Sunday, 4 July 2010

Comedy gene or, the funny bone?

The other night I saw Zadie Smith at Book Slam reading from her latest book, a collection of essays. She read a lovely piece from a couple of years ago about her father, their shared love of comedy and his death. She describes her father, Harvey, as a comedy snob: 'He objected to joke merchants… He was allergic to racial and sexual humour, to a far greater degree than any of the actual black people or women in his immediate family.'

Their particular favourites were the Goons, Monty Python, Steptoe, Hancock and Fawlty Towers. It's a beautifully constructed essay, and terrifically moving, though I don't entirely agree with her take on the current British comedy circuit, of which one of her brothers, Doc Brown, is part.

I seem to share a love of a certain type of comedy with my father, though he died when I was young, and at a time before VHS or DVDs could have cemented in me the routines of the Marx Brothers, for instance. In the Smith family's wood-cabinet music centre, 'comedy records outnumbered the Beatles'. I don't remember us having any comedy records, though I do recall playing the Beatles' blue and red greatest hits compilations, so it's a mystery how this particular comedy gene was passed down. (I used to swap between the albums as my favourite tracks are split over the two: Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane.)

I love word play, always a favourite for non-native English speakers, one liners and even funny accents. Take this banter from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, between the judge and the heavily accented Chicolini: 'That sort of testimony we can eliminate.' 'At'sa fine, I'll take some.' 'You'll take what?' 'Eliminate. A nice, cold glass eliminate.' My mum hates Woody Allen, whose mining of a particular character, his own, I cherish; here's Alvy Singer's sardonic assessment of Diane Keaton's parking in Annie Hall: 'Don't worry, we can walk to the kerb from here.' (What style, what grace - see picture.)

I wonder if we would have found a bond in Blackadder, Father Ted or Friends, whose cast so mastered their lines. Just think of thick Joey's complaint when best friend Chandler does the dirty on him: 'You're so far over the line, you can't even see the line. The line is a dot to you.'

My mother was reminded last week, by a track Frank Skinner chose on Desert Island Discs, that my father also loved George Formby. Strangely, I always thought, if I had a newspaper column, I'd name it after Formby's most famous line: 'Turned out nice again.' There's a sentiment worth celebrating.


  1. Talking of Skinner and his love of Formby: Skinner did a little ode to the Vuvuzela on one of his World Cup podcasts with Baddiel. I couldn't resists youtube-ing it with some piccys. Have a look/listen:

  2. Thank you for your kind comments, will check that out. Hope all well!