Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Humour Market

Some of you were barely alive in the 1970s.

Some of you would have been in nappies, and in nappies in the late Seventies.

Speaking as someone who turned seven half way through 1970, let me tell you what the British Seventies were really about.


Pretty much every decade since the Seventies, there's been this whole "comedy's the new rock'n'roll" palaver. But in the Seventies, comedy really did give rock'n'roll a close run for its money.

Monty Python's Flying Circus was like the Beatles.

It spawned an entire industry of spin-offs, cash-ins, solo careers, imitations.

There were books.

Paralleling the boom in TV comedy books was a thriving market for collections by humorists and satirists, many of them spinning off Punch magazine (which I bought every week between the ages of 10 and 12).

Disappointed not to be able to find an image for Willie Rushton's Super Pig, his guide for male chauvinists spoof on a pop-feminist best-seller of the era called SuperWoman.

Then there was Private Eye's micro-industry of books...

American humor books is a whole other area I'm not qualified to comment on

Books of cartoons, that's a separate topic really. Giles's annual collection distended Christmas stockings across the nation, but he's not a particularly 1970s figure, although you can imagine the conflicts, crises, foibles and national humiliations of the day provided plenty of fodder for him.

Back to British comedy: the big TV series spun off records. Just as me and my brothers aquired all the Python-related books, Python-spin-off-related books, and Python-imitator-related books (i.e. Goodies) at the top of this post,so too did we own all of the following:

I didn't own the following ground-breakingly obscene platters, but a few years after they came out, I had friends who'd got hold of them, sometimes through their older brothers.

The whole realm of records made by the big up stand-up comics of the time, vaguely edgy seeming and coming out of folk clubs in some cases--Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot--was not something I was into particularly.

And then there was National Lampoon. Mostly known in the UK for the frat-boy retro-comedy Animal House and perhaps for the winsome and innocuous Vacation movies starring Chevy Chase, this was a satirical magazine initially (some of the people involved went on to do Spinal Tap), that quickly spun off into records and stage shows (some of the people involved went on to Saturday Night Live). For all I know there were National Lampoon related books too.

As a teenager I managed to track down a single issue of the magazine, in some kind of specialist store in London.

But this album wound up in the local record store in Berkhamsted. My brother bought it in a sale they had of records damaged in a flood. I can almost picture the stain on the cover, the ripples in the cardboard caused by its drying out.

This one came out of a stage show, a satire of Woodstock and the squalor of rock festivals. I recently picked it up for $2 but I have yet to play it.

But American comedy records, that's a whole other mega-zone in itself that I'm not equipped to discuss. There's people who talk about the life-changing impact of Richard Pryor's albums for instance.

Of course comedy records existed before the Seventies... My parents had records by Tom Lehrer (singing what for their time were blackly humorous songs) and Pete Sellers (Songs For Swingin' Sellers, produced by George Martin I believe), as well as a couple of episodes of Hancock's Half Hour in vinyl form. There were recordings of the The Goon Show , albums of Woody Allen doing stand-up, etc etc

Still, as I recall comedy LPs were a big part of Seventies British adolescence.

An obvious point to make is that before the age of the VCR and video rental stores, the only way to get a permanent and replayable document of your fave cult comedy show was to buy the records. Most of the early Python records consisted not of new material but of the most beloved sketches from the TV show, rerecorded in the studio, without the interruption of studio audience laughter, which drowned out some of the best lines. Replayable is the key point: you listened over and over, until you knew every line and every inflection by heart.

1 comment:

  1. appendix on comedy recording artistes

    Charlie Drake -- music hall type comedian whose hits include "Splish Splash", "mr Custer", "My Boomerang Won't Come Back", and the really peculiar "Puckwudgie" which i actually own

    Norman Wisdom, the British Jerry Lewis, who turned his comedy shtick (being a bumbling idiot) into the source of serious soulful pop melodrama (eg. "Don't Laugh At Me Because I'm a Fool") in a sub-Johnny Ray style

    long tradition of comedians who have hit singles (eg Benny Hill's "Ernie (the Fastest Milkman in the West)", number one in 1971.

    The Goodies who had a whole series of hits off the back of their sub-Monty Python comedy show, allthought the songs weren't featured in
    it --eg "Funky Gibbon"

    The Wurzels -- comedy pop troupe whose shtick was country bumpkin from the rustic West of England -- big hit "Combine Harvester" ("now oi've got a brand new combine harvester and oi'll give you the key" - also "I Am A Cider Drinker", and "Drink Up Thy Zider"

    B.A. Robertson, "Bang Bang", "I Knocked It Off"

    Neil the Hippy, "Hole in my Shoe"

    lots more