Past Laugh Regression: Part Four – Russ Abbot

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Here’s Part One. And Part Two. And Part Three.

The very title Russ Abbot’s Madhouse conjurors images of cruel Victorian asylums; scream-filled corridors, where wailing patients rhythmically smash their heads against filthy walls, their desperate pleas for mercy scrawled with human effluence. If anything, such pictures are more palatable than the truth, though by the end of this piece, we may all find ourselves yearning for the ice-baths, and the sweet liberation of being spiked through the frontal lobe.

Even when I watched as a lad, Russ Abbot had an aura of the middle-aged about him. Though only in his 30s, the long-faced, toupee-wearing Abbot seemed a different generation to the frenetic young rockstars of 80’s comedy; the Davros and Starrs, stomping around with sweat-patches to gales of laughter. He was gentler, more Beano-ish, like a 50’s rocker trapped in the first fires of punk. Oh, and he looked exactly like a clean-shaven Hulk Hogan

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I begin my reappraisal with the television special, Russ Abbot’s Summer Madhouse, which originally aired in June 1985, and I surely would have watched at the time, aged six. Of course, you don’t just get Abbot, but a veritable ensemble of 80’s comedy’s biggest names, starting with one of the most iconic, in Les Dennis. Nobody really made it through that period without becoming the punchline, did they? Perhaps Les most of all. It’s weird to think that he even used to be a comedian, and I’ll give £1,000 to anyone who can quote a single joke, routine or character of his, with small print excluding the example of “I don’t really know!

Dennis is paired here with his double-act partner, Dustin Gee. Gee, who’d die seven months after Summer Madhouse, aged 43, has somewhat of a 27 Club rep among the 80’s variety set. Taken so young, he’s spoken of in terms of unfulfilled promise, and how Dennis and Gee would have gone so much further, given the chance. I’ll be the judge of that. Also featured in the crew are Hi-di-hi‘s Jeffrey Holland, Susie Blake and Sherrie Hewson, and everyone’s favourite Grandpa Munster lookalike, the great and much-missed Bella Emberg. Oddly, the confusing theme tune — “livin’ it up, duckin’ and a divin’; living it up, wheelin’ and a dealin’!” — seems like that of a consumer rights show, where the gang run an unlicensed building firm swindling the elderly into paying for non-existent driveways. But it’s good to start as you mean to go on, in this case, scratching all the skin off your head thanks to a Russ Abbot musical number.

With the word ‘Summer’ in the title, I thought it might be like those brilliant summer specials from the British comics of my childhood, where the characters are all on the beach, as though they’re on a well-deserved holiday from their job of ‘being in comics’. Sadly, it’s just an extended episode of his regular series. I say sadly, because it’s immediately clear that this is the worst thing I’ve ever had to sit through, and that includes the Fred Durst sex tape, and that video where a diver accidentally bisects his skull on a concrete pier.

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The opening sketch really sets the level, with a boat captain dropping a big piece of wood; “What’s that?” — “Ship’s log.” Serving as a warning for the 45 minutes to come, there are a succession of terrible puns, and the arrival of a hook-handed Bella Emberg, and it’s all downhill from there. Though thankfully light on impressions, we’re still subjected to Les Dennis with a bit of black on his teeth as Jimmy Tarbuck, interviewing Dustin Gee’s ‘Silly Black’. I feel like almost the entirety of the 1980s was taken up by two things; people pretending they couldn’t pronounce Arnold Schwarzenegger’s very-easy-to-pronounce surname, and shit impressions of Cilla Black, via shrieking all of her catchphrases — “Surprise surprise, chuck!” “lorra lorra laughs!” and “I was notoriously despised by everyone in the service industry!” It’s during this horror-show that we’re greeted with the return of an old friend.

Tarbuck: I had a dream about you last night.

Black: Did you?

Tarbuck: No, you wouldn’t let me.

If you’re keeping score, not even including the time it cropped up in my Carry On Emmanuelle piece, that’s the third fucking time this joke from Carry On Doctor has come up in Past Laugh Regression. Three quarters of them. And it’s not like I’ve been extensively combing through entire series; just dipping into a couple of episodes per act. This time, I barely got seven minutes in. Is this joke in everything ever made? It’s there. It’s always there. Following me. Haunting me. Like that Jim Carrey film where he’s being stalked by the number 23. If it happens once more, I’ll have to sift through every single piece of media ever released to find them all so they’ll leave me alone. I bet it’s started appearing in things that use to be clean of it. There it is now, in Fitzcarraldo; in Derek Jarman’s Blue; in every episode of a 12-part docuseries about Auschwitz.

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One of Abbot’s best known characters is Superman knock-off, Cooperman, and he shows up in a sketch where a pub TV’s interrupted by a newsflash, reporting that General Zod from Krypton is about to destroy the world with nukes. Abbot’s straight out of his seat, declaring–

Abbot: I’m bent!

Barman: I beg your pardon?!

Abbot: Clark Bent!

A few things here. Firstly, are all of Abbot’s jokes just rhyming a thing with another thing? Secondly, Zod from Krypton? Wait, so Cooperman’s canon in the world of the actual Superman? Fighting Superman villains? It’s not General Bod, or Dodd (that could have been good; massive teeth and shooting heat-rays out of his tickle-stick), but proper Zod from Superman II? I wonder what Cooperman’s origin story is? Initially, I didn’t get what it was even meant to be a pun on, and maybe it was an obscure reference to barrel-making. It’s only when he holds his hands like how you’d mime a limp spider that I realise it’s supposed to be Tommy Cooper. You’d never know from the impression. Why not have a Fez with a Superman symbol on it? Brilliantly, they’ve clearly not even seen Superman II, as General Zod is Jeffrey Holland playing a blustering military man in army gear and an actual general’s beret, firing nukes to start WW3 because he obviously has no superpowers. Shouldn’t he should have the same powers as Cooperman? Is their Krypton full of men who talk like Tommy Cooper? “Just like that,” exchanged in passing as an informal greeting? The logic of this is breaking my mind, let alone the stress of wondering if Bella Emberg’s Blunder Woman comes from an island filled with Bella Emberg-style Amazonians.

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Another famous Abbot character, which turns up in the 1986 episode of the regular Madhouse that I also watched, is 007 parody, Basildon Bond. Like his Sherlock bit, Barratt Holmes; a pun on a well-known property developer; Basildon Bond is a delicious reference to office stationary. Oh my sides. Fans of witty names will also enjoy Bond’s secretary, Miss Funnyfanny, and Les Dennis as ‘P’. The highlight of this sketch, as in every moment she’s present, is Emberg’s Russian KGB agent. Though Bond’s told to translate as he’s bilingual — “well I do wear a dress and slingbacks, sir” — her spiky yelling of Russian-sounding phrases, like Gorky Park and Sigue Sigue Sputnik, leave both men unable to keep a straight face. Because of the way she was presented as a lumbering grotesque, as a child, I thought Bella Emberg was the biggest woman in the world. When you mimicked a fat person at school, holding your arms by your sides and waddling around with puffed cheeks, Emberg is who you said you were. But watching as an adult, just like the scary dads of schoolfriends who now seem old and small, she’s rather strikingly normal; just a woman.

But you know who’s not great? I know it’s not good to speak ill of the dead, but Dustin Gee is roundly awful, though he is trapped in a family-friendly show that seems unwilling to acknowledge the natural high camp that leaks into his every character. When he’s draped in flowers as a gardening expert, half his material is double-entendre, like “I’ve had a lot of mail this week; in fact my bag’s been full” and “I’m a fruit fanatic,” which play to the silence of an audience who clearly haven’t been cued to laugh. Unwilling to commit to such smut, but getting big laffs from words like “testimonials,” which sounds a tiny bit like testicles, the house style isn’t just toothless, but missing its gums. There is one political gag, when Neil Kinnock’s said to be looking at the papers, “looking for a nice paper to cover the cracks in his party.” Slap-bang in the heyday of Thatcher’s rotten Britain, its placement explains a lot about the quality of what we’re seeing.

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Other than its astounding unfunniness, so far it’s been pretty inoffensive, all bright colours and childish gags, like something you’d expect to see on CBBC. Cue, the Four Bottoms. Not one, not two, but three men in blackface, which, as always, is 99% of the joke (“haha, the blacks!”). In a ‘parody’ of the Four Tops, the gag here, as in Copy Cats take on Winifred Atwell, is that one of their number has turned white. How? Well…

I went out for a walk in your British rain, and this is how I looked when I got back in again!”

Yes, the dirt of his filthy blackness washed off. The song focusses on how the now-white Abbot no longer fits their colour scheme, because — “The problem is, it makes our act look wonky, you can’t have three black guys and one honky.” They sing about possible replacements — “We could try Charlie Williams, or at a pinch, there’s Trevor McDonald, or even old Kenny Lynch” — literally just NAMING black men as a punchline. Is this one of the ‘songs of joy’ referred to in the theme? Ironically the music itself is the whitest thing you’ve ever heard, and like all of the many musical numbers in the show, it’s a weedy casio-keyboard-demo, so weak, it’s like drinking lemonade made from half a teaspoon dropped into the waters of the great flood.

06

A later musical sketch aged badly in a different way. I almost wept when The Neverly Brothers began droning another of Abbot’s fetid wine bar cabaret numbers, with the joke that one stayed home “doing sums,” while the other lived the rock and roll lifestyle. While providing no intentional laughs, it is a wonderful demonstration of the ever-evolving use of language.

One played cool, didn’t act the fool,

And tried to live his life right,

Yes, one looked after his money, baby,

And one got bummed every night.

Then it’s onto more racial stereotyping with C.U. Jimmy. If you’re unfamiliar with the character, it’s a ginger-wigged, tartan-clad, violent alcoholic, who spits pseudo-Scottish gibberish at 100pmh and is tight with money. Abbot may have only taken existing “och aye the noo!” stereotypes, but he certainly popularised them. I wonder what actual Scots thought of this character, which genuinely seemed to shape the English idea of what a Scotsman was, in the vein of Harry Enfield’s later public image dehabilitation of Liverpudlians. I went to Scotland as a kid, where the gift shops were full of Tam ‘O Shanter hats with ginger hair attached, and bought a joke book containing howlers like “Why are all Scottish churches round? So there’s no corners to hide in from the collection plate!” The shop-keeps probably want to spit on your foul English money when you’re buying that tin of authentic shortbread with a little white dog on the front. Jimmy’s skit begins with him reaching under the covers after a nightmare, thinking he’s pissed the bed. “It’s worse than I thought,” he says, taking out a three-feet-high whiskey bottle that’s half-empty, which made me wish Abbot would make a dark, post-modern comeback as C. U. Limmy.

07

Madhouse is a weird combination of the kind of punchlines you’d read on the back of a chocolate bar, which seem like they’re aimed at children, and stuff that’s so overly wordy, you have to run it back a couple of times to make sense of it. In the same sketch, you get a weather girl giving it the old “It’s raining cats and dogs, so remember to wear your wellies, or you might step in a poodle!” and then this, from Gee’s gardening expert: “I’ve had a letter from Mr. Banks again. Do you remember he won, when he put up his root veg at the Super Swede Show in Buckingham? Well, he’s won again; that’s a turnip for the books.” Hello, BTW, if you just woke from your surprise nap after reading the previous line.

The gardener section is a succession of truly piss-weak jokes, like on the suggestion of planting some onions, “it’s a good idea, cos I know my onions,” and when he tells Jimmy he’s off home, “I’ve got an ‘ome. It’s at the bottom of the garden. It’s a garden gnome.” Yeah, thanks for explaining. I’d been struggling since the beginning, but really hit the wall during the Three Musketeers sketch, which featured Abbot as ‘Fartanian,’ and dick-drivel such as: “You once saved a friend of mine. His name was Luca, you went to his aid” — “ah yes, Lucozade!” All the ensemble sketches feel exactly like the final round of The Generation Game, where contestants had to put on a costume play, and of all the Past Laugh Regressions so far, this is the one that most pushed me into fantasies about mutilating myself.

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It’s just endless misery; endless. Yet another fucking song, from Cooperman’s Christmas album during a summer special; a ski-lodge where Abbot refuses to evacuate during an avalanche as “we’ll ‘ave our lunch later.” Please, I beg you to end my life. And then, in the flesh, in its natural habitat, Les Dennis does his Mavis Riley. After all these years, it’s like only ever having seen pictures of it, before finally visiting the Louvre to stand in front of the original Mona Lisa. You know, if the Mona Lisa was shit. But we’re even robbed of an “I don’t really know,” as it’s all just the lead-in to Russ Abbot’s new single, All Night Holiday. As Abbot earnestly jigs about in his hairpiece and big suit, the summertime special feeling hits, when I finally feel beach-body ready — ready for my body to be found washed up on the beach.

The ’86 Madhouse is no better, with the lone positive that nobody’s dressed as Hitler. Still, the songs keep coming, this time, a 1920’s PG Wodehouse setting, for Whispering Hubert and the Constipated Seven, and his new dance craze the Gosh It’s Really Hurting Me Rag. Something happens to me during this, perhaps an unconscious psychological survival technique of blocking out trauma, because on the lyrics “bend your knees and turn your toes, feel that snap as the tendon goes,” I find myself transported back to the late 80s.

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I’m performing the Dopey Disco Rap, a parody of barn dance callers, alongside my mate Matt – who gives an accompanying back-beat of monkey noises — at the end of term junior school talent show. Following from the aforementioned previous years’ Cannon and Ball and Jonathan King skits, this was a showcase for Millard-penned lyrics such as “grab your partner’s greasy hair; throw your partner in the air,” and “now here comes the funny bit; throw your partner in a pit,” which I’ll be honest, brought the fucking house down. Though it did result in me, many years later at senior school, being punched by some bigger boys for refusing to recite it on command as they stood around smoking by the tennis courts, but such is the price of fame. Anyway my point is, a thing I did when I was ten holds up way better than this. Incidentally, that was my first experience of creative censorship. As we stepped onto the stage, Mr. Saunders asked what we were called. “The Dopey Disco Rap, sir,” I told him, only to hear us introduced as as “Paperchase” because he felt DDR was too rude. I’m basically Kanye before Kanye existed.

Alright, back to this excreta. There’s a telling blooper at the end of a sketch featuring Les Dennis explaining to hypnotherapist Heinz von Meatball that he’s in love with a duck, where Abbot accidentally spits something out onto the desk as he’s yelling. It’s most likely a mint, or a false tooth, but possibly a real tooth, as if the terrible material is rotting him from the inside. Each sketch physically degrading him further; a Cooperman where his anus falls out, and he has to kick it out of frame; a Tarzan parody ruined by Abbot’s dessicated skin falling from his flesh, unravelling from the helmet. By the time we get to the big final number, he’ll just be a loose pile of meat, with a single eyeball that fixes the camera with silent pleas to finish him off. That would’ve been preferable to what we do get; yet another joke-less, tuneless song, this time about a vain Frenchman, which gets no laughs, except for the one first that fills my room, and then the hall, and finally the street outside, as I walk into the path of oncoming traffic. I’ll leave you with one final thing. Les Dennis played Uncle Fester in the Addams Family Musical.

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Goodnight!

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~ by Stuart on July 9, 2018.

2 Responses to “Past Laugh Regression: Part Four – Russ Abbot”

  1. “the worst thing I’ve ever had to sit through, and that includes the Fred Durst sex tape” – who made you, or is that part of a patreon-only series of articles?

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