You’re paying tribute to Tommy Cooper this month. What was it like to work
He didn’t like reading. If you gave him a sketch, we had to book people who were used to him because he’d wander off the script. So he was quite stimulating to work with!
There are many one-liners going around the internet, variously attributed to Tommy Cooper or others...
Well, there’s no copyright in jokes: you don’t know where they originate. People say to me, ‘I told one of your jokes last night’. I’ll say, ‘They’re not mine, I just lease them.’ Jokes are folklore. We write material - that’s different.
You’re a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe – why do you keep going up?
I’ve been there on and off – well, mostly on - for 20 years. It’s because I love the new guys and like to perform and see them. I like talking about the past, but I don’t want to live there. I love what’s going on now. The breadth of knowledge and intelligence in the comedy is formidable. But they don’t drink! Young comics rush around with a bottle of water. We didn’t, to put it delicately. We were usually sitting in the bar chatting.
The tour that you’re doing with Colin Sell: what sort of material is it?
It’s a two-man show. We have a pack of 26 cards - A to Z - and on every card is a list of subjects and names beginning with that letter. We begin the show and Col starts giving me cards, but I don’t know what he’s going to give me. So it keeps things edgy. I get Col to tell the odd joke, and he sings in the show.
Why do you think that programmes like I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue are still huge hits?
We can’t believe it. We thought if the audience were our age it would be dropping off, but we get families and students and, ‘Oh, we grew up with you. Mum and Dad listen to the show, and it’s just wonderful’. I think it’s because we don’t know what each other’s going to do - that’s why you hear a lot of laughing. The show is at its best when it’s falling apart.
That Radio 4 6.30pm slot sometimes struggles. Why is it so tricky?
It’s a showcase and it’s hit and miss because that’s what comedy’s about. You don’t know, and something that’s good doesn’t always strike early. It might take time to settle in.
Do you still laugh as much as ever?
I do. I was in the pub recently and a woman had her back to me. Somebody said something that made me laugh and she swung around and said, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ That’s radio for you.
Does your wife still laugh at your jokes?
She laughs loyally. She doesn't accompany us to every gig, or come to Edinburgh every year, but if I’m doing stuff she’s heard before, she’ll laugh along. She’s very loyal.
Do you ever get joker’s block?
People say, do I still get nervous? I say, ‘I don’t call it nerves, I call it creative apprehension.’ If you don’t feel anything, you shouldn’t be doing it. All the great people I worked with always paced up and down, and were tense before they went on. But if I get a block on a joke or something, I just do another one. Then, later on, I’ll remember the thing I forgot. Keep it very loose.
Do you have a favourite comedian?
I had an absolute idol: Jack Benny. He loved other people getting laughs, which is pretty rare. But one of my happiest times was writing for Kenny Everett. He was a one-off and that was just a joy. I wrote his shows with Mike McIntyre’s father, Ray Cameron. I knew Mike when he was a little boy.
Who was one of the best people you’ve seen live?
Jack Benny. He played a mean, conceited coward, but the audience knew what the joke was. My wife and I saw him at the Palladium live and he was pretty old and not too well then, but, boy, you wouldn’t have known it on the stage. He was just superb.
Did you have to change the way you wrote for Morecambe and Wise?
Yes. We were friends, so it was easy to hear their voices. Also, it was a very boozy life. We were always in the bar together, and enormous stuff came out of there! The current lot – who are brilliant – say to me, in awe, ‘You tell jokes,’ as if I’d invented some new radical form. In our day it was the pub that produced the jokes.
Why do some comedians go out of favour?
Some are right for their times but don’t transfer. Ben Elton was a classic example. Brilliant writer - he transformed Blackadder. But Ben was Thatcher era and that dated. It goes in cycles, comedy.
So what’s the secret of staying in the game?
You just go with the flow of what’s happening. I was a Frost writer for a long time and you become a news junkie who always knew what’s happening now. You can take a traditional joke that fits, change the names and the joke is topical. I heard a very old joke the other day updated to be about Donald Trump..
What was the joke?
Five people on a plane, four parachutes and the plane is diving. The first person, Angelina Jolie, says, ‘Oh, my god. My career, my work, oh, my god.’ And they say, ‘take a parachute.’ The second is John McCain, the senator and ex-war hero, so they say, ‘have a parachute.’ The third one is Donald Trump, who says, ‘I am the president,’ grabs a bag and disappears. Now there’s Billy Graham, the preacher, and a teenage girl. He says, ‘I’ve had a great life devoted to God, have a parachute.’ And she says, ‘No, it’s OK. Mr Trump’s gone off with my school bag.’
Has there been a golden time for comedy?
The great old comedian Arthur Askey said, ‘Every generation’s the same; a load of crap and a few brilliant people.’ I’ve contributed to some rubbish in my time, I promise you.
Barry Cryer is on tour with Colin Sell. See barrycryer.co.uk. He pays tribute to Tommy Cooper at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival on January 22: www.slapstick.org.uk.
A version of this article was published in the January 2017 issue of Saga Magazine.
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