The Highly Esteemed Goon Show (and here is a photograph of me writing that)

by E. John Winner

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(1) The perceptive reader, those having operational eyes at least (and let’s remember that not everyone does), will notice that the promise of the subtitle of this article has not been fulfilled. There is no photograph of me writing the title of this article. The phrase has been borrowed from one the many humorous introductions performed by Wallace Greenslade on the Goon Show, an English comedy-variety program broadcast roughly weekly for nearly ten years. [1]  “This is the BBC Light Programme, and here is a photograph of me saying that.” BBC Light programming, later restructured as BBC 2, was originally the entertainment channel of the British Broadcasting Corporation, providing comedy, music, soap operas, etc., as opposed to the news and information, political opinion and more generally “elevated” content of the primary BBC channel. We are here discussing radio in the 1950’s, although even today, BBC Radio (now some eleven channels, including some in languages other than English) still provides a much broader range of programming than we have in the United States.  To some extent, radio in America is a marginal medium: music, sports, religion and right-wing politics exhaust the programming one can expect. (Public broadcasting services try to push the envelope, but their programmers know the limits of their target listeners’ attention spans. A weekly cooking show, good; a weekly performance of Shakespearean plays; not good.)  In England, one can still hear comedy, tragedy, history, travel, science reportage, science fiction, mystery, and so on, to an extent not available in the US. But this is just background color. The question some American or other non-English readers must still be asking is:  Why would Greenslade present a photograph of himself on radio?  Wasn’t radio a visual medium in the 1950’s?

“The highly esteemed Goon Show,” as it was often introduced, was primarily the work of three veterans of the Second World War, two of whom actually met in the army: Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. The third, Peter Sellars, was introduced to the other two during a drinking session, or a bull-session with drinks (depending on how the story’s told), in a pub. (Initially there was a fourth, musician and comedian Michael Bentine, but he went solo after two years.)  What bonded the team was a peculiarly absurdist sense of humor. Milligan met Secombe when an artillery piece Secombe was manning tipped over the ledge of a gun pit. Milligan went down for it and asked Secombe: “Have you seen a 7.2 cannon?” to which Secombe replied, “What color?” [2]

Milligan was the primary writer of the show, Sellars provided most of the voices. [3]  We must pause to consider their personalities, because in strange ways they would both feed into the wild humor of the show, as well as leaving both performers somewhat damaged.  Sellars ultimately became known in the entertainment industry for a severe personality disorder, which made him difficult to work with. I don’t think that it was ever properly diagnosed.  But effectively he had failed to mature fully, and lacked a developed personality of his own.  He was always the characters he played, adopting them even in social situations, sometimes inappropriately. [4]

Milligan’s problems had proper diagnoses. During the war he was hospitalized with “battle fatigue,” what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This not only initiated a life-long obsession with the War, it apparently triggered a manic-depressive condition. During the years of the Goon Show broadcasts, 1951-1960, Milligan suffered several nervous breakdowns, attributed to the stress of writing, organizing, and performing the shows. [5] Some of this might explain the frenetic pace of the broadcasts, and their nigh complete dislocation from reality.  Listening to the Goon Show isn’t simply visiting a different world, but a different universe, one in which even the laws of physics are open to change as needed.

But before further exploration of that universe, we must address ourselves to the third of this dynamic trio, Harry Secombe. His personality disorder was … well …, by all accounts, he didn’t have any.  He was well-loved, cheerful and charming, a devoted family man. He might have made a rather dull accountant or car-salesman, but for the fact that he was blessed with two talents: first, a beautiful operatic tenor (which provided him a side-career recording arias), and his ability to play Neddie Seagoon, the central character of the Goon Show, and its ostensible hero. [6] (After the Goon Show, Secombe continued work in comedy, becoming quite a popular attraction in his own right, but when he did comedy, he always played some variant of Neddie Seagoon.) Secombe seems to have provided the solid axle around which the ephemeral personalities of Milligan and Sellars revolved.  Similarly, Neddie Seagoon acted as the fixed reference point to which all the other characters referred. They bounced him around, cheated him, insulted him, tossed him into various bodies of water, and blew him up on numerous occasions. Without him what would there be to refer to? No use having a Dartmoor prison without a Neddie Seagoon to assign to it. Who else would drive it to Paris?  Several characters avoided any effort that might be interpreted as work in any sense, while the rest were incapable of it. Thus, the labor of moving along the stories (such as they were) fell to Neddie.  Constructed as a parody of a stereotypical British adventure hero, appearing in works as diverse as the young adult stories about pilot Captain Biggles, Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps, and the African adventures by H. Rider Haggard, Neddie was stalwart, loyal, patriotic, honest, brave, and utterly incorruptible … unless someone offered him money. Even photographs of money would do and did, more often than not. He was only nearly human, after all.

(2) The comedy of any culture develops what might be considered a sophisticated or “high” comedy, which is usually held to be the mainstream standard, since it usually assumes a reasonably educated and mature audience (which any developed or civilized society likes to pretend represents the majority of its participants), and a “low comedy,” appealing (supposedly) largely to the uneducated and unrefined. In American terms, one can think of the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business as the former and the Three Stooges as the latter. In British terms, think the sophisticated Monty Python versus the fare offered by Benny Hill. High comedy draws on literary sources, including theatrical plays if they are witty enough, while low comedy belongs to burlesque and the dance hall.  Comparisons can be chosen by subject matter.  High comedy flatulence jokes rarely include any actual flatulence:  From the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers:

Connie: Oh, Professor, you’re full of whimsy.

Wagstaff: Can you notice it from there? I’m always that way after I eat radishes.

When low comedy includes flatulence, the first we learn of it is by a loud fart.

Sex is also a telling subject for differentiating the two:  High comedy is primarily concerned with sexual relationships. The composer of high comedy assumes we all know what couples do in the bedroom, it’s just a question of how they get there. Low comedy is about the naughty bits: it’s the peeping tom at the bedroom window; the guy ogling a woman, who later can’t remember her face, because he never looked at her face.

These differences are of course matters of degree, and in even great literature we often find them intermixed. The infamous beans-and-farting sequence in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, actually has an amusing precursor in a passage from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nonetheless, it’s rather difficult to imagine anyone in Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest audibly passing gas. And I recently tried watching a young Benny Hill play Bottom in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream; almost painfully uncomfortable, as he so clearly is playing Benny Hill.  Bottom is a low comedy character in a high comedy play, but he needs a serious actor comfortable with high comedy to play him, because he has a romantic fling with the Queen of the Fairies, a high comedy concept if there ever was one.

Now, obviously, I established these theoretic thresholds as leading into further discussion of the Goon Show.  The reader has every right to expect that I am now prepared to answer the question I have provided ground for: Is the Goon Show primarily high comedy or low comedy? And I am indeed prepared to answer. After having considered this question for over thirty years since first discovering the Goon Show, I have definitely determined that … I don’t know.  The problem is multifold. First, there is no “fourth wall” in the Goon Show. The members of the audience are considered participants, a kind of Greek Chorus who have only two stage directions: laughter and applause. Otherwise, they are assumed to be reading the same script as the Goons, who are therefore free to incorporate their own stage directions directly into the show. (Bluebottle: “waits for applause – not a sausage,” because obviously the audience hadn’t been directed to applaud for his line.) Secondly, the Goons are performing largely for each other.  Although scripted, they perform the show in a spirit of improvisation, playing off each other, frequently ad-libbing, attempting to out-do each other. The performances are not simply “over the top,” as there seems to have been no top to go over. There are a number of in-jokes, some quite bawdy.  For a couple years, there were recurrent references to a Captain Hugh Jampton, until the producers learned that “huge Hampton” was soldiers’ slang for a large penis, and put a stop to it.

Here we could bring our discussion of high and low comedy to bear; to recognize the low comic aspect of this rather rude running gag, except for this: the Goons know that they are amusing soldiers and veterans with slang reference to genitalia, but they also know that they are pulling a fast-one on their producers and on the genteel and uninformed in their audience; a high comic conceit. (Think of Dylan Thomas’ fictional Welch village of Llareggub: ‘buggerall’ spelled backwards.) A high comic conceit because it draws our attention to the interplay between syntax and semantics. It requires thinking about language as a play between form and content, rather than as packages of communicated information.

Which leads us to consider the literary antecedents for the Goon Show. Certainly, for instance, Milligan has read Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Like Carroll, he treats his situations in the manner of the Mad Hatter’s tea party or the Red Queen’s chess match. But like Lear, he loves nonsense sentences and nonsense terms just for their own sake. “Ying tong iddle i po” shades somewhat to the positive as a vocalized response, and “needle nardle noo” shades somewhat to the negative, “but it’s all rather confusing, really,” as announcer Greenslade occasionally remarks. The “Ying Tong Iddle I Po Song” can be sung on a chain gang or a dance hall stage. [7]  And in fact, the Goon Show has definite dance hall antecedents, particularly in its deployment of broad puns and stereotypes. Grytpype-Thynne is the archetypical melodrama villain, and Eccles is the eternal dunce. “That day in the park – do you remember, Eccles?” “Yeh, I remember Eccles – where’d he go?” So, one might think of the Goon Show as a recital of “Jabberwocky” performed on a dance hall stage before an audience of drunken soldiers better familiar with “The Owl and the Pussycat” with huge hamptons. That sentence should make a kind of sense if we don’t think hard on it, so let’s continue.

(3) I think the reader is now either prepared to consider the alternative universe of the Goon Show, or ready to throw a pie at the computer monitor. I suggest the former – monitors don’t eat pies.  (Or at least, in our universe they don’t.)  However:  Earlier I noted that in the Goon universe even the laws of physics are malleable, open to improvement as the moment requires.  There are actually covering laws here, apparently:  First, anything that can be acted upon can be acted upon by any action that acts upon a thing.  Eating is an action that acts upon food, say a steak. We can eat the steak because it is a thing that can be acted upon by eating.  But an airplane is a thing that can be acted upon by piloting it into flight, an action acting upon it. Therefore, we should be able to eat the airplane, and pilot the steak into flight, and in the Goon universe, this is true. As Grytpype-Thynne remarks after a bite, “Your airplane is beautifully cooked.”  Secondly, since machines are objects that can be acted upon, it follows that any object can be acted upon as a machine. Consequently, walls and bagpipes make good taxi-cabs, and are actually cheaper than automobiles. Third, any image, word, gesture, or other indirect representation of an object may have the full force of effect of the object represented.  Hence, the value of photographs of money … unless they’re counterfeit, in which case their value is determined by whoever is willing to steal them in order to buy an airplane for dinner.  And if in this universe someone points a finger at you, as children do playing “cops and robbers,” be careful – it might go off.  Fourth, time is real, but utterly permeable. It is entirely possible to begin a story in one century and have it pass through another, only to end in a third. In a story about the Roman invasion of Britain, the Roman army confronts a British football team (American: soccer), who are bewildered by the Roman refusal to play by the rules.  (This can cause confusion, as when Eccles, trapped in the 17th century, finds himself talking to the Bluebottle of 1957, and they try to determine whether Eccles is dead, or Bluebottle hasn’t been born yet.)  Fifth, time is also malleable: it can be sped up or slowed down as the story requires. The first is accomplished through the use of previously recorded dialogue played faster than recorded, the second by the patience-trying technique of repetitive padding. In one story Neddie must find an agent in China. He comes to a door and knocks on it… and knocks on it… and knocks on it. After about two minutes of this, the door opens. Neddie asks for the agent, only to find he doesn’t live there, he’s in a shop down the street. Space is even more malleable, to the effect that one can say it lacks even the reality of time. To dig a canal through Africa, start in England. To fly to Bombay from London takes only as long as the sound of a whiplash (if by boat, a whiplash and a splash). Because the Goon Show is radio, there is one more important covering law that is almost not noticeable, because we accept it as part of the entertaining silliness of the listening experience, namely: Any event causally related to the aural effect of a sound can be reassigned a sound effected at whim. When Neddie calls for a taxi cab and we hear bagpipes, we are not sure whether the bagpipes are the taxi cab, or the taxi cab makes the sound of bagpipes. In the Goon universe, either may be true.  Indeed, in one story it is the former, as Greenslade explains, but in another story it’s the latter, without explanation.  Because an automobile engine simply can sound like bagpipes, after all.

(4) In semiotic terms, for Spike Milligan the signifier’s relationship to the signified isn’t arbitrary only in historic terms (as all language was developed for the sake of communication), but absolutely. Basically, any noun or verb can designate any thing or action, limited only by our common expectations of possible things or actions within a given situation, but this limitation itself is recognized as arbitrary and thus flexible. “Have a gorilla.” “No, thanks, I just smoked one.” “Having” is ambiguated to include the acceptance of a cigarette, but the word ‘cigarette’ gets replaced with a gorilla; yet the reply remains that of rejection of an offered cigarette, while confirming that gorillas can be smoked.

Or perhaps we can get at this from another direction: For Milligan, language is primarily sound.  All animals relate to others of their species by producing sound. Before there was language, our ancestors related to each other through sound. Milligan seems to have intuited that the structures of language are simply means of organizing pitch, frequency, rhythm. If this contains any truth, language isn’t just “like” music, it is a kind of music, which is why it integrates so well with the undeniably musical sound effects deployed in the program. Well, I don’t know how far I myself am willing to go with this, but some such assumption seems to be at work in Milligan’s approach to language, and to the sound design of the Goon Show.

(5) The Goon Show was one of the most important – and popular – phenomena in the history of British comedy. Prince Charles was a big fan, and even made a short film playing Bluebottle. [8] John Lennon wrote two small volumes in imitation of Milligan. A generation of aspiring comics achieving public attention in the 1960’s and beyond were influenced by them: Monty Python, Cook and Moore, Marty Feldman, Laurie and Fry, Dave Allen….  It’s easy to see why. The Goons were never overtly political – speaking strictly, they were entirely apolitical.  Nonetheless, as anarchistic iconoclasts (and they were certainly that), they gleefully debunked every assumption of social class or of British Imperial power, party politics, Anglo-centrism, the historical narratives of British identity, as if these were just so many pimples to prick on a face suffering a serious case of acne. And yet they did so without leaving wounds and without closing off the future. They assume their audience is in on the joke (and if they’re not, the next joke flies by so quickly, they won’t have time to think on it). They are cheerful grave diggers tossing dirt on the collapsing British Empire following WW II. They are reminiscent of Beckett’s cast from Waiting for Godot, only they aren’t waiting. They’re out in search of him, if only they could remember his name, and Eccles hadn’t eaten the map for dinner.  Maybe this photograph will do….

Notes

[1]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Goon_Show; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmuS3SGgRsw

I have chosen not to link to any individual Goon Show programs; most of my quotes are actually from memory anyway, and I take the hit if my memory is faulty.  However, I can suggest that interested readers search out programs available at Youtube, many of which are BBC recordings, and of high quality.  Alternatively there is the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/TheGoonShow1950to1960 – but these are evidently home recordings and hence not of high quality.  I should caution: listening to a Goon Show takes some practice for Americans, because the Goons often speak rapidly, or are slightly off-mic, or cross-talk in the background when their character isn’t on.

[2]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqLRmShnxqM

[3] Before going further, we should familiarize ourselves with some of the primary characters of the series; from http://www.thegoonshow.net/characters.asp:

Neddie Seagoon:  “An honest but gullible idiot.”  (Voice: Secombe.)  Hercules Grytpype-Thynne: “A sleazy, well-educated and scheming cad.”  (Sellars.)  Bluebottle: “A young, lustful boy scout with a squeaky voice who normally gets blown up in each episode.”  (Sellars.)  Eccles: “An amiable, well-meaning man with no wits or understanding.”  (Milligan)

[4]  Roger Lewis, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. London: Arrow Books. 1995.  This is a long book, and I admit I only browsed it after watching the film made from it.  But for a briefer read, try this television portrait of Sellars by Milligan, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f8M8hL-OWA

[5]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYNVY1QqONI

[6]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7xCELFHwn8

[7]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VWuxYA7YX4

[8]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXIwV7YUkF0

[9]  In His Own Write, and A Spaniard in the Works; 1964; recently reprinted in one volume by Pimlico.

54 Comments »

  1. I grew up with the goon show. This was in Australia, and carried by ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

    After having considered this question for over thirty years since first discovering the Goon Show, I have definitely determined that … I don’t know.

    Good answer. The Goon Show broke all of the norms.

    I would say that it is British humor. Many Americans might have trouble adapting, though some do enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also grew up with the Goons. They ripped apart the British gloom that lasted after the war well into the fifties. The experience was, there was post war Britain, and there were the Goons, two separate universes. It provided a touchstone for all subsequent British broadcast humor.

    Can you philosophers tell me, did Wittgenstein have any responsibility for this kind of humor? One may look at his famous work, the Tratoria Litigo-Philosophicus, as an early example of Goon humor.

    I retain as a kernel of Goon wisdom the title of one of their skits, “Insurance, the White Man’s Burden.” Was ever a truer word spoken!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A terminological quibble: signifier/signified are terms from the ‘semiology’ of de Saussure (adopted by Barthes), rather than ‘semiotics’, which is associated with Eco and Peirce and ultimately deriving from medieval and ancient theories. The difference is that semiotics refers to a triadic relationship, as opposed to the dyadic signifier/signified of semiology. The Wikipedia article on Semiotics makes this clear:

    ‘Peircean semiotic is triadic (sign, object, interpretant), as opposed to the dyadic Saussurian tradition (signifier, signified), and is conceived of as philosophical logic studied in terms of signs that are not always linguistic or artificial, and sign processes, modes of inference, and the inquiry process in general, with emphases not only on symbols but also on signs that are semblances (“icons”) and signs that are signs by being factually connected (“indices”) to their objects.’ (note 16)

    I wrote a bit about it here:

    https://simonkidd.blog/2014/10/19/an-educational-autobiography/#semiotics

    Like

    • Simon Kidd,
      Well, you caught me off guard here; a proper reply would require a separate essay. Obviously, the missing term is “interpretant” (about which I have written elsewhere). Briefly, perhaps one can say that use/abuse of the interpretant is the source of much comedy. verbal and otherwise.

      Liked by 1 person

    • This comment brings to mind an essay I recently read on Aeon, The American Aristotle, which makes this claim (amongst many others): “The importance and range of Peirce’s contributions to science, mathematics and philosophy can be appreciated partially by recognising that many of the most important advances in philosophy and science over the past 150 years originated with Peirce: [including] the development of semiotics (before and arguably better than Ferdinand de Saussure)…”

      I have not read Pierce, but it appears that this is a gap in my philosophical education which I must remedy!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Hmm.. let’s think about it.

    The SEP article (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/) is a rather good introduction to the theory of humour. it considers the main theories of humour(superiority, relief, incongruity and play theories), in the end favouring the last, humour as play, laughter as play signal. I will build on that and advance my own particular theory.

    I have often advocated for multiple perspective taking(De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, my own Six Moral Hats, standpoint theory, etc). One can view the leading theories of humour in the same way, as being multiple perspectives from which we can view the same subject. However there is always a dominant perspective which is context dependent.

    I have also advocated for the adversary process as the non-violent means we resolve and choose between competing perspectives. This is a form of cognitive bloodletting which can be every bit as painful as the real thing, though not as life threatening(mostly).

    I will argue that multiple perspective taking itself is the root of humour which trains the mind to playfully consider other perspectives without the pain of cognitive bloodletting that comes with the adversary process.

    We prepare for these two processes(multiple perspective taking and the adversary process) in childhood through fantasy and play. In play we train for the adversary process. In fantasy we learn to imagine other perspectives. But then as we mature into the seriousness of adulthood we mostly abandon fantasy[*] and begin to compete in deadly earnest. We harden our positions and start to lose the ability for multiple perspective taking. The result is that we become increasingly ideological and doctrinaire, and thus inflexible in the face of change. I have seen this throughout my working career and it is plainly evidenced in the pages of this blog. The strength of our engagement in the adversary process seems to inhibit our capacity for multiple perspective taking.

    In my corporate incarnation we were encouraged to re-engage with the playful spirit of childhood as that would free our minds to engage with other perspectives, a vital ingredient for business success in a rapidly changing world.

    Why don’t we readily engage with other perspectives. That is because they expose contradictions, which create cracks and fissures in our view of the world. They are troubling and a source of anxiety. They are, as it were, cracks in the foundation of our world. Ideological commitments can be a refuge from threatening uncertainty and contradictions.

    But this is a harmful strategy in a changing and multifaceted world. Unsurprisingly we have evolved means to counteract this.

    Humour is a form of therapy that treats this condition. We are playfully exposed, in non-threatening ways, to contradictions, incongruity, malice and superiority. In humour we experience relief from all that this implies allowing us to entertain other perspectives. This therapy(humour) trains us in the agile, risk free multiple perspective taking which lies at the root of all progress.

    Aristotle called this eutrapelia, or ready wittedness. The witty repartee of educated English society is a noted manifestation. This quick readiness to change perspective is all important to humour, and to life itself.

    One study noted that playfulness was the one characteristic that the most successful researchers had in common. I think they must have had a well developed sense of humour.

    [*] In literature and film we immerse ourselves in narratives that expose us to other perspectives. But the selective way we do this can be an exercise in confirmation bias that reinforces prejudices and biases, especially if our selection is a thoughtless abandonment to pleasure and not a thoughtful embrace of the challenging.

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    • Peter,
      I confess that when I first read this meta-comment on humor per se, I was somewhat annoyed. I feared a distraction from the main topic here. But on re-reading review and reconsideration, I believe that a discussion of humor per se is entirely appropriate in considering any one instance of comedy, and there is much good in what you write.

      However philosophers have always had a difficulty with comedy, especially since there is no clear division between irony, which can get quite viscous and still somehow amuses us, and the purely comic which is really a matter of taste.. That’s important because philosophers keep irony in their rhetorical arsenal when engaged in debate. But the purely comic, while rarely destructive (unless in satirical mode) has little respect for the high aspirations of intellect philosophy claims to embody and represent. Plato has Socrates speak with considerable irony; but despite their camaraderie in the Symposium, Aristophanes was not kind to Socrates in the Clouds.

      I have read quite a number of ‘theories of comedy’ by some of the world’s greatest thinkers. They all fall short. Ultimately, I suspect that we don’t know why we find some comedy amusing and not others. In the case of the Goons, my feeling is that the “covering laws” of which I write form the source of our amusement: the Goon universe is one entirely of the imagination, and the language and the sound allow this universe to be shared in free play without direct reference to the actual world in which we live, while allowing us to see that world anew, or at least to live with it’s inevitable disappointments. Or, it just might be silliness for its own sake – thoughtless abandonment to pleasure is not always a fault.

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  5. E. John Winner describes the Goons as “anarchistic iconoclasts” who “gleefully debunked every assumption of social class or of British Imperial power, party politics, Anglo-centrism [and] the historical narratives of British identity…” They were “cheerful grave diggers tossing dirt on the collapsing British Empire following WW II.”

    As I recall, Wallace Greenslade would sometimes come in at the end of show with: “It’s all in the mind you know.”

    This can be seen as a crude or popular assertion of the truth of philosophical idealism. So perhaps there is not only a semi-hidden radical political agenda to this program (which Prince Charles and many other avid fans failed entirely to see or appreciate) but also a philosophical one, signalling — for those skilled in the difficult art of reading signs — the imminent resurgence of metaphysics and the beginning of the end, not only of imperialism but also of scientism.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Dan

        Ejwinner has apparently responded to my comment below. I am assuming it really pissed him off.

        Of course, I didn’t know about the link with his dying dog. Had I done so I would not have written the comment at all.

        You ask for a rephrasing. I can’t rephrase it as it is a kind of a joke. But I can try to explain the gist.

        I read the piece with some interest but I was slightly annoyed that the author appeared to be inaccurately representing the show in terms of what its creators were saying politically. He was correct in his general characterization of the (anarchic) style of humor. And he was correct to say that “[t]he Goons were never overtly political – speaking strictly, they were entirely apolitical.”

        “Nonetheless,” he continued, “as anarchistic iconoclasts (and they were certainly that), they gleefully debunked every assumption of social class or of British Imperial power, party politics, Anglo-centrism, the historical narratives of British identity…”

        The choice of topics here and phrasing seemed to me not to accurately reflect a Goonish point of view. Rightly or wrongly, I saw the author as projecting his own preoccupations rather than accurately reflecting the preoccupations of the Goons themselves and of the various writers involved.

        Not wanting to write a long, serious comment on such a light-hearted — and funny — piece, I presented a little would-be satire, extrapolating in a mock serious way on the supposed hidden metaphysical message behind the show.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Mark,
          If I was somewhat upset – and I admit I was, to some extent – it was because you seemed to be continuing our debate in the comment thread to your own essay, and that seemed inappropriate.

          I was aware that the last OP paragraph lacked a foundation concerning how the Goons approached the sociopolitical reality of their day; but of course I had a word# limitation. And I think the actual recordings oft speak for themselves in that regard.

          However, I also wrote ” And yet they did so without leaving wounds and without closing off the future.” And whatever our own disagreements political or philosophical, would you not agree that’s remarkable if true? Personally, I don’t think Prince Charles missed anything about the Goons.

          Although not widely known outside of Britain, he ’50s were a dark time for the English, and I think both Labour and Conservative governments since have contributed to an era of darkness through which the British are still feeling their way, without proper resolution. The best of British comedy has, in this era, sparkled in this era, rather like Christmas tree lights in a frozen winter night.

          Like

          • ejwinner

            Was hoping you would come in again and clarify. Thanks for that.

            It was really only a small point about emphasis and phrasing I was making. But my reaction was as I said in my reply to Dan. It goes back (if I may refer to previous debates) to my views about the importance of letting history “speak for itself” as it were (via primary sources) and being aware of our desire to tell stories (about the past or the people who lived then) which explicitly or implicitly align with or validate or bolster or simply reflect our own personal values.

            Maybe the scripts and ad libbing were more political or more radical than the people who created them realized. You suggest you have evidence you did not share. I am only going on my recollections of the show itself and limited knowledge of the people involved.

            I have no problem with your account (and Shaun’s) of the social and economic problems of the time, nor with the facts about imperial decline. Nor (obviously) with your emphasis on the “healing” or inclusive or non-confrontational aspect of the show.

            It’s one thing, however, to talk about anarchic humor and another to talk about the performers/writers being “iconoclastic anarchists” etc.. (Take Eric Sykes who did some of the writing. As an actor/performer, he always refused to use swear words. He was apparently a supporter of Rhodesia’s Ian Smith in the 1970s.)

            Like

          • Mark,
            I wrote “anarchistic iconoclasts,” not “iconoclastic anarchists.” The difference is important, I think. Again, I’ll let the programs themselves speak to your other points, and invite a listen. I did suggest where they can be found on the Internet.

            Like

  6. Completely off topic! – but has anyone read Aristotle’s Comedics? Long thought lost when the Christians burned down the library at Alexandria, it was recently discovered in a Cracker-Jacks box (TM), and was nearly eaten for breakfast by someone with teeth borrowed from a jellyfish. Fortunately, no damage was done, and it is currently available for Kindle (TM) at Amazon (TM) and in a translation by Professor Overdone (TM) in the original Greek, which no one speaks (TM). This is a limited time offer, available until it isn’t anymore, in which case the time has passed. As it often does. (I have it written down on a piece of paper: “8 AM.” When the stars align with this piece of paper, all manner of lay-away plans will go out of date. Set your pieces of paper accordingly.)

    Anyway, here is the relevant quote from Aristotle:

    “Comedy is the narration of trivial events among low people oblivious to the need to suffer the loss imbuing tragedy, even among the mighty and noble, who naturally can’t be bothered with flatulence or erectile dysfunction. Oh, this damn pen, I know I shouldn’t have bought it at the Dollar Tree (TM)!”

    And was it not Kierkeggard who wrote “If you can’t spell my name, leave me out of this!” To which Nietzsche replied “Goon Show? I would listen to them every night if radio had been invented before I died!” Well, it had been, and that was his real problem!

    Commentators should remark the many TradeMarks (TM) necessary to justify the occasional extra-referential citations. Piracy is not a victimless crime! It is a pizza with lots of onions, and those little brown fish bits you have to spend hours removing. (And no pineapples – even removed, they would be remembered.)

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  7. This essay was submitted to Dan K. August 4. For the week previously, I had been listening to the Goon Show to raise my spirits, because my dog of 8 and a half years was dying. Listening to the Goons’ silliness was life affirming, and contributed to the period of healing once my dog was at last put down. Comedy is also a source of healing; The British Empire was crumbling after the Second World War, and there was no stopping that – it had nothing to do with metaphysics nor even ideology. Its time had passed. The Goon Show provided a healing of the wounds this left open, as the English struggled with a shrinking economy, a loss of colonies, rigid restriction of resources, a confused political landscape.

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    • You have my sympathy. The death of a loyal companion is an occasion for deep grief. We suffer many losses and grieve accordingly but I know from my own experience that this is a particularly painful loss. I extend all my sympathy.

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  8. EJ,
    I confess that when I first read this meta-comment on humor per se, I was somewhat annoyed. I feared a distraction from the main topic here.

    I try to look at things from broader perspectives, seeking understanding of underlying causes and mechanisms. I believe we are always enriched when we do this.

    However philosophers have always had a difficulty with comedy
    The SEP article says exactly the same thing.

    Philosophers are concerned with what is important in life, so two things are surprising about what they have said about humor.

    The first is how little they have said. From ancient times to the 20th century, the most that any notable philosopher wrote about laughter or humor was an essay, and only a few lesser-known thinkers such as Frances Hutcheson and James Beattie wrote that much.

    The second surprising thing is how negative most philosophers have been in their assessments of humor.

    allow this universe to be shared in free play without direct reference to the actual world in which we live, while allowing us to see that world anew

    This is precisely the point I made in my comment and it is why I wrote that comment.

    thoughtless abandonment to pleasure is not always a fault.

    Abandonment to pleasure in the right balance serves a useful purpose. But the “thoughtless” part of it is a betrayal of our essential nature. I am not saying that in the moment of pleasure one should be engaging in deep thought. It is nearly impossible during, for example, coitus. But we should regularly subject our actions to reflective consideration and review. The motto respice, adspice, prospice(look behind, look around, look ahead) is especially relevant. We need to regularly take time out to think about where we have been, where we are and where we are going. This is part of Stoic practice and is practised by Christians in the form of the Daily Examen, as well as being recommended in the psychologist community, by, for example, cognitive behavioural therapists.

    My own motto is that of St. Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum(faith seeking understanding). In all that we do we should seek understanding and this was the purpose of my comment. I also believe that this is the central purpose of philosophy.

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  9. In the last comment I said that I believed the central purpose of philosophy is to seek understanding. In reply you might point out that this is the purpose of all knowledge gathering activities. After all knowledge is information plus understanding. But I mean more than this. I mean a special kind of understanding that seeks insights, context and interrelationships, placing knowledge in a larger context that gives it meaning within the framework of human life. You might call this a kind of meta-understanding, though I suspect I am abusing the word meta.

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  10. ejwinner

    “I wrote “anarchistic iconoclasts,” not “iconoclastic anarchists.” ”

    My mistake, sorry, but that ” “iconoclastic anarchists”, etc.” comment was implicitly referring back to my previous comment where I got the phrase correct, quoting you as saying:

    “Nonetheless as anarchistic iconoclasts (and they were certainly that), they gleefully debunked every assumption of social class or of British Imperial power, party politics, Anglo-centrism, the historical narratives of British identity…”

    I made the point that “the choice of topics” and “phrasing” seemed to me not to accurately reflect a Goonish point of view…

    I stand by that. Eric Sykes was very much a part of the team and his outlook and politics certainly don’t fit your description. I haven’t looked into the politics of the others (if they had any). It was crazy humor, as I recall, and simply not political in the way you suggest.

    You invite me to listen. In my childhood and adolescence I listened to re-broadcasts of (probably) all the shows. Enough already! (I recall that sometimes the closing credits said “script by Spike Milligan”, sometimes “script by Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan”.)

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    • Mark,
      Well, I think you’re suggesting I impute more politics to the Goons than I am. My final paragraph is merely placing the Goons in a historical context, which certainly had political problems that the Goons and their audience were well aware of. I stand by that. I also think that you suspect every cultural expression to carry with it ideological implications of which we must be suspicious. I don’t. Cultural expressions can be read to understand the ideological configurations of the society of their time; but that doesn’t necessitate ideological suspicion. That was a lesson I learned in my dealings with Radical Feminists in graduate school – to reject the ideological suspicion that they insisted on, and which, frankly, I see in some of your own writings. I didn’t buy it from them, I don’t buy it from you. Puritanism is “the fear that someone somewhere is having fun” – Mencken.

      The obvious first signification of a cigar is that tobacco is used in the culture in which it appears; a secondary signification may be that the cigar is a phallic object with various further connotations to that – but as Freud remarked, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar. Unless it’s a gorilla; then, as davidlduffy remarked, it may be too strong. Unless it is properly booted.

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    • “Eric Sykes was very much a part of the team and his outlook and politics certainly don’t fit your description.”
      You didn’t understand my “description.” “Enough already” indeed.

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  11. They are cheerful grave diggers tossing dirt on the collapsing British Empire following WW II

    Like Mark I completely fail to see the point of this statement in the context of an evaluation of the Goon Show. I just don’t see how it fits in and what point it makes other than perhaps a suspicious hint of gleeful American triumphalism. Maybe I didn’t watch the series attentively enough, so please help me out by pointing out what I missed and explain its relevance to your statement.

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          • I’m not sure I can do that in a comments section. Both the British class system and the British Empire are central targets of post WWII British comedy. This is something that is well known among critics and historians of comedy. And something that becomes immediately noticeable if one does a little comparing and contrasting: with American comedy of the same period; with pre WWII British comedy; etc.

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          • I was looking for something rather more specific that would convince me that that there was a reasoned argument and not just another gratuitous display of well known biases and prejudices.

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          • Can’t give that to you, so if that’s the conclusion you draw, I can’t do much about it. And I would contest whether these “well known biases and prejudices” are so well known, with regard to the current case.

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          • For example, EJ made the claim that Christians burnt down the Library of Alexandria. Why? The assertion played no role in his argument and moreover he got it badly wrong.. Of course we know that EJ frequently displays his anti-religious prejudices. I am calling him out on his prejudices because I think that well reasoned philosophical debate should be purified of prejudices, unless that really is the subject of debate.

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          • He based his joke on a false assertion that is persistently repeated in anti-religious circles as if it were an established fact. This is a pernicious practice that underlies fake news.

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          • Oh no, I am arguing for a very important principle.

            First off, you know very well that prejudices are more and more being imported into public discourse. These should be opposed on every occasion and as far as possible reasoned discourse should be purified of prejudices. It is simply not good enough to approve of prejudices that agree with your biases while calling out your opponents for their prejudices.

            Secondly, science has made its astonishing advances precisely because it has adopted a methodology that greatly eliminates the researcher’s biases and prejudices.

            Careful, reasoned argument should play the same role in philosophy. And this is what I am arguing for, a return to a form of argumentation that consciously strives to avoid importing biases and prejudices.

            It is this attitude of mind that I find to be conspicuously lacking in this case. And I think that is a great shame.

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          • This may all be true, but strikes me as having zero to do with a relatively lighthearted and well-written love letter to an old comedy, which is what the essay is. I think both you and Mark are focusing on everything except what the essay is about.

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          • There are some positives about EJ’s essay but I thought on the whole it lacked the deft cleverness we expect of English humour. It seemed rather heavy handed by comparison. If you write about English humour in a humorous style you will be compared with English humour. But what you are effectively arguing is that exceptions should be made in EJ’s case. Which of course accords well with your opposition to Mark’s conservatism and my theism. It is exactly that kind of bias which should be opposed.

            But ask yourself the question, do any of his ‘biased’ assertions play any useful role in his case? It is hard to see their utility and one can only conclude they are gratuitous.

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    • No one disputes the facts so I see no need to once again emphasize facts that are not in dispute That seems redundant.

      Nor do I see any reply to my question of relevance to the Goon Show.

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  12. ejwinner

    I don’t know what to say about your accusations about my being a Puritan or similar to radical feminists in being hard line ideological and not wanting people to have fun — or something. Can’t quite get my head around it.

    “I think you’re suggesting I impute more politics to the Goons than I am. My final paragraph is merely placing the Goons in a historical context, which certainly had political problems that the Goons and their audience were well aware of.”

    You are doing — and saying — more than this. You are talking not just about the context but about what the Goons were doing. They were (according to your reading) gleefully debunking “every assumption of social class or of British Imperial power…”

    Debunking? Every assumption? I can’t make sense of this. Nor were they focused on what you say they were focused on.

    “… [gleefully debunking] Anglo-centrism…”

    Hmmm. Not sure what you’re getting at here. Well, Neddy is Welsh, certainly.

    “… [gleefully debunking] historical narratives of British identity…”

    Hmmm again. If anything, they were drawing on and playing with shared cultural references (many of which are historical) and so reinforcing a sense of British identity. It seems to me that what they are sending up is more a certain strand of popular fiction (ripping yarns) than actual social and political intitutions. Sending up the silly myths, if you like, which everyone knows are silly myths. But, as I say, this just reinforces that sense of a shared British identity. (They are silly myths, yes. But they are our silly myths.)

    You see the Goons as “cheerful grave diggers tossing dirt on the collapsing British Empire following WW II.”

    Okay, so let me tell a story.

    The Goon Show ran from 1951 to 1960. It wasn’t until the Suez Crisis of 1956 that there was a general realization — amongst those who concern themselves with these things — that Britain’s imperial role was coming to an end. The people behind the Goons were not intellectuals, nor particularly left-wing. They had no special insights into or interest in geopolitics. I would say their views reflected the views of ordinary Britons. And, in the late 40s and into the 1950s, there was a revival of interest in the Royal Family mainly because of a fascination with the two young Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. They were touring South Africa when their father, the much-loved George VI, unexpectedly died in early 1952. The girls immediately returned to England. Elizabeth was now Queen. It was a big deal for ordinary people in Britain and the Commonwealth and Empire. Her coronation was seen as symbolic of a new beginning. Her tours were big events. She was loved everywhere, even in France, if Claude Autant-Lara’s 1958 film, En cas de malheur (the early scenes of which are set during a royal visit to Paris) accurately reflects the reality of that time.

    My point is, I don’t think most Britons really cottoned on to what was happening in terms of imperial fortunes until later than you think. Maybe by the end of the 1950s, maybe later. We have the benefit of hindsight, and so can easily misread the past and imagine that people knew more than they knew.

    I am speculating here to some extent. But with respect to the gratuitous and misleading nature of those quoted statements on the Goons and what they were doing, I think I am on firmer ground. They jumped out at me when I read your piece and struck a jarring note.

    Note that I am not criticizing the piece as a whole.

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    • And what’s with the “gratuitous”? I presume you know what the word means, so I don’t get its use in this context. You disagree with EJ’s analysis. (An analysis I agree with, as I’ve said.). But there is nothing gratuitous about it.

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      • I completely agree with Mark and I think his analysis is spot on, though his overall assessment is rather kinder than my own. Both he and I know exactly what the word “gratuitous” means and it is the right choice of word. I have seen no logical rebuttal to the charge and in my opinion it stands unchallenged.

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      • In my experience what is posted in the last paragraph of an essay is a kind of summing up that brings out the central point of what the author is trying to say. And so it deserves close attention.

        In this case there was the rather strange remark about the decline of the British Empire. There was no logical connection to anything that the Goons did or said. And despite repeated challenges EJ has failed to present a connection. He, in later remarks, seems to argue that the Goons were effectively saying this was a form of social commentary. Once again, he presents not a shred of evidence. Mark has effectively debunked this line of argumentation.

        I can only conclude that the so-called social commentary is entirely in EJ’s mind. It plays no useful role in his essay. In fact if you removed the sentence in its entirety it does not change the sense of EJ’s essay in the slightest. And this is the acid test. It plays absolutely no role in the logical structure of his essay. And this is what makes it gratuitous. So I asked myself why he dragged in this sentence when it made no contribution to the essay in the slightest. One answer is that it afforded him the opportunity to display certain sentiments that he has expressed in the past. But that was bad judgement and done in bad taste.

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  13. This is all getting rather silly. Nothing I have said about the Goons in the OP’s last paragraph could not be said (however modified for specificity) about other great comic artists in periods of social instability, eg., the Marx Brothers during the Great Depression, or Jacques Tati during the reconstruction of the French Republic following WWII. Only in repressive states are comics not permitted to transgress; and even in such states will laughter find some means to be heard. There are no social mores that don’t deserve a hoot, no upstanding man or woman of influence that doesn’t deserve a verbal pie in the face, no government that hasn’t deserved a good ribbing. Any institution that cannot survive occasional mockery is probably not long for this world. Those that do survive are made better for it.

    “Is it that nothing, no experience good or bad, no belief, no cause, is, in itself, momentous enough to monopolize the whole of life to the exclusion of laughter? Laughter is our reminder that our theories are an attempt to make existence intelligible, but necessarily only an attempt, and does not the irrational, the instinctive burst to keep the balance true by laughter?” — Alfred North Whitehead.

    But let me merge my last word on the subject dialogically with that of Mikhail Bahktin, the great semiotician, from his Rabelais and His World (trans. by Helene Iswolsky):

    “The suspension of all hierarchical precedence during carnival time was of particular significance. Rank was especially evident during official feasts; everyone was expected to appear in the full regalia of his calling… and to take the place corresponding to his position. It was a consecration of inequality. On the contrary, all were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age. The hierarchical background and the extreme corporative and caste divisions of the medieval social order were exceptionally strong. Therefore such free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed an essential element of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind.”

    If carnival has any politics, it is only because politics without carnival is so deadly dull.

    And here, for no reason but that it has haunted me throughout this discussion, a remembered stanza from a song about a funeral:

    “Whack fol the dah now dance to your partner
    Welt the floor, your trotters shake;
    Wasn’t it the truth I told you
    Lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake!”

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    • This is all getting rather silly.

      The answer is very simple. Present the evidence from the Goon shows and show us how it justifies your concluding remark. I am open to being persuaded by the evidence. You have been repeatedly challenged to do this(present the evidence) and you failed to rise to the challenge. On the basis of the evidence you have failed to submit it is hard to reach any finding other than that you have interjected your own personal sentiments and passed it off as social commentary by the Goons. That is not so good.

      Of course you are entitled to your personal sentiments. But should you use an essay as the vehicle for your personal sentiments? Or should it be the vehicle for a well reasoned argument?

      Let me repeat my earlier argument, in reply to Dan when he said “Seems to me a big nothing” :

      ——————-
      Oh no, I am arguing for a very important principle.

      First off, you know very well that prejudices are more and more being imported into public discourse. These should be opposed on every occasion and as far as possible reasoned discourse should be purified of prejudices. It is simply not good enough to approve of prejudices that agree with your biases while calling out your opponents for their prejudices.

      Secondly, science has made its astonishing advances precisely because it has adopted a methodology that greatly eliminates the researcher’s biases and prejudices.

      Careful, reasoned argument should play the same role in philosophy. And this is what I am arguing for, a return to a form of argumentation that consciously strives to avoid importing biases and prejudices.
      ——————–

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  14. ejwinner

    I’m sorry, but your answers fail to engage with the points I actually made. Moreover, you are imputing to me ideas and attitudes which I do not hold or have, implying that I am somehow opposed to humor or satire, or that I do not see or appreciate the cleansing and socially beneficial power of these cultural phenomena.

    “Only in repressive states are comics not permitted to transgress; and even in such states will laughter find some means to be heard. There are no social mores that don’t deserve a hoot, no upstanding man or woman of influence that doesn’t deserve a verbal pie in the face, no government that hasn’t deserved a good ribbing. Any institution that cannot survive occasional mockery is probably not long for this world. Those that do survive are made better for it.”

    You think I don’t know this?

    “Nothing I have said about the Goons in the OP’s last paragraph could not be said (however modified for specificity) about other great comic artists in periods of social instability, eg., the Marx Brothers during the Great Depression, or Jacques Tati during the reconstruction of the French Republic following.”

    The key phrase here is “modified for specificity”. My points relate to how — specifically — one should characterize what *the Goons* were doing.

    You see them a certain way and characterize them accordingly. I see them slightly differently and find fault with certain details of your characterization. It’s not a big deal.

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