Looking Back At THE GOODIES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE GOODIES

Goodie Goodie yum yum, argues Tony.
When people talk about epoch-defining or world-changing British comedy teams in the post-World War II era, they tend to talk about the Goons, who between 1951-1960 entirely re-shaped what could be done with radio comedy.

Then they talk about Monty Python’s Flying Circus, who took surrealist comedy to live action TV and gave it several degrees between 1969-1974.

And then, too often, they move straight on to the likes of the Not The Nine O’Clock News team, who signalled the arrival of alternative comedy from 1979-1982), and The Young Ones, who merged observational, satirical and slapstick comedy with a heavy nod to the new alternative comedy scene, between 1982-1984.

No-one ever mentions The Goodies.

That’s monstrously unfair, and the Goodie-erasure needs to stop. So here’s something to make some comedy-fans properly choke on their cornflakes – The Goodies have a better claim being the true successors to the Goons than Monty Python does.

Wait, what? How are we making that claim? The Goodies was that trio of comedians who filled the Seventies with madcappery, no? Children’s comedy for the most part, right?

Well, first of all, let’s deal with their beginnings. The Goodies – Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, and Graeme Garden were just as educated as the Pythons, and at the same time and place, thank you very much. In fact, the Pythons and the Goodies were frequently classmates, and certainly appeared alongside one another before the formal foundation of either troop, in powerhouse reviews that rocked the West End in London.

So, there’s little to split the Goodies and the Pythons in terms of their comedy beginnings. But where the Pythons lasted only five years on TV – before, admittedly, going on to conquer the world of movies (and to conquer more conventional sit-com through John Cleese’s partnering with Connie Booth and the creation of Fawlty Towers), the Goodies ran for ten uninterrupted years on BBC2, then transferred for a less successful run on LWT. That’s twice as long as the Pythons in an uninterrupted run – and as long as the Goons.

What’s more, the style of the comedy the Goodies brought to TV audiences throughout the Seventies was AS intelligent as that brought by the Pythons, but structured entirely differently. While both contained sketches with impressive intellectual and surrealistic premises (for every Python Ministry of Silly Walks, there’s a Goodies Kitten Kong, and for every Python Spam cafĂ© or Spanish Inquisition, there’s a Goodies Giant Dougal from The Magic Roundabout), but like the Goons, the Goodies mixed situation comedy in with their sketch comedy, so you had Garden, Oddie, and Tim Brooke-Taylor playing surrealistic versions of themselves as the entity known as the Goodies. Imagine the Goons meeting the Monkees and you get an idea of what we’re dealing with.

The result was a comedy show that was extremely clever, just as it was on radio for the Goons, but was never OVERBALANCED by its cleverness, leaving the audience in search of a laugh – an accusation which could sometimes be levelled at Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

In the decades since its episodes went out, the Goon Show – by being accessible to fans of all ages – has matured into being regarded as a timeless diamond of comedy. Monty Python’s Flying Circus – by essentially being accessible mostly to intellectuals who can split a hair on the head of a pin about the dialectics of comic construction when explaining why the Lumberjack Song is funny, has matured into a kind of clique (we hesitate to use the word ‘cult’), whose members take an almost ritualistic pleasure in quoting lines from the show at one another.

The Goodies, by aiming along the same lines as the Goons, but at first in a competitive TV market with Python, and then, when Python went on to do movies, on their own on BBC 2, always suffered by comparison with Python, rather than benefitting by comparison to the Goons.

If Python was the intellectual surrealist comedy that defined the Seventies, the Goodies were regarded almost as children’s TV by comparison, because they always went for the laugh, and they ensured with a far greater regularity than Python did that there WAS a laugh. Somehow in comedy circles, that came to be regarded as rather the cheap and the obvious way to go – as though getting laughs was somehow BENEATH surrealistic comedy in the Seventies.

It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. But in the wake of Python, plenty of comedy FANS grew snobbish and po-faced about the business of surrealistic, intelligent comedy – we have no way of knowing whether the Pythons themselves felt that way, but it seems intensely unlikely. So the Goodies, with their combination of sometimes extended-storyline sketches (again, we’re compelled to come back to the likes of Kitten Kong, or Ecky Thump, the mysterious martial art of Lancashire as an example), and their compulsion always to GET a laugh were looked down on as comparatively childish in comedy circles.

Comedy circles are called comedy circles because if you live long enough, the public’s taste comes back around every now and again. Rewatching the Goodies in the 2020s can occasionally bring up some fairly typical 1970s issues, and it would be pointless to hide away from that. Even their entirely odd but otherwise harmless hit single, The Funky Gibbon, has one deeply unfortunate instruction in it, for instance.

But the actual hit-rate of laughs, pound for pound, is probably higher in the Goodies than it is in the likes of Python, largely because in many cases, the sketches feel built outward from the POINT OF LAUGHTER in the Goodies, and outward from the FUNNY IDEA in the Pythons, leaving plenty of Python sketches trailing off into a wall when the idea runs its course, or in frequent need of “And now for something completely different.”

Many of the Goodies episodes had significantly longer continuous ripples of laughter from one sketch to another to another, meaning the show stayed on air significantly longer because, building its sketches from a point of laughter rather than necessarily from a funny idea meant a more GENERAL audience stayed with it.

Undoubtedly a part of that was also down to the “sit-com” sections, with the CHARACTERS of the Goodies interacting, deciding to do things that would propel the episode through.

A change is often as good as a rest, and those sections not only gave viewers a chance to let themselves off the emotional hook of having to wait for the funny in the sketches, they also allowed for a different KIND of comedy to come to the fore, bringing a warmer invite into the show through characterisation than would have been possible if the shows had been consistently just sketch after sketch after sketch.

The nature of the characters too helped build good will and laughter in those “sit-com” sections. Something as simple as the Goodies riding the “thrandem” – the three-seater bike off which they fell with a remarkable comic regularity gave the characters the kind of well-meaning innocent idiocy that was, for instance, also a feature of the Monkees’ TV show.

Added to which, the “sit-com” sections allowed the audience to directly feel how much fun the Goodies themselves were sometimes having, and the humour was infectious. Bill Oddie in particular often seemed to be having tremendous fun playing “Goodie Bill Oddie” in those sections, and would often be the spark of surrealist ideas, compared to the brown-voiced, somewhat serious character of “Goodie Graeme Garden,” and the open-faced innocence of “Goodie Tim Brooke-Taylor.”

During their time as a cohesive unit, the Goodies put out books and records, and it’s perfectly plausible that, had they moved in that direction, they could have made the leap to movies too. They would probably have been less controversial than some of the Python movies, but they would probably also have been more UNIVERSAL, more comfort-watching for a Sunday afternoon than any of the Python’s somewhat more spiky feature-length offerings.

But as is often the case when something sticks around for a long time, it becomes devalued. Seen as obvious and easy, because it’s done consistently. It becomes part of the furniture. And that’s very much what happened to the Goodies. While the quality and the number of the laughs didn’t particularly falter over the years, people became accustomed to it. It was “just” the Goodies – not serious, not making the leap to movies and taking on the world, just happily churning out silly, funny programmes on BBC 2.

Eventually, budgets for the TV version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (another clever, surrealist masterpiece, to be fair) ended the Goodies’ run with the BBC, and their attempt to continue on LWT was short-lived and less successful (It’s been argued that surrealist comedy works significantly less well when interrupted by ad-breaks – which in some ways means the Goodies were a team simply BUILT for streaming and binge-watching).

But with the usual caveats about 1970s TV, rewatching the Goodies in the 2020s will surprise you. You’ll very likely find it funnier than you expected to, because – again, unlike the Pythons – it doesn’t come to you loaded down with a legendary reputation as epoch-making intellectual comedy.

What it will do is exactly what it did to people who watched it for more than a decade. It’ll catch you unawares, deliver laughs consistently, and leave you feeling just a little better about the weird, dark world outside. The jokes may never be as intellectually complex as those of some other surrealist comedy groups, but if you want to laugh more than you want to sit around and deconstruct the internal structures and the external trappings of satirical comedy, the Goodies still have a lot to offer.

Watch The Goodies today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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