Writing comedy: killing the frog

Writing comedy: killing the frog

I grew up with a deep love for the old-school comedy acts. I sometimes feel I should have been born twenty years earlier so I could be sat in the audience at the London Hippodrome or the Palladium to watch the variety bills that were so popular in the ’50s where so many of these performers honed their acts.

While my teenage friends were sniggering at The Young Ones or a raucous Ben Elton standup, I was collecting old recordings of Tony Hancock or grabbing every repeat I could of The Morecambe and Wise Show. This isn’t a value judgment – I’m not saying the old guard were better than the contemporary comics (certainly not worse) – but there was a different discipline at work, one that I admired.

Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
E. B. White

Excuse me while I kill the frog.

I can’t remember how old I was when I worked out that someone must have written the lines Hancock was delivering with impeccable timing. I’m not sure I wasn’t just a bit disappointed to find out that Eric Morecambe was uttering someone else’s jokes and claiming the laughs. But discovering that there was such a thing as a comedy writer was a revelation. I had new heroes to worship – Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Eddie Braben, Barry Cryer, Barry Took, Dennis Nordern, Frank Muir and many more.

More than a few of these writers went on to become performers and personalities themselves – although many would shy away from the title ‘comedian’. You may disagree with me, but I think there is a fundamental difference between comedy written by someone who is a writer first and performer second – and comedians who write. And I think it is to do with crafting words.

A classic example of comedy wordplay in the old style is the Four Candles sketch from The Two Ronnies.

Sheer linguistic bliss. Ironically, considering the point I’m trying to make, this sketch was written by Gerald Wiley. “Who,” you might ask? It wasn’t until years later that Ronnie Barker revealed that he was the mysterious Wiley and had written many memorable sketches for Ronnie Corbett and himself under the pen name. He had decided to hide his identity when submitting scripts and jokes so that his writing could be taken on it’s own merits. If a production meeting rejected a Wiley script, he didn’t want anyone to be intimidated because he was in the room.

So, even though the comedian was also the writer, the script and the performers were still kept at arms length – a technique that worked incredibly well throughout their careers. Barker wrote scripts, not ‘material’, and the distinction , I think, is an important one. A comedian performs ‘material’ – these days most likely created by themselves and usually flexible, fluid and constantly evolving on the stage – the material and the performance are one and the same. A comedy writer crafts scripts that are then performed. Keeping the performance (and performers) separate from the words on the page gave more power and bite to the ink – the performers served the script instead of the other way round.

I don’t mind giving a reasonable amount, but a pint! That’s very nearly an armful!

Galton and Simpson wrote for Tony Hancock for most of his career – starting on radio before becoming a television sensation. Although they wrote ‘material’ that made its way into Hancock’s stage act, primarily Hancock served as an actor in their beautifully crafted sitcoms. Although every script was written specifically for Hancock, playing to his stage personality and his comedic strengths, Galton and Simpson’s scripts can equally be performed by others. Notably, Paul Merton performed many of the classic scripts in the Hancock role for a series of Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson’s… (imdb) broadcast in 1996. Note, it wasn’t “Paul Merton as Hancock” – this revival was about the writing, not the performer!

The fact that the script and the performer can be interchangeable demonstrates the difference between this classic form of comedy writing and the proprietorial, performance-led approach modern comedians take to their material.

Despite all of this, the best comedy writing does still require a seamless blend of writer and performer. In a sense, comedy scripts are unlike other forms of writing because the major casting has been done before a single word has been written. Therefore, the script still has to allow the comedian to perform in the prescribed way. Barry Cryer wrote scripts for Morecambe and Wise in partnership with John Junkin. He described in a recent interview how Junkin would impersonate Morecambe, wiggling his glasses as they wrote.

You’ve got to hear the voice. You’ve got to see them in your mind’s eye to write for them.

No one could ever claim that Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise, Tony Hancock, Ronnie Corbett and all the rest aren’t incredibly brilliant and gifted comedians without any help whatsoever. You only have to witness those moments when sketches collapse into ad-lib or how they relate to an audience on stage to know that they are geniuses (genii?) of comedy performance and quick wit. And most of them started their careers purely with their own material which had to have been reasonably good to get them to the top . But it is a different humour, spontaneous and instinctive and serving the performance.

Scripted comedy is crafted, with every word considered and selected for how funny it makes a line. One word out of place in the Four Candles sketch would destroy the comedy. It is a balanced and honed piece of work that requires exceptional skill on the part of the comedians to deliver each beat with just the right timing and inflections to achieve maximum laughs.

The master of comedy writing is, for me, Eddie Braben. Some of his sketches for Morecambe and Wise are among the most popular moments of British television – ever. Case in point… the Andre Previn sketch.

ANDRE PREVIN

But you’re playing all the wrong notes!

MORECAMBE

I’m playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order. I’ll give you that, sunshine.

It is tight. It plays with words, situations and ideas. It revels in the structured and artificial personae of the performers. It is probably the best thing Morecambe and Wise ever performed, but they didn’t write it. For me, Morecambe and Wise was never a double act – it was a threesome. Braben deserves as much credit and praise for those performances as Eric and Ernie. But, I guess, Morecambe and Wise and Braben doesn’t look as good on a billboard.