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Ronnie Corbett and Laurence Sterne

April 2, 2016

Sterne

A very Sternean comic died on Thursday.

Of course, when I was a grumpy teenager, it was not the done thing to admire The Two Ronnies.  Alternative Comedy was our punk rock (this was if you were an 80s rather than a 70s teenager).  And the repudiation of so-called traditional or mainstream comedy, although very healthy and energetic and cleansing and necessary, was also very unfair in a number of particulars.

The same thing happened with punk in the 70s of course.  John Lydon has recently declared that he does not, in fact, “hate” Pink Floyd.  What he hated was an oppressively reverential culture that surrounded Pink Floyd at a certain point in the mid 1970s.

Alternative comedy was similarly cruel to certain comics who deserved better. Kids are like that.  Les Dawson did not deserve to placed in the same category as Bernard Manning.  They were two large comedians from the North of England but one was an eloquent genius and the other was not.

It is difficult now to watch the “Not the Nine O’Clock News” sketch that sneers at “The Two Ronnies” (“The Two Ninnies”).  The work of a disconsolate  former Ronnies’ writer, it feels like an exercise in utter pettiness.  As the 1980s dawned, could these young people find nothing more important to scorn and revile than The Two Ronnies?

Gather round children, and I will tell you that once upon a time, Ben Elton was regarded as radical anti-establishment comedian, an enfant terrible who spat in the face of his elders.  This phase did not last very long, all things considered, and round about the same time as Elton was mechanically re-writing Dad’s Army to become The Thin Blue Line, he also invited (by way of generational atonement), Ronnie Corbett to do his monologues on Elton’s show.

The Ronnie Corbett monologue was one of the most extraordinary and Sternean (or Shandean – I’m lazy enough to use these two terms interchangeably) forms of entertainment ever recorded.

Think of Bob Hope.  Now think of the opposite of that.  Think of the comedian who boasts out how many jokes they can come out with in a twenty minute set.  Now think the opposite of that.  Think of Ronnie Corbett, a man who takes a seeming eternity to tell just one joke.

Ronnie Corbett was, very much, Sterne-Shandy.   It was somehow important that this tiny man was sitting in a chair that was much much too big for him.  He was spot-lit, alone and isolated on stage and supremely vulnerable looking.  While the wise-cracking stand up “owns” or “bosses” the stage – the stage seemed to boss him.   And his endless digressions had a nervous quality.  Many of the digressions seemed to feature his insecure relationship with the Director of the show.  The desperate workings of comedic production were laid bare.  We were laughing, not at the joke he was telling, which we’d often heard before and which on at least one occasion was as old as Boccaccio.  Nor were we laughing at the intrinsic merit of the jokes contained within the rambling digressions.   We were laughing at the effort of digression, at the mixture of extreme and irrelevant digression alongside the frequent and heartfelt protestations on Ronnie Corbett’s part that he would get back to the main line of narrative.  We were laughing at parentheses within parentheses.

Just as Sterne-Shandy claimed to dream of one day plotting a straight line from A to B, so Ronnie Corbett claimed to dream of one day being able to tell a straightforward joke.  The war between narrative exigency and Ronnie Corbett’s nervously digressive imagination was based on love.  This was not just affectionate comedy, it was comedy that relied on affection to succeed.  You had to love Ronnie Corbett, for the journey to be worth while.  We did.  And it was .

I always imagined that when Death finally came for Ronnie Corbett (as He did on Thursday), Ronnie Corbett would sit Him down and say…

“Ah Death,  that reminds me… of a rather amusing story.   I was having lunch with the Producer of the show (he’d found a Greggs coupon and was feeling generous), when he said to me – ‘Ronnie – you look like Death warmed up’ –  (incidentally – how do you warm up Death?  Do you give Him a fortnight in Majorca? – well you’d know) – but to get back to the Greggs coupon…”

And Death would either get frustrated and storm out, or he’d be won over and bestow another ten years of life on Ronnie.

 

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