Past Laugh Regression: Part One – Copy Cats

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Comedy has always been very important to me, and as is probably evident through the showy-off nature of my work, I’m a frustrated performer at heart. Maybe the Patreon will give me enough cash to buy a camera and some editing software, to take my nob gags off the page and into the 20th century. Even as a small child, comedy was what I liked, and I was very aware that I could make adults laugh; though looking back, they were probably just humouring a precocious little bastard copying punchlines from TV and going on about farts.

I always cite my big writing influences as Chris Morris, the League of Gentlemen, and Werner Herzog, but going further back, there must have been early formative voices; the sparks that lit the tinder, back in the four-channel days of sketch shows and the arse-end of variety. Ask me what comedy I like now, and I’ll tell you it’s something with subtitles you probably haven’t heard of, because you’re too busy voting to evict Gregory from Cum Island. But if you’d asked in the eighties, it would have been Russ Abbot, Little and Large, the Grumbleweeds, Bobby Davro, and Cannon and Ball. I fucking loved Cannon and Ball. At one end-of-year junior school talent show, I took to the stage as Cannon to my mate’s Ball. I tried to argue for the more obviously laugh-getting role, with my head of naturally curly hair, but he had a pair of braces with “rock on, Tommy” written on, so that was that. The next year, I went solo, with an impersonation of Jonathan King, wearing a baseball cap and my mum’s big sunglasses, twisting my mouth, and saying “I’m Jonathan King,” over, and over again. My bible was Gary Wilmot’s The Right Impression, a book that promised you could “mimic your way to success,” with such tips as gluing Rice Crispies to your face to represent Adrian Mole’s acne. I failed to mimic my way to success, and these days, my only impression is a visual one of Jon Snow from Game of Thrones if he’d been smashed in the face with a paving slab.

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Impressions, then, seem a good place to start this series, where I’ll be revisiting the comedy of my childhood and rewatching through adult eyes, starting with ITV’s 1985 sketch show, Copy Cats. Impressionism is virtually a dead art form now. Revived at points by the likes of yer McGowans and Culshaws, the medium’s usually a balance of quality between the impressions themselves and the material, and more often than not, neither are much cop. Impressionists were everywhere in the eighties, clogging up variety shows with props and wigs, with everyone drawing from the same tiny pool of pop culture caricatures that everyone did, in those vague Chinese-whisper approximations of public figures, spouting apocryphal fake-catchphrases — Bruno’s “know what I mean, Harry?” Mavis off Corrie‘s “I don’t really know!” — handed down between impressionists like an old shoe; each just copying a copy of a copy. These weren’t about finesse; about nailing the verbal ticks or body language; but a broad shorthand that broke down each face into recognisable essentials. Doing Frank Bruno? Take off your shirt and put on a pair of boxing gloves; Norman Wisdom, a flat cap; Prince Charles, a set of plastic ears. To this day, the biggest laugh I ever got was aged twelve, putting a beret on my head in French class and going “Ooh, Betty!” I’ve been chasing that high ever since.

Copy Cats was a reboot of Who Do You Do? from a decade earlier, which featured such luminaries as Starr, Barrymore, Mullard, Little and Large. Copy Cats‘ stable was fresher faced, with younger names like Gary Wilmot, Andrew O’Connor, Jessica Martin, and Bobby Davro. Davro is a huge figure of this era; one of the faces on the Mount Rushmore of “can you believe what people used to laugh at?” Later in this series, you’ll either be pleased or distressed to hear, I’ll be tackling the oeuvre of Davro. But the above comment about idiots from the past may be unfair. I’m trying to avoid that “modern sneering at old telly” deal, and hope to be pleasantly surprised. Maybe there are genuine laughs to be had, robbing me of the chance to predictably swan about, all “Cuh! Weren’t everything racist and sexist back then?”

02

Opening gag. A midwife presents a black baby to its new father. “My missus always burns everything!” Huge laugh. Titles.

Always open with your strongest material! It should be noted, even preceding the punchline, the mere reveal of a black dolly invokes gales of audience laughter. So then, it’s with a heavy heart I must confirm that Copy Cats was fucking shite. But aside from the awful content, there’s another element which makes this a queasy watch. I’ll be talking about hauntology a lot on here, and while this isn’t the grey walls and Public Information Films you’d normally associate with that phrase, Copy Cats, and shows of its ilk, have an unsettling aesthetic of their own. Now we’ve moved past the grim seventies and early eighties, things are crawling towards the nineties, and everything’s an over-saturated mix of clashing colours, and beaming earnest smiles. If you had to tie a particular trait to this period, it would be wackiness, of office jokers shouting “Wahey!” in intentionally loud clothing, and every self-proclaimed “funny one” of the group thinking they were Robin Williams. The day-glo, analogue visuals and tepid performances, with audiences convulsing with laughter at atom-thin jokes, give the viewing experience of being trapped inside a flu-dream; a sense which is heightened to vertigo-inducing levels during one skit in particular.

In a section loosely parodying kids TV, Bobby Davro, wearing a Sid Justice wig, demonstrates the making of home-made wine by standing on a bowlful of grapes, where he’s having to ride the constant waves of audience laughter. But these are not the laughs you’re familiar with; those timed Uzi-bursts after the designated punchline, as primed by the warm-up man. These are the shrieks of those who’ve completely surrendered control, reaching new crescendos at his every action; every word. When he drops a sock into the wine, it almost brings down the set, and as he begins pulling dirty plasters off his feet, the audience become a pack of wild animals; howling, shrieking; absolutely losing their minds. It’s a genuine, white-hot superstar reaction, and though we hipster millennials, spending all our bitcoins on pumpkin spice enemas, invoke the names of Davro and co purely as ironic punchlines, who among us can say we’ve ever received such a rapturous response? Only me, in that French lesson all those years ago. There are points where the laughter’s so crazed, you half expect the camera to pan across and reveal an audience lost in naked baccian revelry. A man drinking Hofmeister from a freshly-exhumed human skull; a snaking, 15-person train of analingus; a woman having sex with a full-grown tiger; it’s no wonder Bobby Davro would soon break out as a solo act.

03

Copy Cats is big on the most pointless sub-genre of impressionism; taking off pre-existing comedians and comedy characters. “You know that funny thing you like? Well here it is, except not as good!” These skits, like Allan Stewart as Russ Abbot’s Scottish character, C. U. Jimmy, aren’t a deconstruction of the performance, or even a surreal take on it — like Vic and Bob’s Masterchef sketch — but merely a bad cover version, no better than my Tommy Cannon or Jonathan King. A shit joke told by someone dressed as a much better comedian is still a shit joke, in fact, dressing up as Joan Rivers or Billy Connelly merely signposts it. Speaking of signposting, Copy Cats‘ impressions are so bad that, almost unanimously, the first line of every skit is them telling the audience who they’re meant to be. Prince Charles opens on “Diana said to me,” while Peggy from Hi-De-Hi, “I’ve always wanted to be a yellowcoat!” and the fake-catchphrase is out in force. If a character doesn’t outright identify themselves immediately — “Hi, I’m Alex Higgins” — then another will address them by name — “Aren’t you Joan Collins?” At one point, when Benny from Crossroads shows up, he’s literally humming the theme from his own show.

Though, perhaps they needed actual signs hanging round their necks, because some of the choices are baffling, even by 1985 standards. A running joke advert for an album of piano covers gives us a rubber-nosed Jimmy Durante, and Richard Clayderman (incidentally, whoever came up with the idea to parody late-night ads for compilation albums on sketch shows must’ve never had to work another day in their life). WC Fields and George Burns turn up too, to an audience silence so deafening, I briefly panic that all the wanking’s made me go deaf. And then we come to Winifred Atwell. A Trinidadian boogie-woogie pianist, Atwell was the first black artist to reach number one in the UK charts. I didn’t want this to be another “haha look at how racist and homophobic old telly was” piece, but she’s played here by a white bloke in blackface. Maniacally thrashing at the keys, the joke is her gradually turning white, first with each hand — with open-mouthed Mammy reaction shots and a comedy boing sound effect — and finally, with her face half black/half white, like Roddy Piper at Wrestlemania 6.

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Later, Bobby Davro appears blacked-up beneath a giant afro, as Russell Thompkins Jr of The Stylistics. Remember, there’s an actual black man in the cast, but almost never is his colour used as a means to impersonate celebrities of similar ethnic background. Instead, it’s an easy punchline, like when, as Bet Lynch from Corrie, she’s asked if she’s “been overdoing the sunbed,” and later told she’s overdone it with the tan and looks like a burnt chicken. Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but one can imagine Wilmot gamely laughing along at the read-throughs, with a terrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

If you’re thinking “that sounds bad, but at least Hitler’s not shown up yet,” then I regret to inform you that your fave Bobby Davro is problematic, as both episodes of Copy Cats I watched featured Davro as Hitler. This is Inception-level “impressions all the way down,” with Swastika shorts that appear to mark it as Davro impersonating Freddie Starr impersonating Hitler. He’s got an English accent, and an oversized iron cross around his neck, you know, for comedy. I wonder how many times I’ll see Hitler while writing this series? As well as the racial stuff, they toss in a few gay gags, including a camp kids TV presenter who gets horny over toy beefeaters and touches himself over the thought of “dominant sailors,” and the most risqué bit of the night, where Duncan Norvelle recounts customs officers finding a “false bottom” in his suitcase. There’s also an absolutely dire take-off of Peter Cook’s E. L. Wisty character, drawing a blank from the audience, and purely featured to do a punchline about him being gay, in what’s obviously a weird dig at that alternative comedy scene, for stealing all their laffs from idiot leftie students who didn’t find Hitler funny. Possibly the weirdest part is when Jessica Martin as Barbra Streisand sings Memories, and then looks across to see herself dressed as her character from Yentl, which I guess is meant to be funny because she’s dressed real Jewish? By the way, we cut right from that to Bobby Davro as Hitler again.

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Aside from all the sideways looks at fascism, there’s still time for a bunch of random oddness. One courtroom sketch, which features both the judge and the defendant as the Elephant Man, brings the realisation that Bobby Davro and friends are mimicking the works of David Lynch. I’m looking forwards to Les Dennis’ take on the Winkies Diner scene from Mulholland Drive. I’m sure Davro will be eager for the chance to black up again. Perhaps the strangest of all is saved for the close of each week’s show, where the performers appear on stools in white tuxedos, as ‘themselves’, to earnestly sing us out, breaking between each line for quickies with hats and props. Consequently, the credits take up a full quarter of the running time. It’s here where Andrew O’Connor, with a bootleg Orville puppet, tells that joke about “no aspirin in the jungle cos the parrots ate ’em all!” On fucking television. And that’s the level here, sub lolly-stick. It’s patronising and lazy to assume that just because a thing is from the past, it’s shit, but the material and performances in this wouldn’t fly in a 7 second Vine. There is one decent gag, which I immediately spotted as a word-for-word lift of a Bernard Bresslaw line in Carry on Doctor.

I had a dream about you last night.”

Did you?

No, you wouldn’t let me.”

In closing this opening trek back to favourites of yore, I’ll answer the most important question. At any point, did it raise an intentional laugh? Truthfully, yes. When Prince Charles talked about Diana giving birth, and said she “had a little Willy,” I did chuckle, because he said the word willy, and if there’s one thing that doesn’t date, it’s a nob-gag. At least I hope not, or my work’s going to have a very short shelf life.

This piece is from my new Patreon, where subscribers could read this a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help me provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a bunch of posts live already, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, like my new novella, Jangle. Please give my existing books a look too.

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~ by Stuart on April 28, 2018.

4 Responses to “Past Laugh Regression: Part One – Copy Cats”

  1. I had that book as a kid. My poor family. (It’s 1p on Amazon now BTW.)

    I hate hate hate the way every sketch on Dead Ringers today involves the character saying their name in the first sentence.

    • My immediate thought was “I suppose it is on the radio.” My second, more correct thought, “no, it’s because they are shite.”

  2. […] Part One is here. […]

  3. […] films, there’s nothing quotable here. They even reuse that great joke from Carry On Doctor that I referenced in my Copy Cats piece. “I dreamt about her last night.” “Did you?” “No, she wouldn’t let me.” Even […]

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