Peter Sellers once received a letter from a fan requesting a “singed photograph of yourself.” Sellers obliged, delicately burning the edges of a B&W 8x10 with a cigarette, before sending the portrait off. A week or so later, the fan wrote back asking Sellers if he would be so kind to send another photograph, as the last one was “signed” all around the edges.
This tale of probable dyslexia captures something of the humor of The Goon Show, that classic radio comedy series, which launched the careers of Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan.
With its unique brand of surreal humor, The Goon Show started modern British comedy and inspired generations of comic performers. It is difficult to imagine how Peter Cook, Firesign Theatre, Monty Python, The Bonzo Dog Band, Eddie Izzard, and The Mighty Boosh would have developed their own particular brands of comedy without The Goons.
In 1968, eight years after The Goon Show had finished, Sellers, Milligan and Secombe reunited for a specially televised recording of one of their classic scripts “Tales of Men’s Shirts.” The trio were ably joined by a young John Cleese as the program’s announcer. Though not as brilliant as the original radio production (the visuals distract from imagining the comedy, and Milligan and co. appear to be enjoying themselves a tad too much), there is, however, more than plenty to enjoy.
More from The Goons (& Cleese), plus bonus documentary, after the jump…
Buster Keaton said his first appearance on-stage was inspired by a desire to take part in the fun his parents seemed to be having. Keaton was just nine-months-old when he crawled on from the wings, and encouraged by the audience’s laughter, planted himself between his father’s legs, where he played peek-a-boo with the smiling faces.
His parents, Joe and Myra Keaton were part of traveling medicine show. For a time they were partners with a magician and escapologist called Harry Houdini. Joe told jokes, sang songs, Harry astonished the audience with his tricks, while Myra played the saxophone and acted out roles in the short plays they produced. Houdini was a witness to Buster’s first dramatic entrance.
Aged six-months, Buster fell head-over-heels down a steep flight of stairs in an hotel. Thinking the infant hurt (or worse dead), Houdini rushed to the child and was shocked to find the baby gurgling with laughter. Houdini told Joe and Myra, “That’s some buster your baby took!” Buster was the term for a theatrical prat-fall or stunt. Thereafter, the name “Buster” stuck with the young Joseph Frank Keaton.
Whether the story’s true or not it was repeated so often and printed in so many newspapers that it became “true.” When Buster was three, he was carried-off by a cyclone, which deposited him, unharmed, several blocks away.
Buster’s father was an able PR man, who recognized in his son the opportunity to create an act and garner considerable column inches. The stories about Buster and his misadventures appeared all over America. These were clipped and kept by his mother in the family scrapbook. Buster’s addition relaunched the family act as The Three Keatons.
“Keep your eye on the kid,” ran their tag-line. The act was a variation on the infant Buster’s desire to join his parents on stage, only this time Joe would throw the child across the stage, kick-him like a football into the audience, and swing him like a toy over his head—just like the cartoon antics of Homer and Bart Simpson. In front of the audience this may have all seemed like one happy act, but backstage Joe was equally abusive and violent, but this time for real, to his bread-winning son.
Because of his age, Buster was banned from performing certain States. This led to Joe duping the authorities by having Buster dressed as an adult, given a false beard, and described in the billing as “a midget.” It worked. This was Buster Keaton’s entry into his life of show business.
In 1965, Keaton made The Railrodder a two-reeler film in the style of his classic silent movies, for the National Film Board of Canada (in conjunction with Canadian National Railways). The making of this film was in turn documented in a short film called Buster Keaton Rides Again, in which Keaton gave incredible insight into filmmaking and comedy, and discussed his career as an actor, writer and director.
After the jump, Buster Keaton in ‘The Railrodder’...
Derek and Clive were foul-mouthed, devastatingly funny, lewd characters invented by the beloved British comedic duo Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the early 1970’s. Cook and Moore were in New York in 1973 touring Broadway with their show Good Evening, a reworked live stage version of their 1964-1970 BBC television show Not Only…But Also (many episodes of which were unfortunately erased by the shortsightedly thrifty BBC).
At Cook’s request Island Records co-founder and music industry mogul Chris Blackwell provided the two with time at Electric Lady Studios in New York simply to hang out, drink, improvise, and riff off each other, mainly to relieve the tension and frustration that had built up during their time working together in New York.
The resulting surreal improvisation birthed working class British Trade Centre bathroom attendants Derek and Clive, updated and ruder variations of their earlier Pete and Dud characters. As usual Cook managed to make Moore dissolve into helpless laughter. No plans were initially made to release the recordings of their uproarious, stream of consciousness dialogue, but Blackwell passed around bootleg copies to his friends in the music business for years.
Eventually Cook decided that the tapes should be released properly, something Moore was unsure about, not wanting his newly popular, cuddly image in America to be tainted by the taboo topics and copious profanity of his alter ego. Extra live material from an appearance at the Bottom Line was added and Derek and Clive (Live) was released in 1976 on Island Records. There were two follow-up albums on Virgin Records, Derek and Clive Come Again and Derek and Clive Ad Nauseum. During the recording of Ad Nauseum in 1978 Virgin founder Richard Branson arranged for a prank involving a fake drug bust to take place in the studio.
Director Russell Mulcahy’s documentary Derek and Clive Get the Horn, chronicling the recording of Ad Nauseum, shows the disintegration of Cook and Moore’s relationship. Cook’s cruelest, snarkiest remarks aimed at Moore played a hand in their resulting estrangement. This album, during which Moore walked out, was their last collaboration of original material.
It’s hard to believe now that jokes about erections (“getting the horn”), blasphemy, masturbation, and liberal use of the epithet “cunt” was so shocking, but at the time British officials were so outraged at the language on the Derek and Clive albums that a concerted effort was made to suppress them. A UK gas station attendant was actually fired just for owning a copy of their second album, Derek and Clive Come Again. Peter Cook testified at the man’s tribunal. A zealous member of the Greater Manchester Police confiscated and impounded several hundred copies of the original video release (it had been denied a cinematic release by the British Board of Film Classification) of Derek and Clive Get the Horn, forcing the company that released it into bankruptcy. Four years ago it was discovered that three separate branches of British law enforcement in the late 1970’s had planned to bring formal obscenity charges against Cook and Moore.
The collective behind Cosmarxpolitan describe themselves as “Smug college students” with too much time on their hands.
General Secretary of Cosmarxpolitan is Clara, who also blogs at That Girl Mag, and collaborates with The Central Committee of People’s Commissars (Andrew, Ken, Lucas, Mark, and Nicole) to produce these witty and amusing fake Cosmarxpolitan covers. As explained on the site’s FAQ:
The intention of Cosmarxpolitan is to ridicule the awful advice and backwards attitudes of magazines targeted at women; not to poke fun at those who suffered under communist rulers.
For those of you who think that we promote stereotypes that marginalize certain groups and privilege a deeply distorted narrative, it’s because we’re doing our best to channel Cosmo.
Only one of the collective is a Marxist (Ken), the rest are “just bourgeois scum, to varying degrees,” who hope that (once revolution comes) they will be “stripped of the chains of oppression, (and having other things to do), article writing will flourish.”
You could say it all started with Adolf Hitler. That was who John Cleese could impersonate when he was at school. Highly wrought, apoplectic impressions of the deranged Nazi leader. It brought Cleese laughs and popularity, which all made the shy young schoolboy feel less awkward and less self-conscious about himself, and particularly his height.
Being Hitler was also a release for his anger, his frustrations, and it allowed him to develop his natural comic skills. Most importantly, it offered Cleese an alternative career to the one his family expected.
‘When I was 16, everyone told me, “John, the thing to do is to get a good qualification. You go in an accountant’s office now and by the time you’re thirty-seven, you’ll have several letters after your name, you know you’ll be able to get married…” It was that kind of feeling. Fine. It’s one type of life, but it was laid down to me as a sort of golden pathway leading up to the A.C.A.’
A sense of duty saw Cleese study Law at Cambridge University. He soon found it frighteningly dull, and after 3 years, was more proud of a 12-minute sketch he had written and performed for the Cambridge Footlights than his knowledge of libel laws or past trials.
The sketch was the start of his long and successful career as a writer and performer, firstly in Cambridge Circus, then The Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show, to Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the brilliant Fawlty Towers. Each of these shows, in their own way, allowed Cleese to vent the anger he could never express in his public life.
‘I know something’s manic in me,’ thirty-six-year-old Cleese explained in this BBC profile. ‘Yes, there is something manic somewhere in me, and I think it’s something to do with being trapped in a shell of lower middle class reasonableness, politeness.
‘Sometimes I get very angry and I find it frightfully difficult to be angry, and I think anger in particular—people talk to me at parties, and they really do talk, talk at me. And I have fantasies of picking things up, cheese dips and…[mimes rubbing the dip in someone’s face].
‘But I’ve never had the courage to do it.’
Broadcast in February 1976, after the highly successful first season of Fawlty Towers, this profile of John Cleese includes interviews with the great man himself, his then wife and co-writer, Connie Booth, as well as performers, writers and friends such as Tim Brooke-Taylor, Antony Jay, Alan Coren and David Frost, who said of Cleese:
‘I think it was the element of benevolent-sadism in his work really, in the sense that his humor can be immensely cruel—and the nice thing is that he means it.’
Film-making is about having something to say—something that can only be said in a film and not a short story, or a play, or a novel.
That’s how Woody Allen described his movies—it’s the best way for him to express and explore his ideas, his feelings, and well, because he has ‘to do something for a living.’
It was June 1979, Woody Allen was said to be hiding in Paris. His latest film Manhattan, had opened in New York to overwhelming critical acclaim. As the reviews filtered back to his hotel suite, Woody talked about the movie and film-making to Barry Norman, for the BBC’s Film ‘79.
As Allen explained to Norman, Manhattan was inspired by a dinner conversation with Diane Keaton and cinematographer, Gordon Willis, where they discussed the idea of making a film in Black & White.
‘And as we talked about it, gradually a story spun out in my mind about it. And, you know, it could be anything, it could be a sudden anger over something or, the impulse to want to dress as a pirate. You know, any one of those things could do it.’
But why Manhattan? asked Norman.
‘I live in Manhattan and wouldn’t think of living anywhere else, really,’ said Allen, before going on to explain it’s a great place to live—‘because you know you’re alive.’
An incredible moment in TV, Film and Comedy history: Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan interviewed by Tony Bilbow. Recorded at the Roundhouse’s Cinema City, London, for BBC TV’s Film Night, which aired on November 8th, 1970.
Peter Sellers was bored. It was 1959, and he was tired of appearing in The Goon Show with Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe.
While The Goon Show was still the biggest and most influential comedy show on British radio, Sellers was now a movie star, with a successful stage and TV career, and the offer of a tenth Goons series was too much to contemplate. He said:
‘I think we should leave it now before the standard goes down - we [Sellers, Secombe & Milligan] aren’t adding anything new and the original drive and enthusiasm has gone.’
Sellers was more of an anarchist than Milligan. Sellers wanted the unfettered life, to be free of all responsibilities. Milligan was far more predictable, he was enthralled by the success of his legacy.
Sellers pretended not to give a fuck. While Milligan’s ambitions meant he was often a shit to those people closest to him.
When The Goons first started, the rivalry between Milligan and Michael Bentine forced the latter to leave the group. Similarly, when Milligan worked with Goons co-writer Larry Stephens, he did everything in his power to belittle him. ‘Larry Stephens was small beer…’ Milligan once said:
‘He was never really a writer…Larry would occasionally think of an idea, but by then the show was over.’
TV writer, biographer and Goons expert, Roger Wilmut disagrees with Milligan’s opinion about his co—writer.
‘Stephens’s plots tend to have a beginning a middle, and an end; whereas Milligan’s tend to have a middle.’
Milligan was great at coming up with original, often brilliant ideas, but he needed someone to help structure these ideas into a coherent script. At first he had Jimmy Grafton, then Bentine, Stephens and Eric Sykes. He also had his producers, like Peter Eton who later said:
‘Spike used to have the marvelous lively extrovert ideas, and Larry used to bring them down to earth. Larry was the strong man. Spike used to have these paradoxical ideas and wrote them down in the form of one line gags. Most of it was rubbish, utter rubbish. It was Larry who used to pull it into shape and make sketches out of it.’
The seeming anarchy of Milligan’s Q series now seems like a collection of unfocussed gags. Yet, I have always preferred Q to The Goon Show.
By 1959, Stephens’ untimely death (he suffered a brain hemorrhage while driving a car, and died in hospital days later) left Milligan to write the final Goons series on his own. As he later viciously said:
‘Larry Stephens died conveniently, it was very nice of him, and I went on to write them on my own.’
Milligan’s response to his past life often depended on his mood, he also claimed (falsely and tearfully) that Stephens had died in his arms at a restaurant.
With no Stephens to fret over, Milligan turned on his fellow Goons, in particular Peter Sellers, whose film career, and successful stage and TV work, had greatly dimmed Milligan’s own success. It was up to Harry Secombe to act as peace-keeper.
Sellers wanted to do something new. Something different. Something with film. He bought a camera for £75, and suggested to Milligan they make a short movie together. The tried the camera out at Sellers home, then asked Dick Lester to direct, and over 2 days The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film was made.
When released in 1960, it was an incredible success, award-winning no less, and a direct influence on The Beatles to hire Lester to direct (and ask Leo McKern to star in) their fab movies.
But Milligan wasn’t happy. The success of The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film niggled, and he felt aggrieved over who was the real talent behind the film. Of course, he had to wait until after Seller’s death in 1980 to claim the film as his own:
I said to Peter [Sellers], ‘Look, films are being made for millions - I think we can make one (not very long) for - what’s the cost of the cameraman?’ He said, ‘Seventy-five pounds.’ So we paid that, and the sound engineer was fifty.
We had about twenty ragged characters in a van and we just drove up the Great North Road until we saw a suitable field…
We just went to the hill, and I wrote the script out, what I wanted roughly, and we had just to improvise how to do it.
Milligan also claimed, at a Goons Appreciation Society meeting, that he had in fact directed the whole thing.
So, that is Milligan’s version of events. What actually happened was that Dick Lester directed and operated the camera, and the script was a concoction between Sellers, Lester, Milligan and Mario Fabrizi (an actor and friend of Sellers), which included some re-workings of sketches lifted from the TV series The Idiot Weekly Price 2d, A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred, which had been the first collaborations between Lester, Milligan and Sellers.
The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film was shot over 2 days, with Milligan only in attendance for one of these days. It was then edited by Lester and Sellers in a bedroom at the actors home.
Inevitably, because of his incredible influence on British comedy, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film was ( and still is by many) considered mainly a Milligan film, when it truth, it should be seen as a film devised by Peter Sellers in collaboration with Dick Lester, Spike Milligan and Mario Fabrizi.
Meanwhile…in a garret in the Palace…Vivian Stanshall advises us to ‘Be Realistic. Ask for the impossible,’ as he tells a surreal comic tale that preempts the mash-up and scratch video. Originally broadcast on Up Sunday circa 1972.
Rita Moreno will admit to some similarities with that great, comic character Googie Gomez, who she played in the film version of Terrence McNally‘s play The Ritz. They are both survivors, they are not losers, and they will both always come out on top.
Moreno certainly came out on top - she won a Tony Award, for her original stage performance as Googie, in 1975, and was the star turn of Richard Lester’s film version of McNally’s play, the following year.
The Ritz tells the story of Gaetano Proclo (Jack Weston), hiding out from the Mafia at a gay bath house. The film crackled with McNally’s superb dialog, and the brilliant performances from Moreno and Weston, with the support of Treat Williams, F. Murray Abraham and Jerry Stiller.
In this interview, from December 1976, Miss Moreno and director, Mr. Lester discuss their roles in the making of this cult film, which certainly deserves to be rediscovered a great comedy classic.