27 Jul 2009: The best routines live forever in comedy folklore – but which ones do comedians remember most fondly?
Big Train: the New Office Manager sketch
Big Train, which was on television between 1998 and 2002, is my all-time favourite sketch show. This sketch, in which a boss breaks the unpopular news that Tom Henderson will be the new office manager, makes me laugh every time, purely because of its repetition. If it’s done properly, repetition seems to be the funniest thing. The eight office workers all say exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way, throughout the sketch. Every single time you get to the part where they all say, “No way, I don’t believe it, you’re joking, the guy is a wanker!” I just can’t stop laughing.
Swearing in comedy is a tough one. When it isn’t clever and funny, it can be offensive. And lazy. But when it works, it’s a brilliant tool: the use of “wanker” there is genius. It’s the fact that it’s inappropriate in an office that makes it funny. Like the rest of Big Train, the sketch takes an everyday situation and makes it extraordinary. The show doesn’t have a gimmick, apart from its portrayal of this slightly surreal world.
The ending is a bit mental. Someone called Mandy Ward is mentioned, the office workers raise and lower their shoulders in unison and chant “Hocta, hocta, hocta” – but otherwise they’re super-serious throughout. Really, it should come across as flat and unfunny but the cast, which includes Simon Pegg, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon and Mark Heap, know exactly what they’re doing. In fact, they are four of the funniest comedy performers around.
They make it look easy, but I bet it wasn’t. Anything that involves timing is a challenge and here there are eight people synchronising themselves perfectly. It’s so precise that I wondered if they looped it, using one shot over and again. But it’s only 90 seconds long and is shot as you see it: Simon Pegg is sitting in the same position, arms resting on the side of his chair, but his face contorts slightly differently each time he says “wanker”.
Sketches are often criticised for being too long. Big Train sketches are edited right down until they’re as short as possible. I always used to get myself ready to laugh when I was watching it, and then the sketches exceeded my wildest expectations.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore: the Lengths sketch
I’m laughing just thinking about this slightly obscure sketch, which was broadcast in the late 60s on Cook and Moore’s TV series Not Only . . . But Also. It’s very long, about eight or nine minutes, and they play two chaps, George and Reg, who work on a ridiculously complicated switchboard system that relies on colour-coded phones. Various people – such as Alan in sales, and Bernard – keep calling and asking for “lengths”. At one point Cook, playing George, says in a high-pitched, camp voice: ‘We’re up to our eyes here, we’ve got lengths missing.’ It starts out rel-atively linear and quickly becomes surreal, with Pete and Dud talking to each other as opposed to the people on the other end of the phones.
At the start, Pete says: “Alan, sales? Do you want to talk to him?” And Dud replies: “No . . . that bloke gets up my nose.” Pete insists: “Have a word with him, otherwise he’ll hang up – you know Alan.” There are catchphrases in it, too: Dud is talking to someone called Bernard and he says, “I can’t talk to you, ’cause he’s here . . . Yeah, I love you, too.” All of a sudden it becomes wonderfully random and absurdist. At one point the actress Sybil Thorndike phones up about a cider commercial. Then they keep blaming the missing lengths on someone called Daphne, and they drop in all these great little catchphrases: “I think Daphne’s the weak link in the chain here.”
As well as being fantastically assured, it really shows off the timing they shared. Some double acts have instinctive timing: Pete and Dud complement each other; they fit together like tongue and groove. Their usual status dynamic is not so apparent in this sketch, where they are evenly matched; in many of the classics, Pete is meant to know more than Dud.
I first heard it when I was a boy and it’s one of those sketches that became a family thing: my dad and I still quote it at each other now. One of us will say, “Can’t talk now, he’s here.” I dug it out recently and it hasn’t aged at all. There are so many Pete and Dud sketches I could recite more or less verbatim. Lengths wins out because you can lose yourself in it.
The Two Ronnies: the Squash sketch
The Squash sketch is one of my absolute favourites. Ronnie Corbett enters a changing room in immaculate squash gear and a headband, red of face and covered in sweat. Ronnie Barker enters with shirt and trousers, cycle clips and a tennis racket. All very casual. Corbett is absolutely furious because he’s an almost professional-standard squash player, a really hot player, and Barker is the idiot with whom he was lumbered for a game of squash. It is superb; you’re into it the moment it starts.
It was beautifully written by Colin Bostock-Smith, a regular comedy writer on shows such as Not The Nine O’Clock News and Smith & Jones. The idea is very simple: Corbett is mortified to have been saddled with this rank amateur. Little Ron does beautiful mortification. Barker thinks it’s all gone awfully well. The more he speaks in a very nice, amiable way, the more it enrages Corbett. There are no jokes or punch lines; it’s all about character – I think the best sketches are character driven. The makeup was wonderful; Corbett is scarlet, with sweat dripping off him. His shoulders are rounded. He’s absolutely knackered.
When Corbett and Barker met in the late 60s they hit it off immediately. The first thing they ever did in front of a camera was a sketch written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones. It was a very quick, one-joke sketch. Corbett is a police officer behind his desk. Barker comes in and says, “Morning, Super.” Corbett replies, “Hello, wonderful.” That was it. But it was enough for everyone to realise that it was serendipity to get these two men together.
It’s interesting how drastically the length of sketches has changed since then. Look back at The Dick Emery Show and you’ll find sketches that are five minutes long. Squash was probably just under four minutes and seemed the perfect length. But even that might seem too long now, because the pace of television is different. The attention span – or so television people believe – is so much shorter. The groundbreaker was, of course, The Fast Show. Its name gives it away.
Comedy is a strange animal to analyse. It either works or it doesn’t. When it does, you’re very happy, but you’re never quite sure why. I always quote this line: analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies.
Barry Cryer is a regular panelist on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, which returns later this year.
Richard Pryor: the Pet Monkey sketch
Richard Pryor was absolutely brilliant at anthropomorphising animals. I love this sketch, in which his two pet monkeys die and the German shepherd that lives next door – which is usually vicious and on the attack – gently asks him what’s up. Pryor plays the grieving pet owner and the German shepherd, and it’s utterly convincing. You’re right there in the back yard with them. Pryor’s big-eyed German shepherd face breaks your heart. He says, “What’s the matter, Rich?” When he explains that the monkeys have died, the dog looks so sad and then says very seriously, “Shit, I was going to eat them, too!” The dog consoles Richard for a while and then, before they part, he adds, “Now you know I’m going to be chasing you again tomorrow?”
Like most great comedians Pryor was a great actor, too. He was able to stand up on stage and play all the characters in any given sketch. He could be an animated car, or a woman at the end of the phone, and he would deliver both with pathos. He had a wonderful physicality and he was so deliciously cute that he could get away with making jokes about almost anything. He may have agonised over every sketch but he always appeared to be presenting the audience with spontaneous material. Nothing he says seems prepared or contrived.
He was also an absolute master when it came to connecting with his audience’s soul. He only knew how to speak from his heart. It’s something that other comics struggle for years to achieve and, for most of us, it’s very hit and miss. I watch him and wonder why other comedians bother. I can’t think of anyone else who had such utterly dark, painful experiences and yet was able to present them in a funny way that never detracted from the seriousness behind them. He was a revolutionary.