Who are your Top 10 Comedy Greats? And is my list pants?
PUBLISHED: 12:03 15 August 2018
I’ve got Peter Kay, Lee Mack, Victoria Wood and Katherine Ryan. Who tickles your fancy?
Funny things happen when you’re numerically challenged and try to compile a list of your top 10 comedy favourites of all time, ever. You end up with a dozen – or 13 if we’re counting a (sadly-parted) double-act as two…
Comedy. Best not to think about it. If you try to dismantle and analyse it, like MFI flat-packed furniture, it just falls apart in your hands. But I’ll have a quick bash.
There are things that make me laugh out loud. Mainly daft things, such as Tim Vine’s da-da-da-da machine-gun delivery of one-line puns. (“I’ve decided to sell my Hoover – it was just collecting dust.”) Or this exchange in the film Airplane! Steve: Johnny, what can you make out of this? [Hands him a printout of a weather forecast.] Johnny: This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl...
But I realise most of the things I like are gentle character-based set-ups, where the humour is the icing on the cake of a rewarding and sensitive mini-story with depth and pathos. (Think Detectorists.)
So my top 10 is largely people who are funny within the context of a story or setting, rather than stand-up performers peddling their patter. That said…
10 Tommy Cooper
In at number 10, a mix of the two. A member of the Magic Circle, Tommy used tricks as the pegs on which to hang his act. It worked because his persona was a slightly-vulnerable overgrown child in a man’s body, and we felt for him when the drawn-out tricks invariably went wrong.
Mind you, he had some clever jokes. “Police arrested two kids yesterday. One was drinking battery acid, the other was eating fireworks. They charged one and let the other one off.”
9.5 Lucy Porter
Lucy doesn’t earn a place simply because she laughed at my poor jokes when I once interviewed her. Though it might have tipped the balance. (Listen to Radio 4 comedy shows and you can hear her laughing, genuinely, at other performers.) Too much observational/reflective comedy is “punched out” at the audience. Lucy’s is gentle, and finds a following because of that.
I like this: “In your 30s you find your friends just disappear. I don’t mean they die. They all move to Birmingham, which is worse.”
9 Steve Coogan
Not everyone’s cup of tea, but brilliant at capturing (and covering over, just) the pitiful struggle to keep fading dreams alive when you’re being sucked into the black holes of Linton Travel Tavern (home to Alan Partridge for 183 days) and North Norfolk Digital. (Sorry, Norfolk.)
8 Lee Mack
A lively mind, cloaked in Northern warmth. (No stereotyping here, then! – Ed) I find him funniest in BBC sitcom Not Going Out. In an early series his idle character was asked to reduce the liquid in a saucepan on the stove… and simply poured half down the sink.
7 The Chuckle Brothers
(And I wrote this before the sad death of Barry.) Barry and Paul Elliott, Rotherham’s greatest export, earned their spurs after winning talent shows Opportunity Knocks in 1967 and New Faces in 1974, and then doing nearly 300 episodes of ChuckleVision on the BBC.
Their brand of clean daftness is guaranteed to bring a smile, and after the live shows I’ve been to they signed autographs for every last child who wanted one.
6 Katherine Ryan
The Canadian can be a bit un-PC and push the boundaries, but not too far. Her material has a freshness, and she has a physicality that adds much to her performance. She does a great Beyonce stance, for instance.
Example of Katherine-speak (talking about what scares her): “Primark on a Saturday. The biting and the blood.”
Five-and-a-half Tim Vine
Nice guy and word-wizard. The Prince of Puns. Viz: “I saw this train driver and said ‘I wanna go to Paris.’ He said ‘Eurostar?’ I said ‘Well, I’ve been on telly but I’m no Dean Martin.’”
And: “The other day someone left a piece of Plasticine in my dressing room. I didn’t know what to make of it.”
5 Victoria Wood
Such a loss. She had an alchemist’s knack of plucking out the mundane aspects of life that sustain us and turning them into wry nuggets of comedy gold. Take this from Dinnerladies:
Philippa: Do you miss your husband, Jean? Jean: Mmm. I miss the company. I’m not cut out for being on my own. If I say something like “I’m a fool. I left those tomatoes on the back seat”, it’s nice if there’s someone there going “Have you?”
4 Ken Dodd
His shows regularly carried on into the early hours, as the addiction of laughter seemed too strong to relinquish. Doddy was still doing four-hour stints in his 80s.
His jokes were crafted and honed. And honed so more. Remember the 1989 trial, when he was accused (and acquitted) of tax fraud involving £825,000? He quipped later: “I told the Inland Revenue I didn’t owe them a penny because I lived near the seaside.”
3 Peter Kay
A star of comic acting – with Phoenix Nights and Car Share mining the human experience of golden dreams and a reality that turns out much more hum-drum. (Sorry for being so cheerful!) But the comedy has such warmth, for the characters have great inner strength. Amazing plough-on-ability and friendship sustains them through the tricky times.
2 Eric Morecambe
Only 58 when he died in 1984, can you believe? A master of… well, everything. It takes great talent to play a fool well. Eric could make us laugh with a daft look or a prop-based gag (wearing four pairs of glasses, say) or a curled lip. His timing with the delivery of lines was spot-on.
Why did he appeal so to some of us? Well, as son Gary has put it, Eric was basically still a big kid at heart. For his fans, he perhaps acted the way they felt and behaved – or would want to, if they could.
1 Ronnie Barker
Another comic actor, rather than a comedian. Ronnie Barker’s portrayal of old lag Fletcher in BBC prison sitcom Porridge showed his ability not just to act but to really live in the skin of a character: from the constant background-chewing of gum to the body language and looks of mock-offence and surprise.
He could also play “serious” characters in sketches – the humour coming from the weaving of complicated and often-absurd words and sentences.
And he could create the magic, too. He wrote numerous sketches under the pseudonym Gerald Wiley, invariably built on clever wordplay. Among them was the glorious “fork handles/four candles” hardware store skit – the best ever.
Ronnie once said “I’ve always known I haven’t a personality of my own. I have to be someone else to be happy. That’s why I became an actor, I suppose.” I’m glad he did.
Who have I missed? Who is on your list of comedy greats? Do share them with us. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him at Features Desk, Portman Road, 120 Princes Street, Ipswich, IP1 1RS