John Cleese has said that for him it often took hours of “grinding” work to write several minutes of comedy, but that Peter Cook could write three minutes of top-quality material in just over three minutes. It appeared to come to him that easily early in his career.
But Cook did work hard. As a writer and performer, Cook worked hard at avoiding politeness for politeness’ sake if a laugh was available instead. When the Prime Minister of England, Harold Macmillan, wanted to attend a performance of the hot new West End show, Beyond the Fringe, either no one told him that one part of the show was the performance of a monologue by Peter Cook as Macmillan and that Cook made Macmillan sound like a sluggish dolt, or it was expected that Cook would simply skip that section of the performance in deference to the nation’s leader. He didn’t.
In the monologue, Cook’s Prime Minister Macmillan reports on a visit with President Kennedy: “We talked of many things, including Great Britain’s position in the world as some kind of honest broker. I agreed with him when he said no nation could be more honest, and he agreed with me when I said no nation could be broker.”
Cook performed the monologue with Macmillan sitting before him, and he even ad libbed a sentence just for the occasion:
When I’ve got a spare evening there’s nothing I like better than to wander over to a theatre and sit there listening to a group of sappy, urgent, vibrant young satirists, with a stupid great grin spread all over my silly old face.
To Macmillan’s credit, he is reported to have said—years later, mind you, long after he had left history’s stage—that he felt it was “better to be mocked than ignored.”
The audience, aware of the Prime Minister’s presence, and the cast and crew backstage, reported years later that they felt a tense bubble inflate the theater that night as a great grin spread awkwardly across Macmillan’s face: Satire of this sort, the satire that names its object and is delivered in the face of the punchline himself, had not been seen in England in generations, if ever. The era of satire, which we still live in, was born.
Anything that I can biographize about Peter Cook, the brilliant wit and stylish subject of many anecdotes (about Peter Cook), can be found online quite quickly. One fact is this: he was born 80 years ago today, and the end of the story came too soon after that, 57 years later, on January 9, 1995. As someone wrote once—and the line is such a good one that Cook might have said it himself— “it was too old to die young and too young to die old.”
As a writer and performer, he ended on a high note: on December 17, 1993, he was all four guests on Clive Anderson’s talk show, Clive Anderson Talks Back. Anderson, the bland-but-game host of the first Whose Line Is It Anyway was also one of Britain’s best talk show hosts in the ’90s, mostly because he could play the straight man for his comedian guests. In one tour-de-force half-hour, Cook was Norman House, a mild-mannered “biscuit tester” who claimed to have been abducted by aliens from “the planet Ikea”; an enthusiastic football coach, Alan Latchley, who summed up his life philosophy as “Motivation, motivation, motivation”; Sir James Beauchamp, a judge; and rock legend Eric Daley, who had a not-very convincing message for young people about drugs: “Don’t do them.” The entire program:
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American audiences were exposed to Cook early, but not often. Beyond the Fringe was created to spotlight comedians from Cambridge and Oxford universities. (Both had and have highly regarded amateur theater clubs: the Revue at Oxford and Cambridge Footlights.) Four writer-performers who had become stars in their university stage shows and were probably aware and wary of each other’s work and reputations were thrown together and asked to be funny as a group. Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore were from the Oxford Revue, and Cook and Jonathan Miller were from Cambridge. It was a star-making show for each of the four; to this day, Bennett is a beloved playwright, Miller is a stage director and documentary show host, Moore became a movie star, and Cook became the answer from most comedians to this question, “Who makes you laugh?”
The show was sent to Broadway in 1962 in a foreshadowing of the British Invasion that came two years later. (Four amusing and clean-cut young men in black suits in 1962 were followed by four amusing, clean-cut, and mop-topped young men in black suits in 1964.) Beyond the Fringe was the first shot fired in the satirical ’60s; before the 1960s, it was the rare comedian who would dare make fun, even gentle fun, of political leaders in Britain or the U.S. After Fringe in Britain and The First Family record starring the sadly cursed Vaughn Meader in America, comedians added satire to their palettes.
Comedy is not funny for being ground-breaking, however. One can call the president all sorts of satirical things—and many people do, every day—but if they are not funny things, they are not satirical, either; they are merely angry ejaculations or fussy musings. Beyond the Fringe was funny. Peter Cook was funny. In one of the best-known skits from the show, “One Leg Too Few,” Cook and Moore take an absurd premise and visit ever more absurd spots with it. The skit is also an example of the fertile imagination Cook seemed to be born with, as it is a piece that he wrote at age 18 and it was little-revised.
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Cook and Moore became a comedy duo on television, radio, records, and film. On television, they co-wrote and starred in Not Only, But Also, and Cook wrote the film Bedazzled for the two to act in. He also wrote parts of and starred in one film himself, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, which did neither. (It was mostly written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman before Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) Cook and the world learned one thing from his performance in Rimmer: Peter Cook may have been good-looking enough to be the lead in any film, but when an audience can see that the actor does not believe that he ought to be the lead in even one film, and the one film they are watching is it, tickets go unsold. He was neither invited to be—nor asked to be one himself—a star again.
Cook’s 1970s and ’80s were spent as the “world’s greatest slacker,” in his own words. Compared to his 1960s, another artist’s busy lifetime might pale in comparison. He earned the right to slack. In the ’60s, he wrote and starred in a ground-breaking stage show (Fringe) and toured the world with it, started up a nightclub that helped define the “Swinging ’60s” in London, started a satirical magazine that is still in business (and whose staff still keeps his editor’s chair empty and awaiting him), wrote and starred in a couple movies, wrote some others, appeared in others, and wrote and starred in several television shows.
In the ’70s, his alcoholism occupied him; he told the talk show host Michael Parkinson as early as 1974 that he drank because he was “bored.” (From my own experience, boredom is an alcoholic’s least amusing friend.) He performed drunk on stage and on television in his act with Moore, which they titled, Behind the Fridge. Moore finally grew too frustrated with Cook’s drunken performances and quit the act and the friendship.
Cook quit drinking several times, joined and left A.A., joined again. He watched as his on-and-off comedy partner became a movie star in America (in any profile of Dudley Moore from the ’70s, it was mandatory to use the word “unlikely” in front of “movie star,” but Moore had worked hard at courting Hollywood), and he grew resentful. Their duo, “Pete and Dud,” became “Derek and Clive,” an R- and sometimes rated-X-worthy act. For audiences who only know Moore from the films 10 and Arthur, the recordings seem to be of a different human being altogether. The raunchy (and sometimes drunk and angry) recordings were sometimes banned, and many of them were only made public through bootlegs. This short clip is not safe for work, because of copious swearing in its brief 19 seconds.
The “Derek and Clive” tapes were prized rumors in Britain and the states—the cool guy in college had heard of the Derek and Clive tapes, but the quiet and cool guy had them. (I was neither guy.)
So the world’s greatest slacker spent his remaining decades appearing in many movies, some of which (The Princess Bride, in which he was the “Impressive Clergyman”) were hits in the United States; re-visited his old skits, with and without Moore; recorded the Derek and Clive albums with Moore; and became a frequent talk show guest, albeit the type of guest who always came on with an idea, which he sometimes let the host know about in advance. (I love discovering clips on YouTube of his talk show appearances that I may not have seen yet.) Cook was busy. It was not at all a low-key performing life, but not a careerist’s one.
By the way, he was also a father.
He traveled around the globe, often chasing after his golf game, and his lucky friends received a constant stream of postcards:
One from Mallorca complained, ‘Far too many fish here. Love, Sven & Jutta’; another, from Scotland, insisted ‘Please ignore this card.’ One, from the Hyatt La Manga in Murcia, advised, ‘Re this: please see to that. Suggest you act on this later rather than sooner.’ Another reported ‘We’re at this pesky little place preparing for Team Levy’s Invincible Grand Prix Challange [sic].’
(Both the misspelling “challange” and “[sic]” are Cook’s in that last one.)
Rather than celebrate each birthday by blowing out a candle that he was also burning at both ends, Cook kept a smaller creative flame going; it did not seem to interest him as much as it did his audience, which is too bad, but each time he was invited to participate on a television show and an old burned-out shell was expected by the host and audience, the old burned-out shell never materialized. Audiences never saw a Peter Cook who was not verbally brilliant and imaginatively accurate.
Few writers and performers embrace the show business lie, “Always leave them wanting more.” Neither did Peter Cook. His list of “did not writes” is as long as any other human being’s and is similarly useless to think about. The gift of his writing and performing in 35 years in show business is worth celebrating every day. He was funny in more ways—wit, surreal humor, drunken whale national anthems, offensive satire, absurd observations—by himself with four minutes of TV time than entire teams of comedy writing staffs with big network budgets often are.
As seen in “It’s a Balloon” below, his comedy was not cuddly and was often confrontational; he would be ridiculing anyone writing a column like this one. They come up on his birthday, though, so he would be busy today.
From Not Only … But Also, Cook and Moore sing a final “Goodbye,” their theme song, with help from T-Bone Walker and Peter Sellers:
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This is a re-write from January 2015.
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