me of a high-diver, who can only gain the best scores by attempting a greater level of difficulty:
The motto of the Shipping Company was, The More You Eat The Cheaper You Travel. This morning at breakfast I left a Scotsman trying to eat enough to enable him to travel free.
Who else would have dared that one? The intensity of Spike’s clowning, I discovered recently, came from writing these books while he was terrified that his bi-polar breakdowns would destroy his marriage and thus stop his access to the children. He was writing the silly stuff to keep his kids on his side. And to think, we all benefited from that … don’t know about you, but it sends a shiver up and down my spine. Laughter and tears are always closer than you think.
Aged 17 I went to see him in his West-End one-man show Son of Oblomov, the story of a young man who spends all day in bed. As you can imagine, I found that easy to relate to. There had been a full cast but they couldn’t keep up with Spike and dropped out one by one. The show opens with a spotlight on a bed. Somebody is under the covers. There is a loud knocking at the door and Spike’s head emerges from the bedclothes, with a daft nightcap, to furious applause. He establishes instant audience rapport by miming a hilarious range of emotions before going to a door and nervously opening it. Light floods in but nothing else.
Puzzled, he indicates he will go out and investigate. So far he hasn’t uttered a word. He exits. We are then treated to a lengthy symphony of ridiculous noises – screeches, bells, whistles, explosions and more – both live and recorded, before Spike enters from the opposite side of the stage at pace, his nightshirt flapping around his thin legs, slamming that door behind him. Panting, he turns to the audience and announces: ‘Nobody there!’ Rushing back to bed, he dives under the covers. The spotlight fades to black.
A little while and many laughs later, Spike spots a couple of late-comers pushing past audience knees to their seats. He asks for the house lights to be turned up and sits on the edge of the stage, legs dangling. “The story so far, folks!” he says and proceeds to tell them what has happened, mysteriously adding one element that hasn’t.
The couple sit down and the ‘action’ continues for a bit. Then Spike says something that causes this couple and nobody else to burst out laughing. They falter in confusion as everyone else slowly cottons on to his brilliant ruse and their laughter builds like a series of waves. I’ve never heard anything like it. We are in the hands of a comedy god, a cosmic conjurer, playing with us like toys. The show continued and I actually saw people falling out of their seats with laughter. It is one of my happiest memories.
Spike’s appearances on TV chat-shows were like high-wire acts. Would he make the perilous catwalk or crash to the ground? You never knew. Some – like my grandma who’d tut-tutted at first seeing the Beatles – just found him silly. She was right, of course, but I always thrilled to his wild risk-taking. How could you know what was acceptable unless you found out where the line was?
The putative Pythons had come up with a lot of funny sketches with weak punch-lines. Terry Jones talks of a light-bulb moment when, walking upstairs, he suddenly remembered Spike’s Q5 show. With such a dense flow of jokes, you didn’t need punch-lines. Just bring on a comedy policemen to stop the nonsense. And Terry Gilliam explains how he was given the ending of one sketch and the beginning of another and asked to come up with a cartoon to join them. That’s freedom, he grins.
Favourite moments in Q5 include the Dalek coming home for his tea and a spoof David Attenborough visiting the East End Cock-a-Knees as if they are some exotic foreign tribe. Spike’s radical comedy kicked a hole in stuffy and genteel post-war ‘humorousness’ and greatly broadened the scope of what could be attempted. As to The Goons, there are so many wonderful moments – who can forget Eccles explaining the advantages of the stopped watch that’s right twice a day? But here is my favourite moment. You need to do the voices to get the full benefit but, hey, I’ll take the risk that it will fall as flat as a pancake. Spike was never afraid to risk that.
Bluebottle How dare you call me thick! I’ll have you know, I’m as intelligent as the next man!