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Great Comedy Acts
The X-factor that makes something funny to an audience can differ from generation to generation. While the kids lie breathless with mirth at the antics of an anarchic or surreal performer, their parents might be sitting stony-faced wondering what all the fuss is about. Conversely, the humour of 50 years ago might not translate to the PlayStation and Diet Coke generation of today.
Nevertheless, there are some artistes who are considered universally funny, from the silent era right through the Goons and Monty Python to the very best of up-and-coming comics. But which ones have stood the test of time? Which ones are indisputably comedy greats? Who was/is the comic genius to out-funny them all?
Ladies and gentlemen, we wanted to know your learned opinion on the world's great comedy acts. There are, of course, a number of comedy greats who are lucky enough to have their very own h2g2 entries already in our Guide (some of which you can find at the end of this entry). But comedy by no means stops there, as the h2g2 Community were only too eager to prove...
Graduates of 'Saturday Night Live'
In the late 1960s, there was an insane sketch show called Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in, a crazy collection of characters and comedians that were almost interchangeable: Judy 'Sock it to me!' Carne; Ruth Buzzi as the prudish old lady who regularly beat up a 'dirty old man'; the poems of Henry Gibson; and the delicious sight of a bikini-clad Goldie Hawn, whose giggling prevented her from ever completing a joke.
Two years after the Laugh-in crew moved on to other things (either international stardom or, in some cases, obscurity), another comedy machine began rolling. One of the most successful ensemble sketch shows of all time, Saturday Night Live became North America's No. 1 Comedy Academy, with a number of hugely successful graduates.
The first season aired during my college years, when I was living in a dorm. Our wing was pretty friendly, our doors were open a lot of the time (unless the room was being filled with smoke) and it was amazing on a Saturday night - poke your head out the door and you heard SNL echo from room to room down the hallways.
The original 'players' did things few had seen before on television. They became a cultural phenomenon, America's first 'Rock Star' comedians. Artists such as Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, John Belushi and Gilda Radner paved the way for Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Chris Farley, Jon Lovitz, Adam Sandler, Dennis Miller... and hundreds more.
The tradition of having celebrity guest hosts had the biggest stars of America (and the UK) queuing up for their turn. Entering into the spirit of anarchy and 'anything goes', they'd often find themselves doing very surprising things that they wouldn't have been seen dead doing anywhere else.
And having brought Hollywood to Saturday Night Live, it was only natural for Hollywood to reciprocate with a number of Saturday Night Live-created characters finding themselves immortalised for the Big Screen in films such as The Blues Brothers (1980), Wayne's World (1992), Coneheads (1993) and A Night At the Roxbury (1998). And of course, we have the show to thank for Ghostbusters, the National Lampoon series, the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy and Austin Powers to mention just a few.
Here are just a few golden memories from this legendary show.
I've been trying to decide what my all time favourite skit/character was... and I can't do it! That's how good they were. I loved Roseanne Roseanna Danna, I laugh just thinking about her. But Emily Latella was just as good. And do you remember the Point/Counterpoint take-off that Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin did? No matter what she said, he would turn to her and say, 'Jane, you ignorant slut!' Then there was the Garret Morris bit where he was the Cuban baseball player. And Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford. And Belushi as the Samurai and the killer bee. Or Eddie Murphy as Buckwheat.
...Gilda Radner as Emily Litella, Weekend Update, Gumby, the monologue, Presidential addresses, fake commercials, Jack Handey and many others. Billy Crystal's 'Face' (which is what [Blues singer] Billie Holiday called him when she babysat him as a child)...
... Gilda and Bill Murray played teenagers and Jane Curtin was Gilda's mom and she always fed them egg salad sandwiches. The sketches usually ended with Bill giving Gilda a noogie1. And Gilda was the hyperactive kid bouncing on the bed when she was supposed to be going to sleep and no one would believe her when she said there were monsters in her room...
...have we mentioned Dav Carvey's Church Lady ('So, tell me. Who was it who encouraged you to buy that dress? Was it... Satan?!').
I believe that sex is the most beautiful, natural, and wholesome thing that money can buy.
Former Blind Date contestant and the only famous man to come from Waco, Texas, not to have founded a religion, Steve Martin is, surprisingly, not a graduate of Saturday Night Live, having never actually been a member of the regular team. However, to date he holds the record for hosting it more times than any other guest and so is inevitably linked to the show.
[He] is so talented and versatile and completely hilarious. He's written several movies commenting on life in Los Angeles that crack me up no matter how many times I see them. LA Story, Mixed Nuts, The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains and Bowfinger are all funny and biting. Parenthood is a classic too and his work on Saturday Night Live stands as some of the most memorable comedy ever. He's written plays and essays, [and] I would definitely recommend his essay on the inventor of the CD case. It's too too funny.
He's also presented the annual Academy Awards twice, most recently for the 75th Anniversary ceremony where he pointedly noted:
There are no losers here tonight... but we're about to change all that.
This Korean-American bombshell has long been a fave of the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender community in the USA, but now that she is doing national tours and specials on cable, soon everyone will have a chance to 'discover' her... whether they want to or not! She is very good at making people laugh at big issues like racism, sexism, and general phobias she herself has encountered while growing up as an American with Korean parents. Most of her routines are subtle, but hilarious. However...:
While Cho is indeed hilarious, I would not recommend her stand-up to just anyone. It's been a while since I've seen her older shows, but I just recently saw her latest endeavour. It was riddled with profanity and often focused on details of her sex life which I know a good many people would find highly offensive. It's a very funny show, and I do recommend it, but with caution. And certainly not to my mum!
The Reduced Shakespeare Company
Many students of literature have already come to terms with the fact that William Shakespeare's tragedies are a lot funnier than his comedies. The 'alternative RSC'2, The Reduced Shakespeare Company, have made it their mission to present absolute proof that this is the case. Currently housed in the Criterion Theatre, London, their audiences have enjoyed interpretations of Othello as a rap, Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare's bloodiest work) as a cooking show and a unique version of Hamlet which contains the famous soliloquy delivered in under a minute... backwards!:
From memory, the RSC divide the audience into thirds so that we can workshop a psychoanalysis of Hamlet: once group shouts 'Get thee to a nunnery', the second (in very high pitched voices) cry 'Maybe, maybe not', while waving their hands in the air. The last group must call out (in time to the other two) Ophelia's response: 'Cut the crap, my biological clock is ticking and I wanna baby now!' There are audience members up at the front doing the appropriate actions as well as the RSC frantically trying to organise things.
I was in the third group and had trouble stopping laughing long enough to get this all said in time. I was also very young and didn't know if I should be saying this sort of language in a large tent during an arts festival.
They also do a rather good 'Complete History of America (abridged)', and a version of the Bible too...
Reeves and Mortimer
They're called the modern answer to Morecambe and Wise by some, but Reeves and Mortimer have brought so much more to the world of comedy than that association gives credit for. From Vic Reeves Big Night Out right up to the celebrity gameshow Shooting Stars, the comedic stylings of Reeves and Mortimer have at once both baffled and amused the British public.
Who can forget such priceless gems as:
If the above has left you cold, take some reassurance from the fact that, of all modern comedians, Reeves and Mortimer have the greatest of all 'Y'had to be there' factors. Many just simply don't get them. But for the rest of us, they are an all-too necessary cloud of madness in a serious world. Or something.
The Mary Whitehouse Experience
Often forgotten in the flurry of sketch shows that the BBC produced when the format was back in fashion in the early 1990s, The Mary Whitehouse3 Experience (like many classic comedy series of the past) began life as a radio show, where it boasted the talents of Mark Thomas and Jo Brand. In the move to television, the regular cast was made up of Steve Punt, Hugh Dennis, Rob Newman and David Baddiel. The format consisted more of stand-up style material and satire than the character-based humour of The Fast Show and kept to a more realistic subject matter than off-the-wall acts like Reeves and Mortimer.
Though some characters did pop up in the course of the series such as Jarvis the horrific pederast, Ivan the manic depressive daytime TV presenter and the milky-milky man (who, mind-bogglingly, released a single that was heavily promoted on the show of Radio One's afternoon DJ, Steve Wright).
After a few series the team went their separate ways with Punt and Dennis getting their own rather weak series of sketch shows, and Newman and Baddiel creating their own (far superior) series aptly titled Newman &Baddiel: in Pieces. David Baddiel later teamed up with Frank Skinner, released awful football-related singles and married fellow comedian Morwenna Banks. Rob Newman is still keeping it real, performing in that strange, twilight world of live comedy!
Early British Comedy Films
Archetypal British comedy cinema started in the 1940s. Relying less on slapstick and more on sharp dialogue and tight, almost believable plot-lines, these British Comedies always made the audience cheer for the underdog, whether it was a lovable rogue pitched against the establishment as in I'm All Right, Jack, or a novice making good as in Brothers-In-Law, or perhaps a weak and insignificant establishment pulling off a substantial and unlikely coup, for example The Mouse That Roared or the Ealing Comedies The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit. All excellent.
While the comedy was often slightly dark, the overriding attitude was one of optimism, regularly portraying plucky individual opportunity succeeding over class and privilege in post-war Britain, reinforcing the fact that it was a rag-bag flotilla and Dunkirk Spirit that saved the British from the advancing German military machine.
Famous contributors to Ealing Comedies include Alistair Sim, Alec Guinness, George Cole, Wilfred Hyde-Whyte, Terry Thomas, Ian Carmichael, Peter Sellers, Joyce Grenfell and Kenneth Moore.
Possibly the funniest person to appear on stage while doing a permanent impersonation of a sloth. Famous for an almost narcotic-styled delivery in a whiny, high-pitched voice, arms waving all over the joint and a curious way of setting up an anecdote and then supplying a punchline from so far left-field it's almost scary. For example:
When I was a child my parents told me never to open the cellar door. One day, I was very brave, and I crept up to the cellar door. I pushed it aside, and what did I see? A hallway, front door, hat-stand...
The Fast Show
There can have been few comedy acts who have ground themselves so firmly into the British national subconscious as the cast of The Fast Show. Brainchild of comedians Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson (both of whom had previously worked with Harry Enfield) in 1994, this rag-bag of sketches aimed to literally live up to its name. Few sketches were longer than two minutes, and many barely lasted thirty seconds. To the viewer at first, it seemed unco-ordinated and nonsensical, but as the characters' eccentricities and catchphrases began to hit home repetitively, they were the source for limitless 'office wally' impersonations across the country4.
Higson and Whitehouse recruited fellow comedians Arabella Weir, John Thomson, Simon Day and Mark Williams, each of whom had a slightly different take on the assorted characters, giving the show real depth. To list them all here would be but impossible but some of the best-remembered include:
The Fast Show waved goodbye to BBC TV at Christmas, 2000, with three hour-long specials, though the cast re-united for a theatrical tour in 2002.
That Was The Week That Was smashed broadcasting taboos when it was first aired by the BBC (for one year only) in the early 1960s, surely laying the foundations for subsequent satirical current affairs shows such as Not The Nine O'Clock News, and all that followed. Where would, for example, Mike Yarwood's Harold Wilson have been without Peter Cook's Harold Macmillan to sow the seeds of political impersonation? Relentlessly satirising the cosiness left over from 1950s England, TW3 came at the same time that The Beatles were rolling back the pop-music scene choc-a-bloc full of earnest young men in wooden-buttoned cardigans. The show gave us such legendary wits as Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.
The Two Ronnies
Kings of 1970s sketch-based compilations that seem to have been in perpetual rerun in Australia, Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker emerged from the dust of David Frost's 1960s satirical shows and were brought together by senior TV executives to create a classic double act. Their sketches often relied on the fast delivery of long, spoonerised or speech-impaired interaction (such as the amazing sketch in a hardware store where shop assistant Corbett can't work out whether cockney tradesman Barker wants 'Fork Handles' or 'Four Candles'), cocktail parties where two of the guests entwine each other in a series of comic misunderstandings or long shaggy-dog stories that inevitably involved 'the producer' in some way. They're also famous for their inventive, ongoing serials such as the Jack-the-Ripper-inspired 'The Phantom Raspberry-blower of Old London Town, the satirical battle-of-the-sexes thriller 'The Worm That Turned' and 'Charley Farley and Piggy Malone', a pastiche of 1970s detective duos that had a theme tune even cooler than Starsky and Hutch and The Professionals!
Sometimes mawkish, sometimes manic, Robin Williams first appeared on American television as an alien visiting the Fonz in an episode of Happy Days before getting his own series, Mork and Mindy. He has consistently been one of the funniest, most inventive and most energetic live performers around. His 1984 Live at The Met show for HBO set the standard for large-scale theatre comedy. Unashamed to plunder his own follies and foibles, there is an endearing honesty to his humour that is lacking in some of his contemporaries.
The only time I saw Robin humbled was when Johnny Carson sat him down and praised him - usually comics would get three minutes and then exit, but Johnny called him over, sat him down in 'the chair' and they chatted until the commercial break. Johnny knew talent.
Choosing film roles as diverse as Dead Poets' Society, The Birdcage, Disney's Aladdin series and the immortal Good Morning Vietnam, he has challenged audiences as often as he's challenged himself. Anyone who can't get past the mental image of Mork and those braces should watch What Dreams May Come and let their breath be taken.
Robin is simply the best guest on late-night talk shows. Whatever he's talking about - himself, his family, whatever he's promoting - it's always done with an array of voices, mannerisms, asides and bon mots, causing double-takes from the hosts ('Did Robin just say that?') and then he'll bounce up off the chair and do two minutes of stream-of-thought, non-stop with even more voices and mannerisms.
Jonathan Winters (who later played Robin's fully-grown son in Mork and Mindy) was an early mentor; close your eyes and you can hear Jonny's 'maudie frickert' character, and their interplay on the later Mork episodes is the old pro and the young buck - and the passing of a comedic torch.
I recall the part on Live At The Met where he talks about the difference between British and American policemen. When a criminal is running away from a policeman in Britain, the policeman shouts, 'STOP! Or I'll... shout STOP again!' Observational comedy at its best.
The Big Yin
Scotland's greatest source of wisdom, or a sweary, angry, middle-aged man with a beard. Well, both versions are pretty funny...
Billy Connelly does it for me every time! I just can't stop crying when he's in full flow, and if I'm watching him on video or DVD, I have to rewind whole routines to catch something he said because I'm laughing so hard at the previous sentence. He's so observant of human nature and everyday, but has a certain knack of putting the point across in the most humorous way. No subject is sacred, yet I haven't found anything he's done offensive.
Whether it's a country song with all the miseries of humanity piled one after another, a story about two Irish tourists in Rome drinking pints of the 'green stuff the Pope favours', or his theory of the madman who sneaks around following drunks and throwing diced carrots into their vomit, he's a unique visionary. And, like many comedians, he's also proven himself as a solid actor in films such as The Big Man and Mrs Brown.
SCTV - Toronto
We often get complaints from Canadian Researchers who feel that their valuable contribution to humanity has been ignored. Well not this time, buddies. Ladies and gentlemen, SCTV was, to our Northern brethren, the equivalent of Saturday Night Live. Here are some of SCTV's best moments:
Ah, but there were sooo many good skits. There were three skits I like best, though...
First of all, there was 'Monster Chiller Horror Theater'. 'Count Floyd', a howling vampire (as played by Joe Flaherty) is the filler on this scary film show. However, all the films they show are part of the 'Dr Tongue 3D' saga. Every time it comes on, you are bound to see a 3D film starring the mad scientist Dr Tongue (played by John Candy) and his weird Igor-resembling assistant, Bruno (played by Eugene Levy). The titles ranged from 'Dr Tongue's 3D House of Stewardesses' to 'Dr Tongue's 3D House of Pancakes'... And all of them included a silly '3D' effect in which they shove objects close to the camera and pull them away.
Second, there was the SCTV news with Floyd Robertson, the 'real' identity of Count Floyd (again played by Joe Flaherty) and Earl Camembert (played by Eugene Levy). Throughout the news, amazing and stupid stories would come on. Part of the jokes were about the news, but the real joke was the relationship between Floyd and Earl. Floyd is a serious newscaster who is very dignified. Earl is not always serious and a total klutz. They are completely incompatible. They write their own stories, and thus Earl's are always either insignificant or false. They face many problems, from meeting Walter Cronkite to being invaded by the Mafia.
Third, there is 'Farm Film Celebrity Blow-up'. This has to be one of the funniest and yet oddest skits they came up with. It is hosted by Big Jim McBob (Joe Flaherty) and Billy Sol Hurok (John Candy), a couple of farmers who apparently have somehow bought their own 'Film and Celebrity review show' on SCTV. Also, in every skit, a celebrity comes to see them, and the celebrity, well... blows up.
Also, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas created a whole Canadian joke thing about saying 'eh' all the time. At which time, the word 'Hoser' became common lingo. And all Canadians suddenly started wearing toques and saying 'eh' (not that they hadn't done so before but now they did it with a sense of irony rather than basic self-preservation against minus 30 degree temps). Though there isn't, and probably has never been, any proper excuse for the 'eh' thing.
...and what about 'As the Stomach Turns'? The SCTV daily soap opera?
The Three Stooges
The Three Stooges had many line-ups over the years, but Moe, Larry and Curly were probably the best known.
I was never a big Shemp or Joe fan...
For me, the line-up of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard really defined the Stooges for me. This line-up also filmed many of the comedy shorts that are still seen on American television today. Their slapstick humour and timing are priceless. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, these perpetually down-on-their luck clowns always seemed to be in a position at the end of the show to throw a pie in the face of a wealthy snob.
Is there anything funnier than a pie fight?
Mumbling, bumbling 'magician' who wore a fez and seemed perpetually entertained by the oddities of life, such as how you can order a hot cup of tea, but if you leave it for five minutes it becomes a cold one (cue Tommy beckoning the waiter: 'I asked for a hot cup of tea...'). He also released a single, 'Don't Jump Off The Roof, Dad' (which continued, 'You'll make a hole in the yard'):
I listened to this only yesterday. His infectious laughing as he tried to get in at the introduction, but kept missing his queue, had me in tears.
Tragically, in a case of irony that escaped no-one, Cooper died onstage during a Royal Variety Performance being broadcast live on television to the British nation. During a conjuring trick, he keeled over and fell to the floor. Everyone continued to laugh, because they thought it was part of the act. Only when the call-out for a doctor came over the loudspeakers did people realise it wasn't meant to be funny. Entertaining people to his last second, he was a genuine comedy God.
While staying with a friend up in Worcester before Christmas I ended up going to see a play called Frankie and Tommy. It told the story of Tommy's early performances alongside his friend Frankie, entertaining the troops out in Egypt at the end of WW2. Frankie and Tommy performed as a double act until Tommy's behaviour and drinking drove the act apart. Tommy went on to become a huge success while Frankie drifted into obscurity and eventually gave up performing professionally.
It was an evening of many emotions. The two actors performed some of the show routines/sketches which were hilarious, but there was also the other side of things; life and relationships off stage. After we had witnessed 'Tommy's' death, and heard about the remainder of Frankie’s life it was difficult to decide who had the best on things in the long run.
A truly thought provoking evening.
I know two tunes, one is 'Claire de Lune' and the other one... isn't.
'The Great Dane' Victor Borge was talented enough to be taken as a 'serious' concert pianist, but was also a natural comedian. He had a dry wit, and his dignified demeanour made the physical humour he worked into his routines all the funnier. He based his routines on music-related gags, but he'll be best remembered for his 'phonetic punctuation'.
His rendition of 'A Night at the Opera' is absolutely brilliant, starting with a conductor who walks sideways, through to the soprano who makes her entrance 'single pile' and who dies 'by stabbing herself between the two big trees'.
Another of his most popular routines is the one where he cut-and-pastes pieces of music together, and then, having accomplished his masterpiece, plays a middle C on the piano and gets raucous applause.
Discussing the life of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, he said:
Pete was born in Voitkysnk. When he was a little boy he didn't play in the streets of Voitkynsk, like the other little children of Voitkynsk... because when he was one month old his parents moved to St Petersburg!
A contemporary of The Beatles and still going strong, 'Doddy' is still entertaining people all over the country, young and old alike with a sense of humour that can only really be described as 'daft'. Though he's well into his seventies, you wouldn't know to look at him. He still lives in Knotty Ash, Liverpool, the place he has lived virtually all his life.
He started entertaining in the late 1950s as both a comedian and a singer; he boasts the accolade of being one of Liverpool's most successful solo artists to have appeared in the British Singles charts, racking up 20 British 'Top 40' singles and a Number One - 'Tears' - which remains one of the highest-selling songs of the 1960s.
Obviously, though, his main claim to fame is as a comedian. He is universally lauded throughout the comedy world as a genius. Though he was unsuccessful in breaking through the notoriously difficult American market, in Britain there are few who have matched him. His trademarks are the tickling stick (a long, multicoloured feather-duster that's the source of many a joke), and his followers, the diddy men (a band of buck-toothed midgets who all wear stove-pipe hats and work in the 'Jam Butty Mines' of Knotty Ash6). The only way to appreciate his humour is to go and see him live. His performances are relentless, they always overrun their published times (to this extent, he's the comedy equivalent of Bruce Springsteen) and a better value-for-money- entertainer it's hard to find.
He has been in many television shows, and has recently been involved in two Audience with Ken Dodd shows on ITV, which have both been successful. However he was also involved in a tax evasion court case, of which he was proved innocent. In subsequent live appearances, he's been heard to joke:
In the old days, tax used to be a penny in the pound... I thought it still was!
Also in the h2g2 Comedy Hall of Fame
... and Finally
A word from a professional funnyman:
According to a recent poll on a British comedy website, the funniest living comedians are... Peter Kay, Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly, Ricky Gervais, Johnny Vegas, Steve Coogan, John Cleese, Robin Williams, Lee Evans, Harry Hill.
The funniest dead ones were listed as... Bill Hicks, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper, Laurel & Hardy, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Groucho Marx and Les Dawson.
Note that it's a UK comedy site, so the absences of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Sam Kinison and Richard Pryor can be understood, if not entirely forgiven.
Notice also that the Chubby Browns, Bob Monkhouses and Joe Pasquales of the world are not mentioned. It's those comedians who are new, fresh and different that attain longevity. And for every Richard Pryor there's ten Richard Blackwoods who will blossom and then be forgotten, because they do nothing new.
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