Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Oddly enough Robin Williams had been on my mind yesterday while formulating ideas about my old English teacher. Dead Poets Society is that key Williams film & one I have refused to see - too many times I've been told "oh you must see it, you're an English teacher!" & worry that it will somehow cramp my style. Which might be why I don't feel today's news quite so keenly. Robin Williams, for me, has always been one of those litmus tests for US vs British humour (Jerry Lewis another). Perhaps I've never seen his best work & it's unfair to be prejudiced by obvious only-in-it-for-the-money link man jobs or - worse - the many students & colleagues who think they can 'do' Robin Williams (how it grates). No doubt people have winced as I have done Peter Cook or Python routines. Fair do's.
However, it is always sad when a clown passes. We need these Ambassadors of Mirth (now perhaps more than ever). In my version of an Enlightened society the statues in public places would be of famous clowns & comedians rather than the politicians, statesmen & war mongers. So over breakfast I drew up a Michael Lallyesque list of those artists of the funny bone - knowing that I'm blurring categories & bending the rules in places. Here goes, see what you think:
1. Stan Laurel (the greatest?)
2. Oliver Hardy (master of the double take)
3. Jacques Tati (that walk)
4. Chaplin (when not being maudlin)
5. Buster Keaton (up there with Stan)
6. Harold Lloyd (if only for the clock sequence)
7. WC Fields (of course)
8. Mae West (now & again - would she want it any other way?)
9. Groucho, Chico & Harpo (Groucho gets the accolades but he's in a lower gear without the others)
10. Peter Sellers (of the 1950s & Goon Shows after which things go downhill)
11. Spike Milligan (the Goon Shows alone confirm his genius)
12. Ken Dodd (for himself & everything he embodies of the British music hall tradition)
13. Tommy Cooper (he simply needed to walk on stage)
14. Philippe Noiret (master of the doleful expression)
15. Steve Wright (at times sublime)
16. Les Dawson (another master of knowing when not to do anything)
17. Martin Clunes (the name marks out his destiny - a man who seems to chuckle through life)
18. Max Wall (the little I have managed to see)
19. Frank Zappa (for the Dada spirit at the heart of his music)
20. Billy Jenkins (Tommy Cooper with guitar)
21. Woody Allen (the stand up years & up to the departure of Diane Keaton. After that ... the less said the better)
22. Anna Karina (in the early JLG films - utter joy & such beauty)
23. Giuletta Masina (La Strada)
24. Garbo (the face I see behind Stan Laurel's?)
25. Tony Hancock (that great put upon voice of 1950's Britain)
Hancock also killed himself - "too many things went wrong too many times" (or words to that effect) - in a hotel room in Australia. The story usually goes that he couldn't break into the big time like Sellers & was resentful of his co-stars (Sid James, Kenneth Williams) beginning to outshine him. Yet it's clear that Hancock had his personal demons & there's that joke that he held
A man goes into the doctor's and tells him that he has nothing to live for, his life has fallen apart. If the doctor can't help him, he'll take his own life.
No worries, says the doctor, there's the perfect solution to our problems. This week the circus has come into town. Grock, the greatest & funniest clown of them all, will perform every night. If you go along & see Grock you will laugh so hard you'll forget all your troubles.
To which the man replies: "Thank you doctor for your advice - but I am Grock".
Which might just be what Robin Williams was thinking.