A very good one for all of you and tomorrow, as Ronnie Barker used to say. The maestro of puns had his character as the president of the Getting Your Wrongs In The Word Order Society.
Ronnie put words apart, ‘definitely speaks your cutlery. As you can imagine, funny and gentlemen, you get some ladies combinations. And most of our problems have this member ‘. All of this was delivered at breakneck speed without a flicker of hesitation.
Ronnie didn’t smile when he announced, “I have an assistant, Miss Help, who plays me away most weekends. She jostles in very large drawers. That was a typical Two Ronnies sketch, breathtaking in its cleverness but standard fare for the duo whose Saturday night show is 50 years old this month.
Barker and his comedy partner Ronnie Corbett specialized in jokes that relied on split-second timing, precise scripting, and a quick-thinking audience with a slightly dirty mind. If the Two Ronnies’ humor had a bad side, it was entirely our own fault. It’s a comedy style no less popular than ever.
The duo’s Fork Handles skit has been hailed as the funniest ever written for decades. Everyone knows it – a joke so well known that when a thanksgiving service was held for Corbett’s life at Westminster Abbey in 2017, the sight of ‘four candles’ on the altar caused a storm of laughter.
Yet no one writes or performs comical sketches anymore. Two of Ronnie’s humor is beloved, but functionally extinct – swept off the TV by a tsunami of lazy panel games and foul language.
After Corbett died in 2016, veteran stand-up Jimmy Tarbuck told me, “There are comedians today who can’t teach you anything but 50 different ways to use the F word.”
He was not exaggerating. When the domestic sitcom Meet The Richardsons returned to the comedy channel Dave last week, the central joke was that three-year-old Elsie was beginning to erase this and that in every sentence.
Parents Jon Richardson and Lucy Beaumont blamed each other. A montage of constant obscenities proved their daughter picked it up from both.
Meet The Richardsons cannot be compared to the Two Ronnies. The biggest fans couldn’t claim it as a variety show, let alone family entertainment.
But it’s the 21st-century equivalent of Terry And June – a sitcom about a squabbling husband and wife. The sublime June Whitfield would be offended by the mere comparison, but then June – unlike Lucy Beaumont – wouldn’t try to make a catchphrase out of ‘F ***’ sake.
The duo’s Fork Handles skit has been hailed as the funniest ever written for decades
Terry and June in the 1980s (and its 1970s predecessor, Happy Ever After) was tea time entertainment that never dropped off as much as an inappropriate hint. But the Ronnies were different – they enjoyed the grossness of the audience’s imagination without ever crossing the line themselves.
Here is Tarbie again, on one of Corbett’s favorite one-liners. ‘I remember one night taking the house downstairs:’ I was dancing with Dolly Parton, ‘he said, leaving a short pause for the audience to find out what this would look like for a man barely 1.80 meters long. ‘Not only could I not see anything. I became deaf too! “
Their comedy demanded attention to detail. That’s painfully absent from today’s Saturday night merchants’ work – as everyone will know who was unlucky enough to see Jimmy Carr at work, on BBC1’s new musical competition, I Can See Your Voice. Carr, on the celebrity panel, had a stack scripted aside.
More of their joyful gems
- West Mersea police announced tonight that they want to interview a man wearing high heels and ruffled underpants, but the Chief Constable told them to wear their normal uniform.
- A study of the decline in morale in Britain found that in Liverpool alone, an average of 26 women a day had casual sex with a married man who was not their husband last week. The man is now recovering in the hospital.
- After only seven days of marriage, a newspaper editor’s wife has filed for divorce because he is too short of type, is bored with his special features and refuses to give her an extra night.
- A Didsbury plumber who swallowed a heating element and ballcock would be comfortable, barring occasional hot flashes.
- Rumor has it that the publishers remembered the long-awaited book on the history of Sellotape. Apparently no one can find the beginning.
- Complaints were filed in response to the chef’s annual dress up ball last night. A woman dressed only in gooseberries and cream made an inappropriate proposal to a man dressed in cake and sherry. She embarrassed herself and he got a little excited.
- A grandfather is missing after eating four cans of baked beans, two cauliflowers, and a jar of pickles. His family has made an emotional appeal not to come home for a fortnight.
He didn’t have to worry about his comedic timing – every comment seemed cut, edited, and put into place, like a part in a mass-produced piece of factory stat.
The way the Ronnies worked couldn’t have been more different. Their comedy was handmade, the product of a lifetime of labor. An emotional Bruce Forsyth told me the day Corbett died, ‘I remember rehearsing with him for one show – it could be a Royal Variety Performance – and feeling completely safe, as if he had brought a written guarantee that nothing could go. wrong at night.
The next day he entered the theater with notes on his script. He had marked all the places where we could add little details, to get extra laughs – not just for himself, but also for me and the rest of the cast. What a pro. ‘
That takes dedication. It also requires worthwhile material. If the current series of TV comics doesn’t put that kind of work into their routines, it’s not surprising. What finesse does it take to blurt out a few F words?
For the Ronnies, their most choreographed sketches required almost supernatural timing. In one of them they were strangers at a party, dressed in identical checkered sports coats and in unison exactly the same empty chatter.
“Practicing,” Corbett recalled, “got us into a rhythm and kept in sync. Even when we paused in the middle of the dialogue and suddenly fell back into the flow of nonsense. For the punch line, we turned away and at the same time muttered, “What awful boredom!”
The success of this performance depended on a crafty piece of theater. Barker stood with his left foot next to Corbett’s right side, under the camera’s field of view.
When they paused, Corbett tried not to doubt when his partner would talk again – he just waited for a toe push.
Ask yourself when you last saw a TV working so finely, so professionally. Most formats now rely on the opposite, with wannabe celebrities and amateur talent thronging the screen.
Everyone thinks they are funny, and no one can be bothered to put in the work.
And as a lazy and undemanding audience, why should they expect nothing more than a stream of obscenities?
Television today can get away with undiluted sewage like Celebrity Juice, now in its 24th series on ITV2, and still relying on a deluge of genital references and toilet jokes for entertainment.
Commissioning editors need to know that TV viewers want more. Reruns of Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army still make reliable prime-time hits. And the BBC is still showing reruns of All Creatures Great And Small. Or, as the Ronnies called it, All Creatures Grunt And Smell.
The answer is simply that acts like the Rons no longer exist. They learned their trade in clubs and theaters, not quiz games that made bullshit against Tory politicians.
They worked together for five years on The Frost Report and other sketch shows, before their big break came: While presenting the 1970s Baftas, a technical glitch halted the ceremony.
In front of an audience of industry top performers, the duo went into an untrained set of routines. BBC1 controller Paul Fox was one of those who cried with laughter – and by the time the cameras started rolling again, the Ronnies had their own Saturday night series. It ran for 17 years.
Such a long life would not have been possible without brilliant screenwriters.
One in particular seemed to have an instinct for complicated jokes that inspired the very best of both Ronnies.
His name was Gerald Wiley and no one had ever met him. Corbett revered Wiley’s writing from the first script he submitted.
Then little Ronnie stood talking to himself in a doctor’s waiting room – and when he sent a note of praise to the reclusive writer’s agent, a letter came back saying he could get the sketch for free. As a gift, a mark of respect, from Wiley. No wonder Ronnie loved him.
Corbett became obsessed with trying to guess Gerald Wiley’s true identity. He couldn’t just be a talented amateur
He eventually became convinced it was Frank Muir or Tom Stoppard. Or maybe even Alan Bennett.
His friend Barry Cryer claimed that Wiley was a pseudonym for Noel Coward.
So they were both stunned when Barker got up one night at a Chinese restaurant at a dinner party and admitted that he was “Gerald Wiley.”
Barker’s collected scripts run to over 730 zipped pages. There are countless allusions, cheeky stuttering jokes, silly spoonbills and bawdy ambiguities.
But there’s not a single F word, and not a single punch line in The Two Ronnies relied on obscenity for its laugh.
They were way above that.