The other day we watched the television show "The Comedians' Comedians" hosted by Jimmy Carr. It counted down the top 50 comedians according to, well, comedians. While it was a British show, they did include a number of Americans like Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Bill Hicks (long lionized in Britain) and Robin Williams. I suspect an American show would fail to list any British comedians -- perhaps Eddie Izzard, just because he has made such successful inroads into American pop culture. Of course, that's unlikely to happen because Americans don't on the whole have the same appreciation of comedy that Britons do. You can't imagine a critic here writing, as Brian Clover did, that "Arguably, comedians are the true artists of the troubled Twentieth Century." Obviously, I agree. We enjoyed the show leading up to the satisfactorily anticipated top spot going to the genius that is Peter Cook.
But one thing really disturbed me: in the top ten was Eric Morecambe without Ernie Wise. For those of you unfamiliar with them, Morecambe and Wise (pictured above) were an institution. Check out some of their classic clips like the breakfast sketch or their version of "Singing in the Rain" to see the physical side of their comedy. Watch more clips to get a feel for their playful sense of dialogue. They define the classic double act.
So why is Morecambe there near the top without Wise?
I suspect it's because so many of the young comedians they spoke with are solo acts. They don't understand the dynamics of the duo, unless it's someone they know (contemporaries Vic & Bob and French & Saunders all make the list). The straight man is a thankless role. Eddie Braben, who composed many of the sketches for which Eric and Ern are so well-known, wrote, "In his own way, Ern was every bit as talented as Eric, he underlined his comic greatness. Even at their peak I don't believe Ern's contribution was fully acknowledged. Eric was probably his greatest admirer" (98).
So here's to Ernie Wise! and all the overlooked straight men and women in the world.
Gene forwarded a link to an NPR story on the play Ying Tong: A Walk with the Goons, that's playing in Philadelphia. I'm resisting an urge to look at the Amtrak schedules and jump on a train to go see it. I may have to console myself with getting a copy of the script. I can't help but wonder how it will go over with an audience unfamiliar with Milligan and the Goons. The website for the production offers all kinds of background links, so perhaps it will help educate the audience. Hope it goes well -- wish I could be there!