Ken Dodd’s skill was to make people actually laugh, so different to these ‘political’ routines today
A grounding in the music halls gave the stand-up star real rapport with his fans, says Gail Walker
The nation rightly mourns Sir Ken Dodd, our last connection to the golden age of music hall, variety and that now forbidden term 'light entertainment'.
We shall miss Dodd but, more importantly, the style of comedy he represents.
Now, let me say that the Liverpool comedian was not one of my personal favourites. There was a whole section of his routines - the Diddy Men, Knotty Ash, the tickling stick, the 'discomfabulated' line of patter - that didn't have me in stitches. On the contrary, to be honest.
But when Dodd was doing his act without props, as it were, he was a joy to behold. As a stand-up comedian of the old school - famously 'standing up' for five solid hours in his later years - joke after joke, absurdity after absurdity, the essence of his routine was a desire to engage the audience, to make them laugh and simply to entertain.
And this he did for over sixty years, showing an admirable determination not to change with the times, to stay true to his mission (and at times Dodd did display an almost religious belief in his own vocation). The Dodd of the 1950s was much the same as the national treasure we mourn today.
It was a comic persona honed in the halls, not merely learning about his 'craft' but learning how to strike a rapport with the audience, finding out not what should make them laugh but what actually does.
How strikingly different from our own contemporary comedians. By and large, they offer not a comic persona but the slightest exaggeration of their own personalities (which really aren't all that fascinating). Instead of jokes, they offer 'observations', 'satire' and - some upfront and some more obliquely - 'politics'. Stand-ups like to believe that they are somehow telling truth to power, exploring the tensions running underneath society.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
In some ways it's a noble aim - taking part in social/cultural conversations is a lot more important than donning a red nose for an 'easy' laugh; it is much more laudable to 'challenge' your audience than 'conform' to some vague, middle-of-the-road desire not to cause 'offence'.
But alas how rarely does the theory get off the drawing board. In reality, we have a lot of interchangeable comedians largely 'observing' other comedians 'observations' and drawing on the well of buzzwords to an audience which is - in age, dress, attitude - more or less exactly like the performer onstage.
What is happening is not challenge (after all, how do you really challenge a room full of people demanding to be 'challenged'). The routine is not a challenge to prejudices but a conforming to it. Thirty (no, forty) years ago 'alternative' comedians just had to mention 'Thatch' or swear a bit to garner plaudits and laughs.
Speed forward a few decades. Instead of Thatch all you have to say is Trump (or Brexit or Boris or Rees Mogg) and swear a bit to garner a few plaudits and laughs. So much for the revolution.
Affirmation follows affirmation as performer and audience confirm their mutual insight, originality and daring.
It's tired, depressing and oh so predictable, with most modern comedians having the following career arc - play a few comedy clubs, Edinburgh, an experimental comedy on Channel 4 or BBC3 which draws in literally dozens of viewers, topical quiz shows and so on ad infinitum. Some will broaden their appeal by doing documentaries about 1950s toys,Japanese cinema or trains. Some, like David Walliams, will diversify into children's books, or like Michael Palin, into endless travel documentaries, or will find some other career connected to broadcasting - the former Lily Savage does dogs' homes and has a show on Radio Two. The king of alternative comedy, Ben Elton, collapsed into mainstream novel-writing and West End musicals decades ago. You never hear of him now. Would you have thought that possible in 1986, with the Young Ones? Even Rowan Atkinson is now mugging it up in serious drama as Maigret - doing it wel, if a bit on the short side for the bulky inspector.
But who are the comedians in the country today? Peter Kay, Michael McIntyre, Miranda Hart. These certainly have a big following, but not across all the demographics. Do Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French count as comedians any more? Or Sir Lenny Henry? Was Sir Tony Robinson ever an actual comedian? In terms of TV fame - having a commodity which reaches across gender, generation and cultural reference - neither Frankie Boyle nor Stewart Lee are in Doddy's class.
There is still a commonality of laughter. Frank Carson's old catchphrase "it's the way I tell 'em" was more true than even he knew. It wasn't the originality of the jokes that really counted, nor their brilliance or wit, or the political and social worldview they described. Though the literal 'old-stagers' often had material which did, in fact, describe a certain common world of absurdity - one that contained mortality and macabre insight just as much as silliness and pomposity.
No, what really mattered was the personality of the comedian. It's this which links Kay and McIntyre to the older jokers. Mind you, this isn't the personality of the actual man or woman we are talking about. Rest assured, 'Ken Dodd' was a fiction, just as much as Eric Morecambe, Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper, Victoria Wood or Les Dawson.
Dodd the man, self-taught but verging on genius, was an authority on the philosophy of humour, being an expert on Henri Bergson, Schopenhauer and Freud. Dodd the man as a self-employed businessman had his very unfunny run-in with the taxman, famously winning against Hector in a case shamefully brought against him when his brand of comedy was at its lowest ebb and when he was discovered to have hoarded his cash like a child over decades in suitcases all around his house.
Poverty can make you like that.
No, it's not the personality of the man that counts, it's that of the comedian - the clown suit, the fragile self-confidence, the touching lyrics of his songs of sentiment, the odd chap with the tickling stick and buck teeth. His persuasive, harmless, equality of comment was what made even the oldest and most familiar joke funny. His wasn't the comedy of the demented preacher - dividing people into sheep and goats, the saved and the damned. The comedy of malice by its very nature does not affirm life. Rather by its very bitterness it sours life.
It's easy to sneer at comedians of the Dodd stripe, to label their humour as 'safe', 'comforting' or 'unthreatening'. But it is what we wish it to be and it does what we wish it to do - remind us that we are, in our ridiculousness, in our self-importance, our bald-spot, crow's-feet, 'I beg your pardon, missus' vanities, part of the same great wave of humanity.
Today, as that ludicrous face adorns newspaper pages again, let's take the opportunity to remind ourselves that his was a rather noble mission.