Tuesday, May 10, 2005

One key to Peter Cook's comedy in particular, and to what makes the Cambridge-bred comedy different, is words. Cambridge also happens to be where one of the more famous and influential 20th century styles of philosophy was centered, called "analytic philosophy" or "language analysis." Its most famous proponents at Cambridge were '>Bertrand Russell and '>Ludwig Wittgenstein, but probably the most influential on students in the 50s was '>G.E. Moore, who died in 1958 and was buried in the town of Cambridge. Moore had been a towering intellect at Cambridge for a half century. He was known for testing philosophical assumptions disguised in philosophical language with logical analysis of what the words actually meant. He was a philosophical champion of ordinary language and common sense, and particularly effective in applying language analysis to ethical reasoning.

In his rigorous analysis, Moore and his followers revealed paradoxes in how we use language, and like the paradoxes at the heart of Buddhism, these can actually be quite funny. Beyond the Fringe included possibly the only satire on the Cambridge School of philosophy to make it to Broadway, in a conversation supposedly between Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, including their inflections.

How people talk and what their words say about them, as well as how people use language to obfuscate, cheat and lie to others and themselves, is a common feature of the Cambridge comedians. Think of the Monty Python debate in the famous Pet Shop sequence over whether the bird is dead. Language is central to even the craziest Python sight gags.

Monty Python was on British TV when Adams attended Cambridge, and was a powerful impetus to be funny. Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and John Cleese had all been Cambridge students, while Michael Palin and Terry Jones were Oxford, so the Beyond the Fringe Oxbridge connection was replicated.

So in a sense Douglas Adams was "third generation" in contemporary British comedy to come out of Cambridge. And just as the Python group were in awe of Peter Cook (Michael Palin presented the recent BBS four part retrospective of his work), Adams took the first opportunity he got to meet John Cleese, by interviewing him for the Cambridge paper. He subsequently got to fulfill yet another fantasy, this time of interviewers---he not only worked with Cleese but hired him to work on his programs on several occasions, including the celebrated Doctor Who cameo with Eleanor Bron. Shoe on the other foot sort of thing.

Of course Adams' shoes were huge anyway. They were titanic, as big as a starship. If you thought the Starship Titanic was immense, you could easily fit it into one of those shoes with plenty of room left over for the Heart of Gold. If you know what I mean.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The picture of Tom and Lala here is from "City of Death" - just FYI - :)