Comedians praise humour of Samuel Beckett

April 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

From , April 12, 2009

Phill Jupitus, Al Murray, Ricky Gervais, Mark Thomas, Stewart Lee, Omid Djalili and others on Waiting for Godot and more

Samuel Beckett

(Frank Herrmann)

Samuel Beckett

If there’s one piece of theatre that obsesses comedians, it’s Waiting for Godot. Great double acts, from Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson to Steve Martin and Robin Williams, have had a punt at playing Vladimir and Estragon — while Buster Keaton and Lee Evans have performed in other parts of Beckett’s canon. Perhaps it’s the vaudeville routines that Beckett used, perhaps it’s the way he takes the props of comedy to support more complex soul-searching. Though his works can be bleak, they can also be very funny. So, we asked comedy’s finest what Beckett the playwright means to them.

  • Phill Jupitus

The longest-serving face on Never Mind the Buzzcocks started his career as Porky the Poet, supporting Billy Bragg

Godot is the first play I ever saw with professional actors — barring pantomimes. And I. Did. Not. Know. What. The. F. Was. Going. On. Little realising that that was Beckett’s point. It’s a play that’s equally demanding on performer and audience — you can’t help thinking about it after you’ve seen it, even if you only went for a laugh. Beckett loved clowning, but his two favourites — Groucho Marx and Buster Keaton — were as deep, dark and troubled as he was. I wrote a parody in 2006, Waiting for Alice, about Tweedledee and Tweedledum in a copy of Through the Looking Glass that hasn’t been opened for 60 years. It was along the riff of “does a character exist if nobody’s reading them?” We looked at taking chunks from the original play, but you realise it’s so elliptically interlinked that anything you use becomes shallow and redundant out of the context of the whole piece — which is strange when you realise how many routines were sampled. I’m looking forward to the new production because I saw Ian McKellen host Saturday Night Live — which is a big ask for an actor — and he pulled it off. Plus, there are going to be X-Men fans in the audience and they’ll be watching Beckett. I find that delightful.

  • Robin Ince

A stand-up and writer who usually supports Ricky Gervais on tour and runs club nights such as the School for Gifted Children

My favourite Beckett line is the opening line from A Piece of Monologue: “Birth was the death of him.” A stand-up could build an hour-long Edinburgh show around existentialism, but he nailed it with just one line.

My envy of his writing is about two things: his absolute lack of wastage — even though his lines are about waste and futility — and his confidence with the pause. You can tell truly great stand-ups if they can get to a moment where they just pause for a moment of silence and they still have you and you can see what’s going on in their head. I suppose that’s why comedians are so obsessed with him. It’s because we spend our lives falling over and looking ugly for cash, but Beckett has somehow taken that and raised it to the kind of philosophical level that requires critical acclaim. The only thing that’s come close is The Music Box with Laurel and Hardy, where they have a 10-minute sequence trying to get a piano upstairs, only to meet the delivery man, who says, “Why didn’t you bring it by the road?” They pause, and you think, no, they won’t, but they take it back down the stairs and up the road. In that scene, Stan Laurel is saying as much about the futility of any human task as Beckett at his most profound.

  • Al Murray

Currently on ITV in his sketch show Al Murray’s Multiple Personality Disorder and touring as the Pub Landlord

I grew up watching Laurel and Hardy — which is essentially the story of two men trying to pass the time during the Great Depression and, it being America, make a little profit too. So when I came to Waiting for Godot at A-level, there was a sense in which I was thinking, I have seen this before. Of course Beckett turned to vaudeville, and of course it should be played as vaudeville, because how else can you stage a play that’s described as nothing happening twice? There are times with the Pub Landlord when my routine involves me making an idea or a phrase sound meaningless through exaggerated repetition, and I suspect that wouldn’t work — or it might not even have happened — if I hadn’t been exposed to Beckett. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to go and see this production, though, because I won’t be able to shake the thought that it’s Professor X versus Magneto from the first X-Men movie. Which shows how Godot borrowed from mainstream culture, existed on the fringes of it and is now back in the mainstream with Hollywood stars performing it in the West End.

  • Simon Munnery

He has performed as Alan Parker: Urban Warrior, the League Against Tedium and hosted BBC2’s Attention Scum! His second book, How to Die, will be available in August

For me, Beckett is one of those people, like Miles Davis, who the thought that they have lived is enough to get you through a bad night. And like jazz, it’s your route to Beckett that determines your response: I was lucky enough to see Waiting for Godot (at the National, with John Alderton) having never heard of it, and laughed like a drain. My academic friend would later quote morsels to me in bars, alongside stanzas of Monty Python. “Let’s go/ We can’t/ Why not?/ We’re waiting for Godot.” You can’t beat that, the rhythm of the halls, the classic about-to-split-up nature of double acts. I haven’t been influenced by Beckett so much as stolen from him. I used to use a line from his novel Murphy as a put-down in dingy clubs around the land. And for Club Zarathustra, a cabaret I was in, we nicked the idea of people in dustbins from Endgame. We had the comedian Tom Binns hide in a bin and pop up halfway through the show and deliver a withering parody of stand- up. I love a one-liner, the density of thought you can get in one sentence, the beautiful ambiguities inherent therein. Abstract landscape rather than kitchen sink. Scrupulous absence of topical references. For all this and more, I thank Beckett.

  • Mark Thomas

A comedian and film-maker, he graduated from the agitprop pranks of Channel 4’s Mark Thomas Product to making documentaries for Dispatches. His new tour, It’s the Stupid Economy, starts April 20

I’ve loved Beckett for years — whether it’s Krapp’s Last Tape and the way he plays with repeated phrases, toying with the word “spool”, or Endgame, with the minutely detailed stage directions simply for positioning a stepladder. What annoys me most about Beckett is the audience. I went to see his sketches at the Young Vic directed by Peter Brook and there were skits with men dressed as women that the audience were howling with laughter at, and I thought, that’s just like Les Dawson, but if it actually was Les Dawson you wouldn’t find it funny. That audience wouldn’t go to the circus either, but Godot is like a weird, dribbly circus — at least, that’s what I thought the first time I saw it as a kid. If it wasn’t for the clowning it would be so unbearably, unremittingly bleak, which makes me wonder if Beckett began with the laughter or gave in to it. Beckett was essentially clowning, but it was such perfect, precise clowning.

  • Omid Djalili

Djalili has been nominated for a Perrier, appeared in Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, as well as writing and starring in BBC1’s The Omid Djalili Show, series two of which starts on April 20

In 1988, I was lucky enough to take part in the annual Anglo-Irish literature conference at the University of Ulster — from where I had just graduated — which was being chaired that year by my uncle Suheil Bushrui, a professor of English literature at Oxford University and an expert on WB Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. There he encouraged me to “watch and learn” from him, driving him around in my red Renault 5 and being his general dogsbody. It was in the car that he told me about his interview with Beckett in Paris the year before. After a long interview covering all his works, he had put it to him that he thought himself just “a bedouin from the Middle East” and who was he to make assumptions, but surely was not Waiting for Godot less a nihilistic viewpoint of man set loose in a bleak godless world with no hope, and more a plea for mankind to stop waiting for God to appear out of nowhere and rather to cajole us to search inwardly and to find the innate divine within? Was not this work, then, his most deeply religious in essence? Beckett apparently looked at him, smiled, put his hand on my uncle’s arm and said: “Who would have thought that it would take a bedouin from the Middle East to hit the nail on the head?”

  • Stewart Lee

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is currently on BBC2. His previous TV outings include Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard not Judy

Beckett isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to leak through via TV — like most of high culture, he’s been removed from most people’s lives. The fact that he influenced Monty Python and alternative comedians, however, does mean that comics today are influenced by him, albeit second hand. They may have seen Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer and been inspired by them, in the way Coldplay are influenced by Echo and the Bunnymen, who were influenced by Television. I think that’s important. Godot perfectly encapsulates the theory that clowning represents man’s attempt to stand upright and retain some shred of dignity in the face of impossible odds. If done right, Beckett is still shocking. I saw John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape in the West End and there were people in the audience who were totally freaked out — they were asking the ushers if there had been some sort of mistake because this couldn’t actually be the play. Surely, they said, an actor like John Hurt wouldn’t be in this. It’ll be interesting to see how Patrick Stewart’s fanbase responds.

  • Ricky Gervais

His new movie, This Side of the Truth, is out in the autumn and he will preview his new stand-up show, Science, at the Edinburgh Playhouse on August 25

I know so little about Beckett, I would embarrass myself with a comment. He hasn’t been an influence on my work, although some of those in the know have told me that The Office had certain Beckett qualities. One journalist also said it was like Chekhov. I know nothing about him either. What I’m saying is, it seems I rip people off without knowing it. I also rip people off and know it. Laurel and Hardy, for example. Now they were like Beckett. Does that count as knowing something about Beckett after all?

  • Phil Nichol

A Canadian comic and actor who has appeared in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and whose 2006 Edinburgh show, The Naked Racist, won the if.comedy award

When I first went up to the Edinburgh Festival, it was very much a stand-up world — gags or characters or rapid-fire sketches, which was fine. Then I noticed comics such as Owen O’Neil, Michael Smiley and Dave Gorman doing stories or slideshows and involving theatrical tricks. O’Neil could do grotesque Beckett-style characters mixed with stand-up and have you laughing all the way through, then crying at the end. I think if you look at comics like Wil Hodgson, Daniel Kitson and We Are Klang, they’re closer to absurdist theatre than they are to Jimmy Tarbuck — and the comedy audience is ready for it. A few years ago, I was getting bored with stand-up, so Carey Marx, another comic, would set me a dare every night to see if I could pull it off within the show. One night it was pure Beckett — do nothing. I told the audience that was what I was planning to do. Then I just sat at the edge of the stage and fiddled with the mic stand for a full 20-minute set. I got a huge encore, came back on and did three minutes of nothing. Foolishly I did the same the thing the following night at a different club and was booed off.

  • Waiting for Godot, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, opens at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, SW1, on April 30.
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