Entry 4: Foss Hill (The Old Comedian)- What happens when the ground shifts, when you misjudge your audience, when you fail to notice that the fashion has changed? Being a Baby Boomer and transitioning into the twilight, I feel particularly empathetic towards those old guys who wowed them at the pubs and clubs around the English-speaking world in the 60s and 70s: the old comedians.
Then things began to change: a certain correctness began to infiltrate. Is there anything more frightening or difficult than standing up in front of a crowd and trying to make them laugh? (Well, standing in front of a crowd and trying to get them to applaud your song maybe comes close). The ground has shifted under me from time to time but lately it has been happening more often than I would like.
Plato hadn’t much time for comedy: according to my trusty guide, Wikipedia- he asserted that the Guardians of the state should avoid laughter, “‘for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.’ “The po-faced philosopher goes on to say that comedy
should be tightly controlled if one wants to achieve the ideal state. I can think of a few politicians who would vote for that legislation.
Obviously, tyrants everywhere and at every time have followed his strictures. The earliest recollection I have of being reduced to violent spasms of laughter was when I was about twelve or so. I was
reading one of the early editions of MAD magazine and I can’t recall now, what it was that set me off, but my mother rushed into the room to see what was wrong, dropping a casserole which shattered on the wooden floor. The noises I was making, she later said, were like nothing she had ever heard from me.
Why is it that I can remember details like the casserole dish but cannot, however much I try, recall the content of the magazine which had sent me into paroxysms of laughter? But I loved the irreverent attitude the comic adopted then, and wherever I encounter this attitude in print or broadcast or in a live venue, I am still prone to lose control. But, satire
goes back a long way. My old mate, Aristophanes had this to say about the political leader of Athens, Cleon, in his play, The Knights
Hit him, hit him, hit the villain, hateful to the cavalry,/Tax-collecting, all-devouring monster of a lurking thief!/Villain, villain! I repeat it, I repeat it constantly, / With good reason since this thief reiterates his villainy. Old Comedy, eh!
Dear listener, have you ever been at a boring “do” of one sort or another and, upon leaving, uttered the words “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening” I know I have, but I’m too well-bred to imitate Groucho Marx by adding, “but this wasn’t it.” Of course, the Greeks have a word for it- paraprosdokian which means “against expectation”. We just call them “one-liners” and I can’t get enough of them. I’m probably too lazy to take the time to savour the subtleties of longer works such as Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the
Lock but Homer Simpson I can cope with: “If I could just say a few words… I’d be a better public speaker.”
I can cope with couplets, too. A newspaper in England ran a competition asking for a rhyme with the most romantic first line… but the least romantic second line. Try these out for size: I love your smile, your face, and your eyes / Damn, I’m good at telling lies! Or My love, you take my breath away. /What have you stepped in to smell this way?
I know, I know, don’t give up my day job…mmm, hold on, I don’t have one anymore! So, I wrote a song about an old comedian: his name? I’ll spell it: F.O.S.S. H.I.L.L. Foss Hill. Fossil. Groan-worthy, isn’t it? The song was written in 1998 after I attended a show featuring several British comedians, all of them pretty long in the tooth, at The Henry Lawson Club, Werrington, in Sydney’s outer west. Now, coincidentally, Lawson was a wonderful comedic writer. In his poem St Peter he imagines himself in Heaven and knows that he’ll get a fair hearing from a bloke used to tramping round Palestine:
He won’t try to get a chorus/ Out of lungs that’s worn to rags, /Or to graft the wings on shoulders/That is stiff with humpin’ swags. /But I’ll rest about the station/Where the work-bell never rings, /Till they blow the final trumpet/ And the Great Judge sees to things.
I’ve a good idea that Henry Lawson would have approved of the old comedians, as laughter echoed around the smoke-filled room in the club named in his honour. Such smoke-filled rooms are no longer widely available, alas, nor are comedians of the old school found any more in the comedy venues of this city. In the song coming up now, you will hear about a comedian who knows the time has come to give it all away. And, as I felt the ground shifting under me, I knew it was time, too, for me to gracefully (or grumpily) depart: