Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bob Monkhouse: Over the Limit

A book by a stand-up comedian and television game-show host is not, perhaps, the first place where you would think of looking for insights into the art of writing. But oddly enough, Bob Monkhouse's book Over the Limit has quite a lot to say on the subject -- both directly and indirectly.

Bob Monkhouse is a name which will be known to virtually all British readers but to almost no one outside the UK. Unlike some British performers (Bruce Forsyth, for example), Monkhouse made no real attempt to establish himself anywhere but in his native land.

Born in 1928, Monkhouse died in 2003 at the age of 75. He was well known from his twenties onwards, and hence had a successful career in show business for over fifty years.

This success was not, it has to be said, achieved through a loveable personality. If asked to describe Bob Monkhouse, I would have come up with the word 'smarmy'. This is a very English word, meaning oily, unctuous, a bit too smooth and eager to please.

Monkhouse himself was well aware of his problems in this regard. He quotes a number of criticisms of his appearance and mannerisms. One 400-word piece in the Daily Mirror used the word 'smarmy' eight times. The hard-bitten journalist Jean Rook said that she had to wipe the slime off her TV screen after he had been on. And when Monkhouse challenged her about this she told him not to be so bloody sensitive. 'It's only copy,' she said. In other words, it's only there to fill up the space between the adverts.

In 1993 Monkhouse wrote his autobiography, Crying with Laughter. He followed this up five years later with Over the Limit, subtitled My Secret Diaries. Well, of course they aren't secret. And they aren't really diaries. What the book is, in fact, is the printed version of a blog, before blogs were invented. What a pity Bob didn't live into the blog era; he would have loved it.

Over the Limit does deal, to some extent, with Monkhouse's day-to-day activities, but more generally he simply uses the date as an excuse to embark on a discussion of the life of a great comedian, or an analysis of some ancient B-movie.

I have argued on this blog, a good many times, that the whole point of a novel, a play, a film, or any other work of art cum piece of entertainment, is that it creates emotion in the reader/audience. That is its whole raison d'etre. Now the one place where this truth is demonstrated in classic form is in the live performance, whether in theatre, nightclub, pub or concert hall. And while actors (mostly) have to stick to the script, and musicians follow the score, the stand-up comedian can adjust and adapt, varying his routine and his timing according to the nature of the audience.

I was once on a committee which organised a talk by John Lahr, the son of Bert Lahr, who is chiefly remembered for his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. But in addition to being an actor, Bert Lahr also had a career as a stand-up comic in burlesque and vaudeville. His son John related how he once stood in the wings and heard his father get a laugh out of one word. I can't remember now, unfortunately, what the word was; but it was something which, in itself, was completely unfunny.

When Bert Lahr came off stage, his son asked him how he had managed to make people laugh with that one word. 'Oh,' said Bert, 'I just listened to the audience and they told me where the joke was.'

Bob Monkhouse would have loved that story, because his whole life was devoted to figuring out how to get the audience to respond to his jokes. And it has to be said that he was remarkably successful at it, despite some of the handicaps which we have already mentioned. He was, above all else, the complete professional.

It is made perfectly plain in Over the Limit that Monkhouse made a point of talking to virtually all his fellow comedians, about their art, at some length. And he gives us accounts of these interviews in his book. Let's see what we can dig out which might be relevant to the business of writing novels.

Well, for a start, if you're English you might care to bear in mind Monkhouse's surprisingly learned observations about the English attitude towards intelligence. In Monkhouse's view, we don't like it.

'Smart alec' is an English insult; 'too clever by half' is a criticism, full of disapproval. Shakepeare's brainiest characters are cunning, heartless or doomed: Richard III, Iago, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth. In Shakespeare, probity is the possession of stout-hearted simpletons, such as Florizel, Bassanio, and Duke Orsino. (The analysis, I repeat, is Monkhouse's, not mine. I am not all that well up on Shakespeare.)

Monkhouse, by the way, was definitely clever. Very clever. This is another reason why he was well known but never loved. And the bias against clever folk, Monkhouse is convinced, affects our attitude to comedy as well as drama.

He knew he wasn't all that popular. On one occasion he and his wife entered an art cinema, which was due to show a very obscure film, and the audience applauded. During the film he sat there with a warm feeling in his heart. But afterwards he discovered that the cinema manager had just announced that unless two more people turned up he was not going to bother showing the film.

Humour, of course, is bound to offend someone. Charlie Chester once remarked that he told a story about a policeman on night duty, only to get a letter from a real policeman a few days later: 'If you'd ever been walking the streets on a winter's night at three in the morning you wouldn't think it was bloody funny...' And so forth. Jokes about the Welsh, about Jewish friends, about Scotsmen, all generate outrage in some and laughs in others. There is no such thing, in other words, as a stimulus which produces the same emotional response in everyone. This is why your beloved novel keeps on getting rejected: the slush-pile readers just don't have the right frame of reference.

In 1995 Monkhouse met Benny Hill for the last time; he uses this meeting to discuss Hill's life and success. Monkhouse remarks that no script writer ever admired Benny Hill's writing. They found it irritatingly unoriginal and repetitive; they found it hard to understand how a man could take smutty old jokes, corny puns, riddles, rhymes, and silent film comedy routines, and build them in to a worldwide success.

But Benny knew how he did it. At their last meeting, he and Monkhouse discussed how, during their lifetime, taboos had been removed, only to be replaced by an entirely new set! And at the doorway, as he left, Benny turned around and grinned. 'New is easy,' he called out. 'Funny is hard.'

At the risk of labouring the point: It is fairly easy to create something 'original' -- originality being a grotesquely over-praised quality in the arts. But it is very difficult to write something which produces the intended emotional reponse in the intended audience.

A stand-up comedian depends upon words -- and the timing with which they are delivered -- for his livelihood; so it is not surprising that Monkhouse has thought about the English language more carefully than most. He gets very angry about the misuse of the apostrophe. And here are some of his comments on frequently used phrases:

'Now then!' This is used, in England, as a warning. But which is it, he asks -- now, or then? It can't be both.

'Needless to say...' If it is needless to say, don't say it.

'It goes without saying...' Ditto.

Other phrases that Monkhouse regards as well-nigh meaningless are: 'In one fell swoop'; 'I'll go to the foot of our stairs'; 'Neither here nor there' (where is it then?); and 'Who knows?'

Although Monkhouse took the art of comedy intensely seriously, and regarded it as important, he did not overrate it. As he points out, no one on their death bed says, 'The end is near. Send for a comedian.' Lawyers, scientists, airline pilots, all of these, he suggests, are of more value to society than comedians.

Monkhouse's views on the motivation of comedians are also, it seems to me, relevant to writers. One of these days I may write a piece on what generates ambition in writers, but as far as comedians are concerned Monkhouse has firm opinions.

Comedians, he points out, almost invariably come from the working class; as do boxers. He himself was an exception: his parents were definitely a bit posh and he went to a private, fee-paying school. Indeed he was roundly abused for his origins by Leon Cortez, a cockney comic. 'Young feller like you,' said Cortez, 'good schooling, money in the family and that, you shouldn't be pushin' yerself in where you've got no business, taking jobs away from them as needs the work. It's all wrong... Do yerself a favour and fuck off out of it.'

It is the need for affection, Monkhouse argues, which motivates comedians. 'The need to hear laughter, and know that you are the cause of it... the desire to repeat that experience ad infinitum is the driving force behind the comedian's ambition.'

Monkhouse's own conclusion is shared by a number of other observers. He quotes Jeremy Beadle on what drives a comedian to risk all the uncertainties of a performance in front of a live audience: 'What movitates a comedian to risk all? ...Quite simply, it is to achieve that sublime feeling that you are responsible for happy laughter. And what finer profession can there be than to allow people some fleeting freedom from the pressures and pain of normal life into a brief world of pleasure and release?'

Whether these anlyses are right or wrong, all writers would , I believe, do well to examine what lies behind their own efforts to achieve fame, money, or literary reputation (and usually all three).

I myself only ever saw Bob Monkhouse perform live on one occasion. It was in the late 1960s, in a provincial nightclub. The manager of the club was a friend of mine, so I was backstage at the time.

M0nkhouse was due on at midnight, and at about a quarter to twelve he came out of his dressing room. He was immaculately dressed in a white dinner jacket. He asked for one drink, which he sipped over the next ten minutes. Then he wandered around the room, warming himself up by persuading people to talk to him, and using his wits to think of outrageous (and funny) replies to their questions and comments. He rather bemused the drummer, I remember, by telling him that he always expected the drummer to carry the melody during the songs in his act. Then he went onstage and did over an hour without missing a trick. I was impressed.

That performance was, I suspect, entirely typical of him. Utterly professional, and very effective.

Having reached the end of this discussion of Bob Monkhouse's book Over the Limit, I am conscious that I have not succeeded in making it sound as interesting, thoughtful and valuable as I found it to be. Taken out of context, the bits and pieces that I have quoted seem slight and inconsequential.

However, the fact is that, in the context of entertainment, Monkhouse was an erudite man. He met everyone, saw every film, and seems to have read widely too. He spent a lifetime researching into the problem of how to make people laugh; and, like all good scholars, he published the results of his research. If young, would-be writers can't find something in there to help them improve their craft, then I really don't know what to suggest.

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