Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The choice of Cambridge was deliberate and fateful. He knew what apparently the British still know (since Simpson seems to assume this knowledge in his book), that a certain kind of British comedy developed there in the 1950s through the seventies, which combined with other influences to create the feverishly intelligent satire and outrageous comedy that has captivated the smarter people of the world for 40 years or so.

The "first generation" of Cambridge wits, who honed their skills in the famous Footlights performing society made their impact in England and then the U.S. in the early to mid 1960s. The aforementioned David Frost was a Footlighter (he was its secretary) as was John Cleese. Frost brought topical satire to the U.S. with a colonial version of the TV series "'>That Was the Week That Was," which pioneered "fake news" long before John Stewart, and sketch comedy on news of the week. Baby boomers in particular remember this as an early inkling that TV didn't have to be a vast wasteland all the time.

Yet another couple of Cambridge writer-performers called Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller teamed up with two from Oxford, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett, for a fringe festival show that was so out there that it was beyond the fringe. '>Beyond the Fringe eventually became a theatrical sensation on Broadway in the early 60s; President John F. Kennedy attended a performance.

Nothing like this had ever been seen or heard in America---and most of us, not in New York, only heard it: there immediately was a best-selling LP record, which contained bits we learned by heart. (We did see the quartet perform some of the sketches on various TV shows and specials.) A typical World War II epic and all its patriotic solemnity is totally sent up, as a soldier panting for a suicide mission pleads with his officer, "sir, I want to be one of the few." "I'm sorry," his officer replies, "there are far too many."

The show included probably the best Shakespearian satire of all time, complete with an Olivier parody ("and now is dagger twixt gut and bladder intertwined," "O saucy Worchester!")

Though they were a one-hit wonder as a quartet, the members of Beyond the Fringe became enormous influences for many years, although only two of them in comedy. Jonathan Miller, who had a medical degree, first became an author and then a director of dramatic theatre and opera throughout the world. He is now Sir Jonathan Miller. Alan Bennett became a celebrated playwright; his best-known work in the U.S. is probably "'>The Madness of King George," owing to the movie version. Though both produced outstanding and influential work, neither particularly emphasized being funny.

Of the four, the one generally considered the most brilliant at comedy was '>Peter Cook. Eventually he re-teamed with Dudley Moore in a series of Fringe-like theatre productions, then legendary British TV shows and several feature films, particularly the original version of '>"'>Bedazzled." When Cook's drinking got the better of him, Dudley Moore began a successful acting career using his considerable comedic skills in Hollywood films such as "'>10" and "'>Arthur'>." But when Peter Cook died, Dudley Moore was so devastated that he took to calling Cook's phone just to hear his voice on the answering machine.

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