All good friends and jolly good company
My name is André Vincent and I have been writing and performing comedy for over thirty years, but my love for the genre goes beyond this, to its origins and history. Recently, when the magazine Time Out asked several comics for their top 10 comedians, only a few named pre-1980 performers. These pages are a guide to the old, the forgotten and the mislaid heroes of the art of funny...
Only humans laugh, because only they suffer enough to need laughter as an antidote
On 26th March 2010, ITV aired a new stand-up show, Comedy Rocks, hosted by Jason Manford. It was a showcase for new up-and-coming comics, plus well-established performers and what some would describe as ‘mainstream’ acts. Representing the mainstream that night was Joe Pasquale. During his set he did a gag about sneaking a bolt onto a roller coaster, then dropping it heavily just as it began its descent, in order to terrify the other passengers.
After the show had been televised, Frank Skinner ‘named and shamed’ Joe Pasquale as a joke thief, claiming that the gag was his: the proof was available on one of his DVDs from fifteen years previous. A few weeks after the accusation, The Grand Order of Water Rats (a very exclusive fraternity of show-business performers) stepped forward with video footage of both Norman Wisdom and The Three Stooges performing the same routine.
I too have had a similar experience, following an appearance in Bodger & Badger, a 90s childrens’ TV show which has since been uploaded to YouTube. I performed a mirror routine during which I acted out being someone else’s reflection. A few people have asked me since how it feels to do something invented by the Marx Brothers. That annoys me. Because I knew it had been done before the Marx Brothers in a Max Linder film, Seven Years’ Bad Luck.
A little research reveals that Charles Manetti and Rhum, two clowns in the Cirque Olympique in 1848, also performed the sketch. The Hanlon-Lees (a troupe of Irish tumblers) say they invented the mirror routine in 1860. Lupino Lane claims his grandfather, George Lupino, created it for his Harlequin act performed at Drury Lane.
Jack Melville would perform a routine in the early 1900’s on the Vaudeville circuit called Broken Mirror and it had exactly the same concept as the others. So who invented it? Well, if you read a 17th-century Spanish play called The Rogueries of Pabillos, you will find it in there as well, so maybe its author was the original creator.
I’m not saying everything has been done before, I’m saying let’s look at the history, let’s go back a bit further before we start accusing comedians of theft. There is an old adage: “To be part of something’s future you should know its past”. So let’s examine the living ritual of comedy in all its different historical forms, and establish a chronology of the key comic moments over the centuries. This will help to reveal the shifting trends and styles of comedy: by joining the dots, we can plot change and identify the Steve Martins of their times. Who were the actual originators of today’s jokes?