Friday, October 05, 2007

Dead Comics Society, Issue 1: Kenny Everett

The Dreaming Arm is proud to announce a new semi-regular feature on tributes to deceased comedians. Over the coming times the likes of Les Dawson, Spike Milligan, Benny Hill, Peter Cook, Dave Allen, Dermot Morgan, James Young, Kenneth Williams and Ronnie Barker will be remembered. I would like this to be a collaborative venture with you, the reader, so all contributions of your favourite memories of the great court jesters of our time will be welcome.
There will be a distinct bias towards British and Irish comedians, as I’m not really familiar enough with American comedians, but any contributions on the likes of Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks would be most welcome.
Dead Comics Society will be an irreverent, but not disrespectful look at those whose unique styles have enriched our lives (ok, an over-the-top way of putting it, but you know what I mean) - using your own memories of these people rather than relying too much on Google and other source materials. The series kicks off with a piece on the inimitable Kenny Everett.

Dead Comics Society, Issue 1: Nothing lasts for Ever-ett
At the height of Kenny Everett's comedy career in the early to mid-1980s I was no more than 9 or 10 years old and probably too young to understand some of the more risqué gags. Like many of my classmates at the time I found his cheeky over-the-top style hilarious. His show tended to be talk of the school playground the next day, considerably spurred on, no doubt by parental disapproval!
Many well-known comedians began their show-biz careers within a different field of entertainment before discovering their talent for inducing laughter - Bernard Manning as a singer and compere, Billy Connolly as a folk musician and Ronnie Barker as a straight actor. Everett was one of the few entertainers to have made the successful transition from DJ to comedian. He is generally acknowledged to have been the driving force behind Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” getting to number 1 in 1975, after playing it repeatedly on his radio show.
An unlikely candidate for the Catholic priesthood in his youth, Everett was rumoured to have lived a flamboyant lifestyle of drug abuse and sexual promiscuity. Such a lifestyle cannot be condoned of course, but he should be judged on his public persona alone, not by the shortcomings in his private life. The almost obligatory tendency of the press to use the clichéd phrase “zany, whacky Kenny Everett” (or variations of it) any time he was mentioned was ironic in that Everett suffered from depression - a not uncommon trait among comedians. Spike Milligan, Kenneth Williams and Tony Hancock who eventually took his own life as a result are all striking examples - and more recently Stephen Fry who took the brave step of going public about his condition. Neither was Everett the only comic to have come to an untimely end after a life of excess. The ingenious Peter Cook, a heavy smoker and drinker for much of his life, in particular springs to mind.

Everett with Billy Connolly

Everett I believe, hasn’t had the credit he deserves, considering how ground-breaking and innovative his material was at the time. Guests on his show included fellow comedians like Bernard Manning and Billy Connolly as well as popular musicians of the day such as The Police, Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury. Despite the current plethora of nostalgia-laden “retro” TV documentaries and endless lists of top 100 comedians/sitcoms, etc Everett very rarely gets a mention nowadays - I suspect this may be partly due to the manner of his death and the taboo which still surrounds HIV/AIDS. It may also be related to his lack of longevity and enduring success. By the late 1980s he had effectively gone past his sell-by date as a comic. This however should not detract from the inimitable style of his early shows. Everett was essentially a DJ who ventured into comedy for a comparatively brief period of his career, so it would be unfair to compare him with the likes of Spike Milligan, Benny Hill or Kenneth Williams whose long careers as comic performers defined their public reputations.
He is chiefly remembered for the range of zany characters he portrayed. These included the cartoon interstellar crusader Captain Kremen, lecherous Frenchman Marcel Wave, sexually repressed city gent “Angry of Mayfair” in pinstripes and bowler hat (who would rant away to the camera about the sordid and disgusting nature of the previous sketch, only to turn his back and reveal that he was wearing womens underwear), the blonde and busty, (yet bearded) Hollywood bimbo, the spooneristically named Cupid Stunt, evangelical preacher with giant hands Brother Lee Love, leather-clad punk biker Sid Snott. Although Everett is generally not considered to have ever been part of the new wave of alternative comedy spearheaded by the likes of Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his unique brand of anarchic humour was in its day without doubt a ground-breaking “alternative” to what had gone before. The anarchic style was not unlike that of Monty Python which had aired a few years previously.

The increasing reliance of scantily-clad young women and smuttier material in Everett's show to boost the ratings towards the end of his comedy career marked a decline in the quality present in his earlier works - a charge which could also be levelled at Benny Hill in the latter stages of his career. Although vulgarity had always been part and parcel of Everett’s quintessentially cheeky style of humour, it gradually lost its underlying subtlety as the show went on, signalling a definite downhill trajectory.
Nevetherless, Everett will be remembered for hsi comic talent and his ability to constantly shock and surprise. Many of my generation will carry fond memories of the time when his sketches and crazy characters were the talk of the school yard.


Phil said...

Any mention of Everett evokes memories for me, from the age of 8 or 9 (I probably wasn't supposed to be looking at it, but I did, and so did thousands of my peers). I remember all the characters that Ciaran has mentioned already, and I also recall Everett doing a hilariously bigoted right-wing American General Patton/McArthur character, with massive shoulder epaulettes, whose only solution to dealing with the enemies of the US (and this category, in his view, included those people who did not like their mothers' apple pie on Sunday) was to:

"...round em' up, put em' in a field, and bomb the bastards!!!"

I think that although his comedy may very well have peaked too early, perhaps his illness may have had something to do with his subsequent decline - he was able to maintain a radio show. His comedy at its height was capable of being enjoyed and understood by children and adults alike.

It is also worth mentioning in the context of Everett that whether you hated or loved him (and my mum and dad fell very definitely into the first category!) he managed to carry on with a comedy career while suffering from periodic bouts of severe depression. Perhaps all the great comedians suffer from a vein of melancholia.

He met his final illness with resignation, stoicism, and even good humour. I remember the last TV footage of him before his untimely death, his emiciated figure smiling and shaking hands with fans and autograph hunters, wrapped up like an eskimo against the cold. Perhaps he even saw death as a happy release from his troubles on earth.
He displayed no bitterness against anybody in his final years, and even joked that his first task in heaven would be to "get" the man who had infected him with HIV! I hope that wherever he is now, Kenny's troubles will be at an end."

CW said...

Phil, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. I remember the general well, a topical concept during the days of the cold war and US Reaganite intervention in Nicaragua, Grenada, etc - very clever political satire and quite relevant today in the age of the US neo-con “let’s nuke ‘em” type attitude. Bush would have approved of him.

It was certainly the type of show that children of primary school age used to love because of its anarchic, in-your-face style and the fact that their parents (quite rightly!) strongly disapproved. My parents were very much in the same camp as yours here!

Rufus Dread said...

Like Phil and Ciaran, I remember Kenny Everett’s TV shows from the time I was at primary school. Kenny Everett like The Young Ones was censored by parents and kids were hard pushed to get past their parents and sneak a viewing. So I only got to watch snippets of his characters – surreal figures from a netherworld of satire and sexuality. I remember fleeting images of his bizarre creations – bearded women with huge breasts, a city gent in suspenders and a preacher with gargantuan hands. Psychologists could have a hay day interpreting such characters. He was certainly a loner, not part of the 80’s in crowd who brought us The Young Ones and Comic Strip Presents. He was one of a kind, not at ease with his sexuality and prone to depression. Comfortable perhaps only within the raucous and ostentatious constructions he depicted, a Peter Pan of comedy who will remain in the public consciousness for a long time to come.

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