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Talking with the Monty Python member about Peter Sellers, failure, and why he prefers disrespectful interviewers.
Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underrated, we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.
By Erick Arviss | 2018
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone working in comedy that hasn’t creatively cribbed from Monty Python. The influential British comedy troupe’s trademark surrealism, self-referencing, and artistic anarchy has been coded into the DNA of many modern architects of America’s absurdist comedy Zeitgeist, from Doug Kenney to Amy Sedaris to the minds behind Mr. Show. With Flying Circus, Python reconfigured the stuffy structure and unadventurous format of the modern sketch show, thumbing their noses at the medium by acknowledging its limits then speeding past them completely. Sketches would connect, reference each other, and bend time and space but would never fully conclude or tie up loose ends. It was an exercise in creating a lattice of meta-narrative and self-aware characters, which ultimately established its own extended universe of comedy iconography that is still being cited nearly 50 years later. I mean, the Dead Parrot sketch is just straight-up foundational.
But beneath Python’s Dadaist deconstruction of comedy trends (sideways credits FTW!) was a mean anti-authority streak. Their films were big and silly, yes, but their themes took direct aim at nationalism and war (Holy Grail), dogma and religious fundamentalism (Life of Brian), and class (Meaning of Life). Founding Python member John Cleese made this clear during our conversation, telling me that “anti-authoritarianism was deeply ingrained in Python” growing up in post–World War II United Kingdom.
Cleese, who is currently on tour screening Holy Grail followed by career-spanning conversations with audiences, wanted to pay homage to the stylistic forefathers of Python, The Goon Show, for our Underrated series. Created by British-Irish satirist Spike Milligan along with Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, The Goon Show disrupted the most dominant entertainment format of the ’50s — the radio show — with a cast of fictional characters (with Sellers, Secombe, and Milligan embodying multiple personalities) performing scripted three-act shows parodying aspects of modern life and mocking show business, the military, advertising, and English culture along the way. The Goons also used music and sound effects in innovative ways, creating a more surreal and heightened atmosphere unlike anything else on the BBC Home Service at the time. Picture A Prairie Home Companion on acid, or Tim and Eric distilled into audio form. Cleese claims the Goons had the greatest impact on the troupe, and after hearing him speak about them, it’s easy to see why.
It’s impossible to overstate how influential your body of work — from A Fish Called Wanda to Fawlty Towers to especially Monty Python — has been on modern comedy. But what comedy inspired you growing up that your fans may not know about?
Well the biggest influence, and this might surprise you, is not something we were watching. We were listening to it because it was a radio show. It was a radio show in the ’50s called The Goon Show. It was a pure radio show and we all were listening to it. Kids were devoted to it in England. It was written by a guy who was a bit of a genius, rather a depressed one of course, named Spike Milligan. It also had Peter Sellers in it, who of course is the greatest voice man of all time. If he could listen to you for five minutes, he could do a perfect impersonation of you. He had this wonderful program he created which allowed him to experiment with his insanely funny characters. We used to listen to that in the same way that people listen to Monty Python. In the morning, we’d be at school and we’d discuss the whole thing and rehash the jokes and talk about it. We were obsessed with it. Continue reading
by Johnny Foreigner
Here are The Goon Show’s Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and Spike Milligan performing “The Ying Tong Song.” You will either forever love me or hate me for delivering you this precious British earworm.
The Goon Show was an extremely influential British radio comedy program, broadcast by the BBC throughout of the 1950s. John Lennon once said, “I could go on all day about the Goons and their influence on a generation” – high praise from a jealous guy.
Wrote NY Times in 1972 : “Goon comedy was in equal parts the harmless violence of Warner Brothers cartoons, the wordplay of James Joyce and the lowbrow japes of the English music hall.”
Monty Python’s Terry Jones has called The Goon’s Spike Milligan ”the father of Monty Python.” John Cleese called him the ”great god of us all.”
Peter Sellers (left), Peter Medak and Spike Milligan on the set of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,”
By many accounts, the British comic genius severely damaged Medak’s career when in 1973 he enticed the director to make a pirate comedy concocted by friend and cohort Spike Milligan, then decided on the second day of filming he didn’t want to be a part of it. That was the beginning of a nightmarish shoot that would end with the disastrous “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” being shelved and the blame heaped on Medak, who was one of the hottest directors in the world going into the shoot, but afterward wouldn’t make another film for five years.
But Medak’s new documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” while intending to set the record straight, isn’t a hit piece on Sellers, but a nuanced portrait of a troubled, often self-destructive talent. And it is an introspective piece from a filmmaker who still, nearly a half-century later, lives with the guilt and psychological wounds from the experience that need addressing.Continue reading
Despite behind-the-scenes nastiness and some very off-colour jokes, The Goon Show changed comedy forever.
The anarchy of The Goon Show was not reserved just for the BBC Home Service recording sessions. Spike Milligan, who created the show and wrote most of the scripts, was often sleep-deprived and hallucinating as he scrambled to write thousands of words every day.
By January 1952, with the hit show eight months old, he had worked himself into a paranoid frenzy. He grabbed a weapon from the kitchen and ran across the hallway into co-star Peter Sellers’s flat. “Something inside me snapped,” Milligan recalled later. “I tried to kill Peter Sellers with a potato knife. Either that or I just a wanted to peel him.”
Milligan spent the following fortnight in St Luke’s Psychiatric Hospital in Muswell Hill, London, before returning to work and resuming his hectic ways. The Goon Show lasted for another eight years, finishing its tenth and final season on January 28 1960, with an episode called The Last Smoking Seagoon.
The show started with the title ‘Crazy People’. Milligan, Sellers, Michael Bentine and Harry Secombe were billed in the Radio Times as “radio’s own Crazy Gang, ‘The Goons’”. They soon changed the name to The Goon Show, which took its name from the American cartoonist EC Segar’s character Alice the Goon. Alice was a member of a weird tribe of humanoids that lived on Goon Island. Segar used Alice in his comic strip creation Popeye, which was where Milligan first saw it in the comics he devoured as a child.
Secombe met Milligan during the Second World War, when his future comedy partner’s artillery unit accidentally dropped a howitzer they were transporting, nearly killing the Welsh comedian. The pair, along with ex-RAF servicemen Sellers, Frankie Howerd, Tony Hancock and an ex-commando called Larry Stephens (who went on to co-write many of the scripts with Milligan), used to hang out at Grafton Pub near Victoria Station. They were all desperate to get their break in the entertainment business.
Sellers, Milligan, Bentine and Secombe began tape-recording drunken conversations, in which they styled themselves as ‘The Goons’. By chance, BBC producer Pat Dixon heard a tape and persuaded the corporation to take a chance on commissioning a new radio show by this irreverent quartet.
Nearly 70 years on, it is hard to overstate the massive impact the show had when it burst on to the airwaves on 28 May 1951. This ground-breaking programme changed comedy forever – and inspired numerous shows that followed. The late Terry Jones called Milligan “the father of Monty Python”.
As the 1950s dawned, the United Kingdom was a grey, repressed place. “The Goons challenged the stuffiness with joy,” said John Cleese. “They created a sense of liberation which went beyond laughter, evoking a strange, insane energy from people who suddenly found themselves breaking through the glass ceiling of respectability that had haunted them all their lives.”
Milligan said the Goons were “shouting gibberish in the face of authority, and proving by fabricated insanity that nothing could be as mad as what passes for ordinary living”. The BBC bosses seemed unaware of just how subversive their new show was. The Goons slipped rude material past the censors through its jokey characters.
Sir Huge Hampton, for example, had a name based on the Cockney rhyming slang for a prick (Hampton Wick). Drinking alcohol was forbidden by the BBC during rehearsals, so the cast mixed milk with brandy to conceal their drinking.
Eddie Izzard believes that what makes The Goon Show “timeless” is the surreal nature of the comedy, “like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. The imaginative, fantasy-style humour of the shows is what survives best in the recordings of the final six seasons (the BBC did not keep any archives of the show from 1951 to 1953), and the flights of fancy are wonderful.
For example, when Neddie Seagoon, one of the central characters throughout the show’s history, leaves his home in London for Africa, we hear the door slam, the car set off, the train whistle, and the steamer siren blare, only to have Neddie (voiced by Secombe) say “hang on, I’ve got my coat stuck in the door”.
When the aged Henry Crun asks Minnie Bannister what the weather is like, the decrepit OAP walks at a snail’s pace to the window before returning to her chair. “Well, what was it like, Min?” Henry asks again. “I don’t know,” she replies. “I couldn’t see through the snow.”
Eccles was hugely popular. Milligan thought the best joke he ever wrote about this idiotic character was when someone was trying to teach Eccles the Theory of Relativity.
Now look, Eccles, jump up in the air. You see what happened then? You had to come back down to earth again.
Yeah. I had to come back down to earth.
Well. I live there!
The absurdist humour of the show retains its charm, as when Eccles, told that the log he was crossing the Amazon River on was actually an alligator, says “Oh… I wondered why my legs were getting shorter?”
Milligan, Sellers, Secombe and Bentine (who left the show in 1952) were masters of the outrageous accents and comic voices that suited the bizarre humour of the show. Characters such as Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, Major Dennis Bloodnok, Bluebottle, Willium ‘Mate’ Cobblers and Count Moriarty became famous; the show’s catchphrases, such as “You filthy swine, you!”, “I don’t wish to know that!” and “we’re just good friends, I tell you”, were endlessly imitated by listeners around the world. “The Goons were huge in Ireland. Kids I grew up with talked like that all the time,” recalled musician Van Morrison, who was a fan in the 1950s.
John Lennon was also a huge admirer of the Goons. The Beatles star even reviewed them for The New York Times in 1971. “I was 12 when the Goon Show first hit me. Sixteen when they were finished with me. Their humour was the only proof that the world was insane,” Lennon wrote. Elton John was another fan. He paid £14,000 at an auction of original Goon Show scripts in 1981.
Among their most elevated admirers is HRH Prince Charles, who used to try to entertain the Queen with impressions of Goon characters. The cast even performed a private one-off show called ‘Dreaded Affair of the Pointless Crown’ at Buckingham Palace for members of the royal family.
Fellow students in the late 1960s at Trinity College, Cambridge, recalled royal undergraduate Prince Charles delivering a Minnie Bannister impression while leaping from a dustbin. In 1998, Prince Charles became royal patron of the Goon Show Appreciation Society. Charles paid tribute to the Goon Show’s “brand of humour”, which he described as “gloriously and eccentrically British”.
There is an elephant in the room with Goons humour, of course, because some of it is racist and outmoded. Milligan’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter detailed how the comedian, the son of an Irish soldier, was born and raised in India, absorbing prejudiced values at an early age. Carpenter described how Milligan was a lifelong racist and an unashamed anti-Semite.