The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
It’s summer, and for many that means travel. With that in mind, at various points throughout the season, I will be providing you, the reader, with classic forgotten comedy of the audio persuasion to help you pass the time on your road trip while digging deeper into comedy history.
In the Venn diagram that connects The Beatles and Monty Python, there’s an awful lot in the center of those two intersecting circles. Ringo appeared on Flying Circus, George Harrison basically bankrolled Life of Brian all by himself, and of course there’s the Eric Idle solo project, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, the pitch perfect spoof of the Beatles entire career to that point. But way up at the top of the list of commonalities there’s one thing that stands out in big bold letters: a deep love for The Goon Show.
You may never have heard of The Goon Show, but In England it’s still very highly regarded as classic comedy in the early days of BBC. The program aired from 1951 to 1960, and there’s honestly no better way to describe it besides “weird.” Today, weird comedy is, oddly enough, common. The bulk of the Adult Swim block of programming is designed to barrage the viewer with odd characters in even odder situations. But in the 1950s, comedy was setup-punchline. There was a formula to comedy, and it worked. The Goon Show had a loose formula to it, but it certainly didn’t feel that way as one listened.
There were three performers on the show (but a whole hell of a lot more characters). There was Harry Secombe, who primarily played Neddy Seagoon on the show, who was as close to a straight man on the program as you could have on The Goon Show. Secombe would later go on to star as Mr. Bumble in the film version of Oliver!, and host his own BBC TV show in the 70s. Also on the show was a young Peter Sellers who played many different characters before going on to play just as many characters throughout his long career. Sellers could do many accents, impressions, and characters from every walk of life and was thus invaluable to the program.
And the final member of the trio was Spike Milligan. In addition to Milligan’s acting on the show, he was also the main writer for the program and the key source from which all these strange characters appeared. The task of writing all of these dense episodes basically by himself took quite a toll on his psyche and resulted in a number of mental breakdowns throughout the run of the show. However, he always returned and always had a plethora of new masterfully woven examples of wordplay for the next script. In the first volume of a recent documentary about the history of The Beatles entitled All These Years, Mark Lewisohn tucks in a description of Spike’s work on the show. He writes: “The Goon Show’s residing genius was Spike Milligan, a writer, humorist, musician and humanitarian whose flights of comic fantasy and invention knew no bound… Its preposterous comedy situations, like floating Dartmoor Prison across the English Channel to France, and attempting to stop a flood by drinking the River Thames, made it the quintessential product of radio, with Milligan conjuring ideas and mind-pictures far beyond physical possibility.”
The episode “Dishonoured” from Season 5 is a classic episode of the series, and an excellent example of the type of show The Goons had created. It opens with the three performers imitating an orchestra in an acapella sort of song before they are interrupted by the show’s announcer. “Here is a police message. A van load of musical instruments was stolen this afternoon. It is believed to be having repercussions.” In the first 15 seconds of the show we already have a punchline (the singing) before the setup, as well as a subversion of the audience’s expectations for the radio show.
The basic plot of the episode is rather easy to understand: Neddie Seagoon gets a job at a bank, robs it, heads for the sea, and winds up in a number of wacky adventures along the way. While Neddie, Eccles, Moriarty and other characters would appear in nearly every single one of the program’s 238 episodes, one of the rules that was built into the program also allowed for the innovation for which it was famous. The characters themselves were pretty consistent from episode to episode. Neddie was a gullible idiot, Eccles was an even bigger idiot, and Moriarty, like his namesake in the Sherlock stories, was a criminal who frequently crossed paths with Neddie and the others. While these traits were pretty standard week to week, there was no telling what situation you might find them in. One week they might be spies, another soldiers, or maybe even sailors. You might not be surprised when Eccles showed up an episode, but you were certainly excited that he had entered the picture, and you couldn’t wait to find up what impact he’d have on it.
One element of “Dishonoured” that works particularly well is the running jokes. The episodes story, which promises to tell us about the downfall of Neddie Seagoon, is divided up into “parts” as he transitions from child, into adulthood. When Neddie is offered a job at a bank, Moriarty makes an aside to the audience that “this is where the story really starts.” Once the story is started, we are informed eight more times at various points in the half-hour that “this is where the story really starts,” each time occurring just long enough later that it becomes unexpected again.
The show is also rich with all kinds of silliness. Having robbed the bank, Seagoon decides that to clear his name and regain his self-respect he’ll join the Navy. In response, the orchestra plays a number of nautical themes, loudly and quickly. They come so fast and furious that the themes run into one another, creating a weird haphazard medley. When they finish, Seagoon responds, “No. I’ll join the Army.” When asked ‘why,’ he gives his answer: “It’s too damn noisy in the Navy.” Before Community, meta humor was going strong on the BBC.
The Goon Show does take a little acclimating. In fact, one’s first episode can at times feel rather daunting. Character dynamics haven’t been defined for you yet. A voice that is familiar to the studio audience but unknown to you will speak, and the story will halt for the applause of recognition. Gibberish phrases would appear and be repeated as if they were perfectly common English phrases in future shows. However, if you can simply allow yourself to overlook these obstacles and listen to another episode or two, you will be rewarded with some fast-paced, joke-rich silliness, the likes of which have never been matched since.
Or you can just not listen to it, if you think you know better than Monty Python and the Beatles.