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Comedy retrospective: Spike Milligan - Which is not unduly obvious, as I am about to explain
Comedy retrospective: Spike Milligan
Another one of my media posts! I wanted to hold this one off for later and write it up properly, but since yesterday would have been my subject's 90th birthday if he were still alive, I figured I should do it now instead. So here's a hastily-assembled post. If you've got the time and patience to listen to the clips, great! - Because this man strongly influenced my own sense of humour. (i.e. Now you know where I'm coming from.)

Spike Milligan was an Irish writer and comedian who was born in 1918 and occasionally referred to himself as "Spike Milligna, the well-known typing error". He's most famous for writing The Goon Show, a popular comedy program on BBC radio during the 1950s. Most people in North America have never heard of him. But his comedic influence was huge. He influenced all the major British comedians who emerged during the 1960s. I'm not being pompous or snobby here: without Spike Milligan's background influence, Monty Python would probably never have happened.

Even if you've vaguely heard of him, you've probably not seen him. His TV and film appearances are either old, minor, or obscure to modern audiences. He was the guest on a forgettable episode of The Muppet Show (the one that ends with "It's a small world after all"). He had a bit part in Life of Brian in the mob that chases Brian with shoes and gourds. And he had a brief appearance in the TV version of Gormenghast as the doddery old teacher who gets catapulted out a window.

Milligan's style is that of extreme absurdism. He basically popularized absurdist comedy in Britain. It's definitely not for everyone - you either love his style or you hate it. In many cases it was quite scatterbrained and didn't hold itself together well. There's no really well-known Milligan "sketch" - he was best known for short quips of dialog and creating marvelously silly situations. Some of his writing was simply brilliant. And a lot of it was really same-old, same-old unfocused nonsense.

Okay, some background. During World War II, Milligan was stationed in Africa where he met a Welsh soldier (later comedian and singer) named Harry Secombe. Milligan's unit accidentally had one of their cannons fall off a cliff, where it almost hit members of Secombe's unit. Secombe met Milligan shortly afterwards when Milligan burst in and asked, "Has anyone seen a gun?"

Returning to England after the war, Milligan and Secombe met two other aspiring comedians named Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers (yes, that Peter Sellers), and started a radio show that would become The Goon Show. Bentine didn't stay with the group, but the radio show is what made Sellers famous, and later allowed him to enter the world of film. (Harry Secombe, on the other hand, didn't become famous. He was later known as a tenor singer. If you ever watched the Vision channel in Canada and remember a fat guy singing hymns loudly and nasally in front of old castles, that's him.)

Many of The Goon Shows suck, or large chunks of them do, because Milligan had to churn out a new one every week for each season. He wrote over 200 of them over ten years, and it ruined his health, which was already somewhat fragile because he suffered long-term shell-shock from the war as well as being a manic-depressive. But some shows were really good or had wonderful bits sprinkled amongst the not-so-good. I'm telling ya, get two Goon Show fans in the same room together, and they can quote lines back and forth to each other for the better part of an hour.

So what was The Goon Show? Well, basically Milligan, Sellers and Secombe did the voices of a group of stock characters who were always basically the same, but each episode had them interact in completely different places, times and situations. Think of it like the different seasons of Blackadder.

There were tons of bizarre catch-phrases, in-jokes, and running gags, and as such it's a difficult series to "get into" because of the internal jargon. Milligan would also write in all sorts of silly sound effects to be used, and would create... really weird listening experiences sometimes. A few episodes were more similar to light horror than comedy. The musicians and the BBC announcer assigned to the program also found themselves being frequently written into the script.

It's really next to impossible to sum up all of Milligan's diverse works and creativity. So before I start throwing audio and video samples at you, here's a smattering of personal favourites of mine that came to mind but I couldn't dig up copies of on short notice.
  • Real life: Milligan was walking down a street and passed a funeral home, where no one was stationed at the front desk. Milligan went in, rang the bell on the desk, and laid down.

  • A sketch: Two archaeologists enter an Egyptian tomb excitedly and examine a large sarcophagus. "It's Cleopatra!" They struggle to open it up. "We're too late - she's dead."

  • A sketch: A gang of criminals find themselves being chased by British police, who start blowing police whistles. "Look out - he's got a whistle!" The sketch premise turns out to be cops and robbers fighting with whistles instead of guns.

  • "This skull is 5 million years old!" (pause, then singing) "Happy birthday to you..."

  • "Here, look at this photograph." "Hmm, well, I don't look anything like him." "That's the amazing part - he doesn't look anything like you either! You're identically unidentical!"

  • "What are these men lying [dead] on the floor for?" "We haven't got any carpets."

  • Audio weirdness: In one episode, the character of Neddie has to chase some thieves. Their method of transport? "Silent moving pianos". The sound effect is that of running feet accompanied by crazy piano playing, with the recording speeding up while it fades away into the distance. The thieves then change to a new vehicle: a bathtub balanced on top of a ladder. The sound effect for this is... hard to describe, like weird bubbling and singing noises being sped up. Shortly afterwards, Neddie's piano approaches, but the piano sound is being slowed down until it finally stops with a clank. "Blast - ran out of music!" (For a while, I used the piano sound as my Windows 95 shutdown noise.)

  • Many Goon Show episodes had whole sequences meant to fill time. Usually dull, but occasionally not. For example, in one episode, Neddie had to go to a Chinese teahouse, knock 6000 times, and ask for Mr. Ah-Pong. So he knocks 6000 times. It's a ridiculously long audio recording of knocking going faster and faster. When the door finally opens, he finds out the teahouse is actually next door, and he has to do the knocking all over again. This time when the door opens, he asks, "Are you Ah-Pong?" "Yes - we are ah-pong until eleven o'clock."

And now, the audio clips! In some cases I've edited out bits for easier listening.

It's hard to find a Goon Show episode that's pretty good all the way from start to finish, which isn't too in-jokish for new listeners. So I figured I'd start you off with clips from The Case of the Missing CD Plates.

The plot is this: Neddie is on holiday. After washing his coat in a fountain and disturbing a naked bather, he puts on bagpipes and walks into the street where he's run over by a steam roller being driven by a diplomat from Titicaca. Neddie wants to sue, but can't, because the steam roller has a special CD license plate that grants diplomatic immunity. Depressed, Neddie sits on the street and is suddenly trapped under a falling piano. The volunteer fire department is called, but are useless. Neddie pulls himself out and knocks at the door where the piano came from - it's the Titicacan embassy. This time Neddie is confident he can sue successfully - the piano didn't have a CD plate. The people in the embassy figure out where the piano is being hidden and screw on a plate, and the guard is blown up with an exploding cucumber. Neddie loses his court case and gets run over by a steam roller again.

Still with me? Here are other selected clips:

And did you know The Goons dabbled in music? The Ying Tong song made the top 10 of the British charts twice, first in 1956 and then again in 1973.

Last-minute found video clips:
Detective (nsfw)
Sandwich/Rhapsody in Blue
Pakistani Daleks, in which "Pakistani" apparently means "put everything in the curry".

Spike Milligan passed away in 2002. His colleague Harry Secombe had passed away the previous year, which relieved Milligan, who said, "I'm glad he died before me, because I didn't want him to sing at my funeral." A recording of Secombe's singing was played at Milligan's memorial service.

Milligan wanted his gravestone to read, "I told you I was ill," but the local church refused to allow this, so as a compromise it was written in Gaelic instead.

Here's to you, Spike.
5 comments or Leave a comment
niall_ From: niall_ Date: April 17th, 2008 06:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Blast you, putting this up while I'm at work and can't listen!

"get two Goon Show fans in the same room together, and they can quote lines back and forth to each other for the better part of an hour" is quite right. You and Jenora. I've seen it happen. And you both get into the thick accents and I can't figure out one bloody word! :)

That's one major problem for me.. old quality recordings coupled with my tin ear for accents and in-jokes sprinkled liberally with foreign slang makes for a complete cacophony for me. I can't laugh because I can't make out 90% of the syllables, much less words used.

This is sad, as I do so love absurdist humour. It's taking one tiny bit of illogism and seeing it to its logical extreme.

But I do know Milligan was instrumental in defining "British comedy". All of it.
dronon From: dronon Date: April 17th, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
old quality recordings coupled with ... accents and in-jokes sprinkled liberally with foreign slang makes for a complete cacophony

I agree completely; it's one of the main reasons why they're very much an acquired taste and aren't listened to much anymore, other than fans of old-fashioned radio comedy.
niall_ From: niall_ Date: April 17th, 2008 07:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
Half of old movies (pre 1960) for me are the same - I can't make out the syllables they're mouthing, be it British of North American. Thank goodness for DVDs and captioning available on demand! Old radio shows don't have that capacity, alas.

Mind you, I still have that problem occasionally with modern productions.
(Deleted comment)
dronon From: dronon Date: May 28th, 2008 06:05 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I guess I'm just easily amused.

The telescope line reminds me of a radio sketch by The Frantics that takes place in the Old West. It starts off with a cowboy playing a guitar, and while he's playing, he remarks, "It's gettin' mighty chilly - better throw some more wood on the fire," and suddenly the guitar music stops, and there's the sound of breaking strings and crunching wood.
5 comments or Leave a comment