Thursday, December 06, 2007

Tommy Cooper

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Mention English comedy to Americans and they're likely to think of Monty Python. Old-movie buffs might recall the "Ealing comedies" like The Lavender Hill Mob and Passport to Pimlico.

But there was another sub-genre that rarely made it to these shores. It didn't travel well, partly because it was very much to the English working class taste of the time: unsubtle, flagrantly acted, full of outrageous (often double entendre) puns. It's derived from the English music hall tradition, which Yanks couldn't relate to. Kenneth Williams and his madcap sidekicks Sid James and Charles Hawtrey raised the style to at least a low art form in the long-running
Carry On series (Carry On Doctor, Carry On Nurse, Carry on Up the Khyber, etc.).

The Carry On films I've managed to see have been a guilty pleasure, although they're hard to come by in the United States. And I have another name for you: Tommy Cooper.

If you're (a) American or (b) under the age of 40 anywhere, that may mean nothing to you at all. It's understandable. He died in 1984, before many British TV shows (by which he was best known) were shown in the U.S. His brand of comedy came out of a gentler, less "edgy" (how I've come to loathe that word), less "ironic" time, and I suppose many young people would think he's corny. At least until they find themselves laughing till tears gather in their eyes.

How come I know about Tommy Cooper, being a Yank? Because I saw him on British TV: on my first visit, buckets of years ago now, and much more recently in a tribute program (er, "programme") on the BBC. (Once in a while, the Beeb does something to its credit.) It was narrated by Anthony Hopkins, no less, and he did a pretty fair imitation of Cooper's way with a joke.

That way is very hard to describe, because it was so (seemingly) effortless, Zen-like. There are people who know how to "do" comedy or tell jokes; Tommy Cooper simply was funny, the way some people are serious or curious. It was his nature.

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Explaining his visual humor is nigh impossible. The fez he habitually wore, the duck-foot shoes … no, sorry, can't be conveyed in words. So I'll just give you the following selection of his lines. They may not crack you up the way they do me, either because you're more sophisticated than I am, or because they're not that great without his inimitable delivery. But I'll take a chance if you will:

I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day but I couldn't find any.

Police arrested two kids yesterday, one was drinking battery acid, the other was eating fireworks. They charged one but let the other one go off.

A man walked into the doctor's, he said, 'I've hurt my arm in several places.' The doctor said, 'Well, don't go there any more.'

Went down to the corner shop. Bought four corners.

I went to the doctor the other day, and he said, 'Go to Bournemouth, it's great for flu.' So I went, and I got it.

I went to the doctor with a jelly stuck in one ear and custard in the other. The doctor asked, 'What seems to be the problem?' I said, 'You have to speak up, I'm a trifle deaf.'

Now, most dentist's chairs go up and down, don't they? The one I was in went back and forwards. I thought, ' This is unusual.' And the dentist said to me, 'Mr Cooper, get out of the filing cabinet.'

I went into a butcher's and I said, 'I'll have a pound of sausages.' He said, 'I'm very sorry, sir, we only sell kilos in here.' I said, 'Okay then, I'll have a pound of kilos.'

So I knocked on the door at this bed & breakfast and a lady stuck her head out of the window and asked: 'What do you want?' I said, 'I want to stay here.' She said, 'Well stay there' and shut the window.

I had a meal last night. I ordered everything in French, surprised everybody. It was a Chinese restaurant. I said to this Chinese waiter, 'Look, this chicken I got here is cold.' He said, 'It should be, it's been dead two weeks.'

I said, 'Not only that.' I said, I said ... I said it twice, I said, 'He's got one leg shorter than the other.' He said, 'What do you wanna do with it, eat it or dance with it?'
I said, 'Forget the chicken, give me a lobster,' and he brought me this lobster. I said, 'Just a minute, he's only got one claw.' He said, 'Well he's been in a fight.' I said, 'Well give me the winner.'

A man goes to the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist says: 'What's the problem?' The man says, 'I think I'm becoming a kleptomaniac.' The psychiatrist says, 'Here, take these tablets and if you're no better in a week, bring me a colour TV.'

[Drum roll … ]
Tommy Cooper: And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for.

Audience: [Applause]

Tommy Cooper: Good night!

[Cymbal crash]

Good night, Tommy.

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8 comments:

Julie said...

I had to laugh, but then, I'm a Brit ..great post - and have browsed your others with interest.

Rick Darby said...

Thank you, Julie. But Tommy Cooper gets all the credit for this one!

I read that the Beeb is planning a TV drama about the last week of his life, culminating in his fatal collapse on stage during a performance. I hope it will be available over here … at least on DVD.

Hugenot said...

In 1963 he returned to America to record two Ed Sullivan shows. Sullivan, who at the time had one of the most influential shows on American TV, introduced Tommy Cooper for the second show as "The funniest man to ever appear on this stage."

Cooper, Bernard Manning, Benny Hill; I'd put that triumvirate up against any from America.

zazie said...

Tank you for making us laugh : I loved the one about the camouflage trousers ; it reminded me of the sad fate of the cameleon that died of exhaustion on a kilt somewhere in the Highlands.....

Middle Ditch said...

He is one of my favorite comedians. He was well known in Holland where I come from. His sudden death was a tragedy.

palmer said...

What was also great about Tommy Cooper and the Carry On actors was - their faces. What character! Bernard Bresslaw and Peter Butterworth in Carry on Screaming are my favourites.

Have you seen Fantabulosa! based on events in Kenneth Williams life during the making of a Carry on film.

sfw said...

Thanks for bringing him back to my attention, I always liked him. The closest America had was Rodney Gangerfield in his early routines.

Rick Darby said...

Thanks for all your comments. I am pleased to see that TC is remembered fondly by so many.