The Funniest 4 Minutes in the History of Television?

In January of 1965, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who had been pursuing solo careers since leaving Beyond the Fringe a year or two earlier, were commissioned to produce a TV series (of six shows, the standard arrangement at the time) for the BBC.  The pairing of the two was almost accidental; late the previous year, Dudley Moore had been assigned a one-hour special, and Peter Cook was one of his guests; the comic chemistry between them was so immediately apparent that the BBC decided to cast them as a team.

Their new series was called Not Only...But Also, and it instantly became a huge hit, genuine must-see-TV.  In a country with only three television stations, a hit of that magnitude reaches almost literally every sentient human being; the day after each episode, bus conductors would be rehearsing bits from it while they collected fares, its catch-phrases were quoted ubiquitously, its recurrent characters were almost as familiar as the Prime Minister.  Independent of its enormous popularity, it was ground-breaking in any number of ways, providing a forum for Cook's alarmingly, idiosyncratically brilliant comic imagination and Moore's antic resourcefulness as a performer.  And it was, to my mind, consistently funnier than the more celebrated Monty Python's Flying Circus, which was to follow some four years later and which achieved world-wide distribution and far greater fame.

Early in its run, in the spring of 1965, the show aired a musical sketch which, when I saw it on the night, simultaneously reduced me to a gelatinous mass of helpless laughter and astonished me with its flouting of virtually every comic norm my comedy-writer father had instilled in me as sacrosanct and inviolable.  It combined puerile, almost infantile silliness with an implicit philosophical nihilism.  And when, three nights ago, I chanced upon a clip of it, I was delighted to discover my reaction was the same as it had been that first time, 45 years ago.  I laughed just as hard, and wrestled in similar wonderment with the same question, namely, what precisely made this demented farrago of a sketch so fucking funny?

Before we proceed any farther, we probably should take a look at the thing itself.  So here it is:

Some of its performance elements are simply, classically funny.  Dudley Moore's crazed enthusiasm, for example, so utterly disproportionate, and unrelated, to the job at hand.  And the stylings of Joe Melia, a British comic actor of modest reputation who nevertheless, from the moment of his belated entrance, contrives to gobble up the entire scene.  His constant irritated sensitivity to the incursions of the absurdly oversized brim of Moore's Robin Hood cap, for example; those surreptitious sidelong glances in its direction are almost undetectable at first, but become increasingly hilarious with each apprehensive repetition.  And his inability to whistle during the whistling portion of the song, an incapacity to which he first reacts with chagrin and then attempts to mask with a rather desperate look of feigned bravado.  And the fruity, old-fashioned, quasi-operatic voice with which he sings his solos.

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Erik Tarloff is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist.

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