Fawlty Towers – The Play is the best museum piece you’ll ever see

Fawlty Towers at the Apollo may be the best museum piece you’ll ever see. A full-length play has been carved out of three episodes: ‘The Hotel Inspectors’, ‘The Germans’, and ‘Communication Problems’ in which the deaf guest, Mrs Richards, made a nuisance of herself by refusing to switch on her hearing aid in case the batteries ran out. For anyone who saw the sitcom in the 1970s, this is a pleasantly weird show. It’s like returning to a seaside funfair after half a century and finding all the rides unchanged and the staff more or less as you remember them. If Beckett had written family comedies he might have created

Player Kings proves that Shakespeare can be funny

Play-goers, beware. Director Robert Icke is back in town, and that means a turgid four-hour revival of a heavyweight classic with every actor screaming, bawling, weeping, howling and generally overdoing it. But here’s a surprise. Player Kings, Icke’s new version of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, is a dazzling piece of entertainment and the only exaggerated performance comes from Sir Ian McKellen who plays Falstaff, quite rightly, as a noisy, swaggering dissembler. Those who imagine ‘Shakespearean comedy’ to be an oxymoron will be pleasantly surprised Small details deliver large dividends. The tavern scenes are set in an east London hipster bar with chipped wooden tables and exposed brickwork. Richard

A magnificent set of dentures still leaves little to smile about

John Patrick Higgins is unhappy about the state of his mouth. His teeth resemble ‘broken biscuits’, a ‘pub piano’, ‘an abandoned quarry’ and ‘Neolithic stones. It’s all I can do to keep druids from camping out on my tongue each solstice.’ So he invests in a series of expensive interventions. He has seven gnashers removed, followed by three root canals, and acquires a natty set of dentures. They feel a bit weird at first (‘it’s like having an internal beak’), but ‘I look like the actor playing me in a Hallmark movie of my life.’ In this slim, refreshingly unpretentious memoir, Higgins, a middle-aged English filmmaker living in Belfast, chronicles

Joel Morris: Be Funny Or Die

50 min listen

My guest in this week’s Book Club is Joel Morris, an award-winning comedy writer whose credits run from co-creating Philomena Cunk to writing gags for Viz and punching up the script for Paddington 2. In his new book Be Funny Or Die, he sets out to analyse how and why comedy works. He tells me why there are only three keys on the clown keyboard, what laughter does for us in neurological terms, and why Laurel and Hardy could get away with anything.

Progressives vs. bigots: How I Won a Nobel Prize, by Julius Taranto, reviewed

This is the kind of comic novel I greatly admire, because it makes me feel so anxious and wrong-footed. I laughed wholeheartedly until an inner voice chided, in a contradictory fashion, ‘that’s not supposed to be funny’ and ‘can’t you see it’s a joke?’ Given that the book is about that very modern set of dilemmas, my admiration for Julius Taranto’s work is even greater. The novel’s protagonist is Helen, a graduate student, who explains her field in the opening sentence: ‘The Rubin Institute had nothing to do with high-temperature superconductors, so I cannot say I had spent much time thinking about it.’ Her supervisor has been offered a position

Alan Partridge has had more incarnations than Barbie

Alan Partridge is back, and this time he’s restoring a lighthouse. The third volume of the Norfolk microstar’s faux autobiography is a meticulous parody of the celebrity-in-search-of-a-televisable gimmick genre, blending fan-friendly, behind-the-scenes tales of his more recent public adventures (This Time, Scissored Isle, From the Oasthouse) with a classic midlife lurch for purpose, part Griff Rhys-Jones rescuing threatened buildings, part Clarkson’s Farm. Though Steve Coogan’s id-slaying monster started out as a media satire, Alan Partridge has become a vital national mirror in which middle-aged, middle English, middleweight, middlebrow man (let us call him Homo Partridgensis) can watch himself weather and crumble. The act of restoring a suitably phallic landmark on

No laughing matter: accusations of transphobia wrecked Graham Linehan’s life

Graham Linehan is an unlikely political campaigner, but in 2018 the sit-com writer embarked on a second career in what is possibly the most contentious and vitriolic arena of our time. According to Linehan, he was fighting for women and children, but his advocacy has cost him dear. Accused by his opponents of transphobia, he has found himself out of work and out of his marriage. Jobs began falling away, and a tour to Australia to teach comedy was cancelled In Tough Crowd, he tells the story of how he ‘made and lost a career in comedy’. It’s a tough read – a man who once made so many people

‘Comedy is much more important than I thought’: John Cleese on the press, his new talk show and the power of Fawlty Towers

John Cleese enjoys tough questions. He’s currently touring America with An Evening with the Late John Cleese, and a substantial part of the show is thrown open to the audience. He tells me that when someone asks a particularly rude question – such as ‘Why can’t you stay married?’ – it simply adds to the fun. Another one of his favourites is ‘What’s the worst film you ever made?’ I ask him the same question. ‘Well, there are a lot of contenders,’ John says. Apparently his ‘sabre-toothed daughter’ Camilla might have the answer, because she often introduces him to the stage as ‘the star of The Pink Panther 2’. When

What a joke

The award for the funniest joke at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was won by Lorna Rose Treen, with this: ‘I started dating a zookeeper, but it turned out he was a cheetah.’ There you go. It’s hard to know where to begin, isn’t it? Maybe with the fact that the joke doesn’t really work. Why would a zookeeper be a cheetah? Just because his work may involve looking after them? There’s no sense to it: the bloke just works in a zoo. If she’d said ‘I started dating a big cat – turned out he was a cheetah’, then that still wouldn’t be terribly funny but it would at least

Ben Lazarus

‘I disliked him intensely’: Richard Lewis on first meeting Larry David

Richard Lewis has died at the age of 76. Ben Lazarus interviewed him for the magazine last year: Richard Lewis first met Larry David at a summer sports camp, aged 12. ‘I disliked him intensely. He was cocky, he was arrogant,’ Lewis says. ‘When we played baseball I tried to hit him with the ball: we were arch rivals. I couldn’t wait for the camp to be over just to get away from Larry. I’m sure he felt the same way.’ Eleven years later they met again on the New York stand-up scene – but didn’t recognise each other. One evening, as they drank into the night, it dawned on

Trump, Diogenes, the Mitfords and Malaysian comedy: Edinburgh Fringe round-up

The Mitfords is a superb one-woman show by Emma Wilkinson Wright who focuses her attention on Unity, Diana and Jessica. In the early 1930s, Unity became Hitler’s lover and she lived in a luxurious Munich apartment confiscated from a wealthy Jewish family. The Führer, whom she nicknamed ‘Wolfie’, gave her the pearl-handled revolver with which she shot herself in the head shortly after Britain’s declaration of war. To carry out this bizarre act of self-sacrifice she chose a favourite spot in Munich’s English Garden where she used to sunbathe naked. In wartime Britain, Diana was held in Holloway prison and she complained bitterly about being separated from her baby boy,

Rizal Van Geyzel races through his 60-minute set peppering the material with snatches of Chinese, Tamil and Malay

Forgettable stuff: The Crown Jewels, at the Garrick, reviewed

In the 1990s, the BBC had a popular flat-share comedy, Men Behaving Badly, about a pair of giggling bachelors who were scolded and dominated by their mummy-substitute girl-friends. The author, Simon Nye, has written a historical crime caper about the theft of the crown jewels in 1671, as Charles II prepared to celebrate his tenth year on the throne. The psychological co-ordinates of the play are poorly handled. The thief, Colonel Blood, is an irritating Irish crosspatch who wants to drive the hated English from his homeland. Charles (played by Al Murray) is more attractive, a fun-loving gadabout who enjoys sex, jokes and science and who can’t bear Puritans. So

Can topical comedy survive?

Seen any good stand-up recently? It’s a loaded question, but if you have, there’s every chance you didn’t view it via terrestrial TV. You might instead have laughed at some brash American on Netflix, or a deeply un-PC comic on YouTube – or more likely still, a comedian sitting in the palm of your hand. Over the past 12 months in particular, stand-up clips have been going down a storm on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. The kind of clips which do well online have come as a surprise to some of the industry’s traditional gatekeepers. In a shock twist, it seems audiences still find stuff about the differences

Gag order: China’s stand-up comedy crackdown

‘The Chinese Communist party is probably the funniest thing that exists,’ the dissident artist Ai Weiwei once told me, ‘but it doesn’t have a sense of humour.’ The brave band of comics in China’s fledgling stand-up comedy scene are discovering that poking fun at the grim-faced old men who run the country with an ever-tighter grip is a dangerous pursuit. Last month, at a comedy club in Beijing’s Dongcheng district, 31-year-old Li Haoshi mocked a military slogan coined by President Xi Jinping. Li said that ‘Forge exemplary conduct! Fight to win!’ reminded him of his two dogs chasing a squirrel. A clip of the show spread rapidly online. The Beijing

Woke culture is strangling comedy

Three weeks after that South Park episode and the memes just keep on coming. Despite years of highly articulate fulminating against the preposterous pair by essayists like myself, there’s a feeling that the satirical cartoon was the conclusive blow to the Sussexes’ reputation – no well-turned phrase will ever better the glorious awfulness of ‘The Worldwide Privacy Tour’. One of the things that the woke hate most about our lot is the fact that we’re far more amusing. Their natural mode of address is to scold – and scolding and wit are polar opposites. I daresay some clown somewhere has stated that punchlines are probably imperialist. In his book The Rise of the New Puritans,

The tragedy of Fawlty Towers

The secret of any great sitcom is the delicate balance of sit and com. Mess the ‘sit’ bit up and you lose the ‘com’. Del Boy without Nelson Mandela House is as unthinkable as Alan Partridge without his ‘grief hole’ (aka the Linton Travel Tavern), which is why both of these characters eventually came unstuck. Sending the Grace Brothers’ employees on holiday to Costa Plonka in the 1977 Are You Being Served? feature-length comedy fell flat because, devoid of petty department store politics, the characters had no reason to exist – thus audiences felt cheated.  Remove tightly written characters from their uncomfortable surroundings and viewers stop caring. The tension between tragedy

I’ve finally been offended by a joke

I went to the O2 on Sunday night to see the comedians Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. Chappelle, who survived an attempt to cancel him last year, didn’t disappoint, delivering some hilarious, politically incorrect jokes, and Rock was equally seditious, although his set went on for too long. But the rest of the evening was pretty painful. The effort it takes to get to this relic of the New Labour era is truly Herculean. Indeed, Rock made a joke about it, claiming he’d set off from his hotel on Wednesday morning and only just arrived. The Tube station is North Greenwich, one beyond Canary Wharf, and your only hope of

A four-way race between poet, actor, video artist and sound engineer: Edinburgh Festival’s Burn reviewed

In a new hour-long monologue, Burn, Alan Cumming examines the life and work of Robert Burns. The biographical material is drawn from Burns’s letters, and the poems are read out in snatches. You won’t learn much except that Burns was a poor farmer who later worked as a taxman. To represent his many flings with women, a few high-heeled shoes are dangled on strings above the stage but this looks strangely cheap given that huge sums have been lavished on graphic imagery projected onto a big screen at the rear. Flashing lights and surges of music add to the sense of distraction. Cumming’s performance centres on dance, which looks like

Why Harry Hill’s little green aliens are popping up all over London

Sitting in a posh office overlooking the Royal Academy, the comedian Harry Hill is deploying one of his lesser known modes: introspection. ‘I suppose I’m one of a growing number of celebrities who do art,’ he says, one hand fiddling with his trademark oversized shirt-cuff. His point – which he returns to several times – is one of definition: as much as he enjoys making art, and as much art as he makes, he can never quite see himself as an artist. In his defence, he isn’t alone. After more than a decade as the face of one of the most-loved comedy shows this century, Hill can probably count himself

Has the Edinburgh Fringe lost its edge?

Every August, thousands of comedians make the pilgrimage to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. By the end of the month, those who manage to stand out in this crowded field (and it is a very crowded field) might have Live at the Apollo or Netflix calling, or maybe even a sitcom commission. But this year, with performers facing hefty registration fees, rent more expensive than a luxury foreign holiday and exorbitant marketing campaigns, all in the midst of a cost of living crisis, more and more are asking: has the Fringe lost its edge? As the festival kicks off for its 75th year, comedian Vittorio Angelone says its culture seems