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.
But the uncomplicated burlesque character of some of the humor is outweighed by something much more subversive, a strategy of cheated expectations, of disconnection and dissociation, of an apparently random, arbitrary assemblage of ill-matched and discordant elements. Why, for example, does this ostensible olde English ballad sound like a really cheesy Broadway show tune? And why is the tune, so blandly generic in its fatuous cheerfulness, at the same time so annoyingly catchy? Why does Dudley Moore choose to whisper the second verse (which is the same as the first, consisting almost exclusively of the name "Alan A'Dale"), with secretive, confiding glances, as if he's letting us in on something even his fellow performers may not know?
Why is the Merrie Man at camera right (I believe, although I haven't been able to confirm, that the actor's name is Bill Wallis) wearing those absurdly anachronistic thick black-framed glasses? Any London-based viewer from that period would have recognized them as the distinctive product of Hamelin's Dispensing Opticians on New Bond Street, and one can say with complete confidence that Hamelin's wasn't dispensing much of anything during the reign of King Richard I, and that no one in Sherwood Forest sported such a stylish set of eyewear. And what of the minimal, not to say inept, choreography? Or the repeated attempts to launch the song into some sort of big boffo finale, each of which ends in failure and gives way to an even bigger, even more boffo version, accompanied each time by a crude change of key?
And perhaps most noteworthy of all, there is the crucial fact that while the ballad keeps either offering or requesting the tale of Alan A'Dale, it never actually gets around to supplying it. A melodramatic-sounding recitative in the minor announces the tale, the refrain repeats the hero's name ad nauseum, and the little doggerel in the middle promises that the story, when we hear it, will be glorious. After which the refrain is repeated in its most emphatic form and the song ends on a note of unearned triumph. But Alan A'Dale's tale remains untold. Or even hinted at.
At the time of its initial broadcast, there were those who insisted on regarding this as satire. No doubt there are some today who might be inclined to do the same. But to call it satire is to completely misapprehend the sketch's comic impact. Nothing is being satirized. This was a new sort of humor. It had no purpose, no object, no logic. Insofar as it had a point, its point was precisely that it had no point. Its unstated larger point, I would argue, was that nothing has a point, that searching for a point is an absurd and futile exercise. And its impact in British comedy was incalculable. Its impact across the Atlantic was comparably large, even if exerted indirectly. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding all the progeny it subsequently spawned, nothing that came after approached the originality or the sheer manic glee of this jaw-dropping sketch.