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Sunday, February 26, 2006


Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 02/26/06 at 05:33 PM

Taking what Luther has said into account, another note on what commonly gets called surrealism, or at least surrealistic. So Ray says the Goon Show isn’t improved by a big budget. So, we might ask, how good was it on a small budget? (The lack of budget was a sore point for its writer, Spike Milligan.) But how can we tell how good it was, forty-five years removed and a continent away? Well, Monty Python was almost as long ago, and that same continent apart. Then and there the Goons had the same power over adolescents that Python had here, to the point of colonizing their brains, though the Goons seemed to cut across the social spectrum more, for example, including both young Prince Charles and young John Lennon, while the Pythons were for those who watched public television. You know who you are.

Most importantly, The Goon Show was radio, not television. The BBC kept up with theatrical radio production long after it had died in the U.S. The Goons decided to stop in 1960: the network was willing to keep going. In fact, they’re rebroadcasting episodes still. Though there was a small vogue in old-time radio in my youth, it was all strictly American. Stuff like Amos & Andy—can you believe that? you could still hear Amos & Andy into the Seventies. Scary.

Cassettes and CDs have been issued, but most conveniently, there’s lots on the internet. One episode a week is available for free on the BBC 7 homepage (click on “A to Z of all shows” under “Listen Live” button), and for some reason the copyright gods are looking the other way & various fan sites have scripts of every recorded show. So I don’t think it would be too abstruse for me to make a couple of comments.

Now that you’ve taken the bait & jumped, I’ll switch. That is, I’m not going to argue whether it’s good or not. I think it’s very good. But I not only like Casino Royale, I also like What’s New, Pussycat?, so my gustibus is very much disputandum. The following excerpt gives you a good taste. Lots of word play, some of it new-fangled, some of it as old as the music hall (e.g. “I don’t want to hear that, sir!” was a traditional substitute for a punchline).

Seagoon: Chapter Three. Me. [blows raspberry] One morning in the year needle-noddle-noo I had decided to spend a holiday abroad. How I love Rome with all her fountains! Ah, Rome! There’s no place like Rome! Hah-ha! [clears throat self consciously]. So I thought as I sat eating a small string pie in Trafalgar Square. I spent the next hour pleasantly washing my overcoat in the fountain.

Bloodnok: [sings] The man from Laramie… He had an elbow on each arm… and one upon his shoulder… I say. You with the zinc cardigan, are you English?

Seagoon: Only by descent.

Bloodnok: By descent?

Seagoon: I came down by parachute!

Bloodnok: Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Seagoon: I don’t wish to know that sah!

Bloodnok: Here in the most beautiful fountain in Trafalgar Square you have the audacity, and the audicity to wash an overcoat, thus fouling the water. You might have waited until I finished my bath!

Seagoon: To tell you the truth, sir, I thought you were a statue.

Bloodnok: I have enough decency, sir, not to move when I’m naked.

Seagoon: Haven’t you got a bath where you’re staying?

Bloodnok: Of course I have!

Seagoon: Where are you staying?

Bloodnok: Here!

Seagoon: What made you choose Trafalgar Square?

Bloodnok: Do you like pigeon pie?

Seagoon: Disgusted by his old-world courtesy, I strapped on my nickel-plated bagpipes and strode into Regent Street. A dreadful mistake!

Seagoon’s announcement of “Chapter Three” at the beginning of this dialogue, which is actually the first in the episode, is one of the more surrealistic trademarks of the show. Another episode has the phrase “and here is where the story really begins” recur throughout. On the other hand, the shameless punning (“I came down by parachute!”) could be found in any radio comedy of the time.

If I am to set aside evaluations, let me offer some formal considerations. Listening to the show, or reading it with the voices of Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellars in your head, it is obvious that there are things you can do on radio that you can’t do anywhere else, and which can’t be done anymore, since they don’t do radio anymore. With radio, a dramatic medium came into being and passed into oblivion, all within a century. Reminds me of some exhibit of computer art I read about some time back, and they were wondering how many more years there’d be compatible operating systems on which to show the works.

Radio exploited the verbal imagination, that is, you’ll believe things you hear that you wouldn’t believe reading. For example, in the episode “The Treasure in the Lake,” two characters hiding in their room hear their pursuer on the stairs, so they decide to further hide themselves by folding up the room they’re in and hiding it on their persons. Such a scene would be impossible visually. It doesn’t work on the page, either. But worked out by actors, and some judicious sound effects, it’s believable.

Please pause for an actual literary interlude: I am currently reading the New Cambridge Bible Commentary for Revelation, and the author believes the book was written for verbal performance, that is, it was written as a letter to be read aloud to each of the six addressed congregations: Gather round and listen while the cantor reads what John of Patmos, the generation’s crazy Beat daddio, was laying down! In all seriousness, much of the imagery doesn’t really work on the page, or even in a drawing. Take the lamb in 5:6 “standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes…” A picture of it would be freaky rather than awesome. In a story, the words on the page are sterile, but brought out in speech, it can be indistinct yet take on a palpable power.

The Goon Show certainly had voice talent. There’s no denying the skills of Sellars. He takes on the most characters, and he presents them crisply. In some episodes, he even carries on short dialogues with himself as two different characters, a neat technical trick. Milligan also did multiple characters, though they are broader or less distinct than Sellars’s. Secombe mostly played one character, the protagonist in all the episodes, whose proximity to Secombe’s own self is signaled in his name, Neddy Seagoon. Dramatic radio may be dead, but the importance of voice talent lives on in cartoons. For example, in animation drawing has very little to do with characterization: voice is everything. Take Sealab 2021—as Jonathan has pointed out, a marvel of our age, despite the retarded graphics.

Let me close with two more points:

(1) The Goon Show has an affinity with commedia dell’arte previously unnoted, at least as far as Google is concerned. In its first three and a half years, it was a half-hour sketch show, like Python, only with musical interludes, so actually more like the Sonny & Cher Show. Halfway into the fourth year, Milligan and his main co-writers, mostly Larry Stephens, started writing a single storyline, albeit not a straight one. This is also about the same time the BBC started reliably keeping permanent copies of the show, so the later form is the show as far as posterity is concerned.

Just as the show evolved toward a single story arc, it also set itself into a cast of recurring characters. Eight of these characters appeared in almost every episode, with another half-dozen appearing less regularly. As in dell’arte, whatever story is told, it goes through the same characters, whether it’s the Roman gladiators, Pepys’s London, a hoax pandemic striking Britain, or a “dreaded batter pudding hurler.” As there are few vestiges of dell’arte in the twentieth century, the Goons might be an interesting case.

(2) There is a lesser known path of influence from the Goons onto the Beatles. Goon-type wordplay isn’t really much to be found in the songs, though the Finnegans Wake-ishness of In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works could derive more from the Irishman Milligan rather than the Irishman Joyce. But George Martin was best man at Milligan’s first wedding, and it could be in technical matters, in particular, sound effects, where the Beatles are at their most Goonish. The show innovated many strange noises, including some backmasking. & much of which had to be done on analogue disk, as only the last years used magnetic tape. As for the relation between surrealism and psychedelia, I’ll save that fight for later.


British comedy and surrealism are not such compatible terms; there is a surreal edge to the best of the Python skits, but then it veers, perhaps too often, towards zaniness, Benny Hill and music hall, etc. Like the Beatles (whose ditties are not wearing well), if not rock and roll in its entirety, there’s too much blimey gonzo for its own sake; a single viewing of Gilliam’s Brazil is sufficient (tho’ it’s art of sort ofa hyper-Kafka sort and maybe not so far from Dr. Strangelove) . Peter Sellars was dread in Strangelove; he seemed to fall into “decadent and nauseating” after that. Going downwards John Lennon is more than enough pop-cynicism; Eric Idle may be worse. A more successful type of media surrealism are Palin’s things for PBS--his search for Hemingway, while initially sort of Pythony zany, became a bit somber by the last scenes set in Idaho; and the hints of anti-Americanism were not ineffective.

The Pythons tho’ are far too subtle and effete for most of the yankee Heartland; in terms of surrealist praxis David Lynch or Oliver Stone (natural Born Killers not a bad work of edgy surrealism) perhaps more effective in terms of tweaking the ‘burbs; Lynch sort of corporate-approved surrealist noir. The contemporary Oprah-guided milieu of literature is obviously anything but surreal or mildly satirical; even some low-grade ‘head satire such as Vonnegut is verboten now in mall-land--liberals preferring their Masterpiece Sapphic Theatre, or maybe some HBO like Sojouner Truth sap-of-the-week, and conservatives reading perhaps the Goebbels-lite of Ann the Man Coulter (sort of entertaining from a purely amoral POV).....

By Jake on 02/26/06 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A speculation. (I don’t know if it’s original or not.)

The two sequential modes of “surrealist” art (loosely defined to include artists who the tightly defined Surrealists recongized as fellow tramps) derive from (or were interpreted as) drastically different sources with drastically different tempos.

Verbal surrealism <== automatic writing, schizobabble, desperate schtick, Tourette’s == fast, possibly funny, “sincerity” isn’t an issue. The Goon Show counts, definitely.

Theatrical (sequential visual) surrealism <== dreams, visions == slow, sad, trapped.

Attempts to adapt speedy verbal surrealism directly to torturous theatrical surrealism would fail.

Exceptions? The only close calls I can think of might be Bob Clampett’s and Frank Tashlin’s best Warner Bros. animation. (For about a decade now, I’ve been tinkering with an essay about Tashlin’s move to live action and slower tempos.) Elsewhere in “surreal” cartoons, the Fleischer Bros. went for nightmarish repeat-it-slow-and-three-times and the MGM Tex Avery relied on central figures of supernatural placidity.

Outside animation, the canonical “surrealist” film comic was Buster Keaton. In the 1960s, compare the inept unfunny thrashings of artsy Richard-Lester-a-likes with the stately steely mock-dignity of Luis Bunuel.

As in our earlier back-and-forth, I think Woody Allen—a consummately compromising careerist—makes an instructive comparison point. (If only because I don’t think either of us feel committed to defend him.) To my mind, his most profound works were his stand-up routines: a convincingly organic splicing of self-revelation and manic nonsense. His early movies tried to translate the routines directly and their… pacing… is… deadly.

By Ray Davis on 02/26/06 at 11:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment


“Zaniness” is a good surveyor’s mark. At that point, you’re on someone else’s property. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any of those Palin pieces your talking about. I do remember Palin writing the obit for Bunuel in Rolling Stone, wherein he said their supreme ambition was to be him.


& you show nicely how they weren’t. “Stately stelly mock-dignity” is a nice description, & helps me better understanding the one thought I keep coming back to w/him, how straight he plays w/the camera & the editing. As if he would have had no problems on the assembly line of the Hollywood Golden Age.

Yes, as for Woody Allen, I’ve least wised up that much. I would like to ask a question that would extend my thoughts on spoken vs. written: how well do you think the Allen writing, dating from about the same period as the stand-up, stands up?

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 02/26/06 at 11:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I never heard the Goon Show, but “Beyond the Fringe” from that period was a Python precursor. A British friend also played Flanders and Swann for me, and it seemed too British to me.

Does anyone listen to the Firesign theatre any more?

By John Emerson on 02/27/06 at 07:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Does anyone listen to the Firesign theatre any more?

Tie-in note: on The Giant Rat of Sumatra, the voice of Flotsam mimics the Bloodnok voicing by Sellars. One of the Firesign’s had spent some time in England & was a big fan of the show, from what I’ve read.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 02/27/06 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Elsewhere in “surreal” cartoons, the Fleischer Bros. went for nightmarish repeat-it-slow-and-three-times and the MGM Tex Avery relied on central figures of supernatural placidity.

The Hanna-Barbera studios came close, occasionally, to producing a type of witty animated surrealism; yes, there was the ugly schlock of the Jetsons or Flintstones, but who could deny the sort of minimalist beauty of Secret Squirrel (and the Morrocan Mole), or the triumphant metaphor of Lippy the Lion and Hardy Har Har? The opening theme, full orchestra, groovy hints of atonalism… with some Doris Day like back-up singers; Lippy...The LION.. and… Hardy har har....Lippy sort of a aged Richard II ....exeunt stage left...and Hardy...his stoical Lieutenant..aardwolf… Berliner Dadaists would have been proud....and Huckleberry Hound itself sort of Burbank surrealist take on the great American outdoors, as was Yogi....Samurai Jack also now sort of a ramped-up Hanna-Barbera toon, quite surreally magnificent, and with a manga-dark edge ...

By Jake on 02/27/06 at 11:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence, I’m not as impressed with Allen’s printed prose as with the stand-up. The delivery and the pretense of intimacy add something; the assumption of “form” subtracts something. What’s your take?

The weirdest I’ve heard of the Goon Show outstrips the weirdest I’ve heard of Beyond the Fringe. Flanders & Swann, well, a different deal. As Bob & Ray would be. Being American, I get the B&R deal more, although an ex-lover embedded the F&S tribute to wampum as a persistant earworm: “There’s a lot you can do with a wampum. / You can use every part of it, too. / For work or for pleasure / It’s a veritable treasure. / Oh, there’s nothing that a wampum cannot do.”

I remember a very sad part of some bad film of some iffy charity show that some Pythons & Peter Cook were in, and Cook telling the Pythons that their routine *could* be really funny if they would just *follow through* on the premise instead of *not making sense*.... It was horrifying how not-getting-it he sounded,

Sorry, John E., Firesign just sound like hippies to me. In places, I still can’t blur the dividing lines of our generations. Give me a few more years of heavy drinking.

By Ray Davis on 02/28/06 at 12:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No “veritable,” Ray, on the recordings I’ve heard: “It’s a triumph; it’s a treasure.” I’m as American and indeed Midwestern as anyone here, and I often haven’t the vaguest idea of what Bob and Ray are on about.  So they must be surrealists. 

Dunno what’s hard to “get” about F&S.  Although I wish I’d sooner realized that Flanders was not serious about the advantages of nailing hundreds of little metal bottlecaps, upside-down, to the floor.

By on 02/28/06 at 07:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Another example of earworms adapting to fit their host. I’m so used to singing “If I was Richard Carpenter and you were my sister / Would you respect me? Would you call me Mr.?” that I was startled the other day to hear the original lyrics.

By Ray Davis on 02/28/06 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Surrealist comedy via Brittannia generally trumps that of America; Python and the goon show are considered acceptable; Firesign theatre are hippies. The Brit. media surrealists such as the pythons, Cook, Sellars did seem to have a verbal fluency and wit lacking in most yanks; South Park or George Carlin are rather lacking in comparison. Firesign was I think above just mere hippie freak humor, tho’ even freak humor takes a certain skill--Kesey and his pals’ radio broadcasts for the annual Grateful Dead New Year shows, for instance, were wildly inventive , comical without being silly, “surreal” in a real sense (tho’ a certain type of muscular west coast surrealism {{ Dali on a Bonneville, maybe working for Zap comics}}, rather than that exquisite cafe- taste of Montmartre or Oxford medievalists goofin’ on the BBC).  That sort of verbal satire tho’ is now sort of confined to like Comedy Central, a few decent yuks on south park ("a statue of Maria bleeding? why yes, it’s just that time of the month") and reruns of original SNL- -and SNL"s behind the scenes wunderkind Michael O’Donohue was another powerful yank media-surrealist…

By jake on 02/28/06 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me just correct John E on the chronology.  Beyond the Fringe wasn’t contemporary with the Goons.  The Goons broke up in 1959, the Fringers got together in 1960.  It’s hard to call Beyond the Fringe a precursor of the Pythons, except that their success emboldened the BBC gatekeepers to greenlight Monty P.  Both were, I think, products of the Cambridge Footlights, about five years apart.  It’s worth pointing out that John Cleese was doing Python-like stuff in Cambridge Circus and I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again more or less contemporaneously with the London run of Beyond the Fringe.  And kept doing it in ISIRTA until Monty Python

I’ve always assumed the Goons influenced later radio comedy shows like ISIRTA (and hence the Pythons).  Has anybody actually documented such influence?

Finally, one should point out that Prince Charles was slightly under six when The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (Of Bexhill-on-Sea) was first broadcast: “young Prince Charles” indeed.

By jim on 02/28/06 at 06:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would also recommend Milligan’s war memoirs, which provide a sense of where the goonish sensibility came from, in particular the combination of relentless mocking of authority and an underlying kindness. 

The other radio point is that part of the program was BBC self-mockery, and I imagine that a lot of the “Chapter Three...” stuff that you discuss played off conventions of straight radio drama that the audience would have been familiar with.  Almost *every* depiction of a place—whether by verbal description or sound effect—is in one way or another undermined. They also have a lot of fun with announcements of the “This is the BBC variety,” in somewhat the same way that the first few years of SNL played with network TV conventions.

By on 03/01/06 at 10:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The BBC self-mockery extended interestingly to the announcers, mostly the show’s Wallace Greenslade, who was a news-reader, but John Snagge, from what I understand the dean of the news-readers, made frequent appearances, in ways that often played on their very quality of voice, the tone of authoritativeness. Radio still has some of this quality to it, the fascination w/charismatic voices.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/02/06 at 01:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My fondest memory of the Goons is of walking into the living room one Saturday (it used to be played religiously at 12 noon every Saturday on the ABC, and might still be running even now) to see my two very small children (three and five) on the couch, spellbound, listening to a show. They looked up at me and said, “This is funny, Mum.” Now, that’s broad appeal.... I’m sure they understood about 10 per cent of it, if that, but that wasn’t ever quite the point, even for adults. They were enchanted by the voices, the sound effects and the wordplay. I’m quite sure that is part of why they now, as teens, are deeply interested in poetry.

Maybe British comedy of this kind - I’m thinking now of The Young Ones, straight out of the Thatcher era - trumps American comedy because of its underlying darkness, a kind of pitiless wit that is edged with despair: in the case of the Goons, of course, the experience of WW2, which runs like an uneasy subtext behind characters like Bloodknock. And earlier surrealisms - Blaise Cendrars’ Moravagine, for example - are absolutely underlaid by that blackness.

By Alison Croggon on 03/03/06 at 07:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment


My kids, too, have the same reaction. They not only don’t know what’s going on, they can’t understand most of the words. But it all sounds funny. The show goes beyond verbal slapstick (Eccles hitting himself on the leg w/a hammer) to sonic slapstick (the loopy swooping of Eccles’s voice).

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/03/06 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember hearing the records for the first time as a child and liking them too.  There are a lot of cheap, easy-to-get jokes. 

But re dark and light, I’d suggest that while there’s a certain darkness in the references to war, and maybe in the way goon shows typically riff on stories of murder and danger, the driving sensibility *is* childlike, in a very smart way—not just the mockery of authority, but the ability to find a core of silly amusement in almost anything.  That’s part of why I suggested the Milligan war memoirs above—you get a sense of how inspired silliness was part of coping with being in a war.

I think that’s a difference—with the Pythons, for example, there’s always an air of their being just a little smarter than their audience, and a certain amount of suppressed anger and flashes of malice.  The goons had none of those characteristics.  Eccles is an idiot, but you don’t laugh *at* Eccles.  Moriarty and Grytpype-Thynne (my favorite charachter) are villains, but way too much fun to dislike.

By on 03/03/06 at 09:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read a huge despair under Milligan’s humour, and it’s particularly evident in some of his war memoirs (some devastating extracts, for example, in The Complete Milligan). The comedy comes, at bottom, from a profound sense of absurdity in the face of the meaningless. But I think comedy is a cruel business. The Pythons are cruel too, and with the same inspired silliness, but for me they lack the same underpinning of a struggle against nihilism.

I suppose I should also point to Milligan’s celebrated depressions, though I feel that I shouldn’t.

Am I right in thinking that The Young Ones (some of the most brilliant and anarchic British comedy, and to me the true inheritor of the Goons - much closer in sensibility, I think, than the Pythons) never made it to the States?

By Alison Croggon on 03/03/06 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Sorry to leave your last post unanswered. To the best of my knowledge, the Young Ones had one showing in the US, on MTV, I believe, more than fifteen years ago. Not a very built-up affair, & w/little follow-up. So practically speaking, they never made it here.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/07/06 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A couple of things re the Goons: there’s a Victorian or Edwardian sensiblity at times, but turned upside down. Very Alice in Wonderland, in fact.

The war stuff others have commented on: the Goons were full of it. Even the episodes without an obvious world war two theme often have some obscure referecne to an army joke or whatever. Milligan’s war memoirs have served to throw a lot of light on this: they act almost as a coda to the show.

some people have mentioned Firesign Theatre. I’ve only ever heard them on the radio back in the 1980s and to this non-American they sounded very much like an American version of the Goon Show.  Didn’t pick up on the hippy thing at all.

By on 03/15/06 at 03:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

”...in animation drawing has very little to do with characterization: voice is everything”

Um, er, as a general statement, no. After all, in the Road Runner cartoons, there is no dialog at all. & classic Disney worked very hard at animated acting. Michael Barrier has a lot to say about animated acting (just google the name and look around).

By Bill Benzon on 04/01/12 at 07:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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