Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Two Greatest Television Comedies You Never Heard Of

My first exposure to no-holds-barred British comedy was not Monty Python, but a show that ran on American TV in 1971, I believe as a summer replacement. An international production featuring wildly outrageous sketches and Terry Gilliam cut-out animation, it was titled The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine.

Terry Gilliam's opening with Marty Feldman as a "reject" on an assembly line - and closing with a host of bizarre 1890's figures "losing their heads" while saying "Goodbye" - resonated with me. I also recall a delightfully campy musical segment with Barbara "Agent 99" Feldon singing "The Codfish Ball". More generally, I remember that I just loved this program, and wouldn't see its like again for a couple more years, when the Python shows hit PBS.

About ten years later, I got the opportunity to see a complete Marty Feldman Comedy Machine show. The cast included chief Goon and patron saint of Britcom Spike Milligan, as well as three actors from The Benny Hill Show. The guest star: Orson Welles. The writers: Milligan, Feldman, Barry Levinson and a post-Sid Caesar, pre-M*A*S*H Larry Gelbart. While not necessarily brilliant from fade-in to fade-out (what sketch comedy program is?), much of it was unbelievably funny. Among many highlights: Marty as Dr. Jekyll - AND Mr. Hyde - accepting an award at a banquet, Orson Welles hawking "DICTIONARY - THE MOVIE" and Milligan as an insane lounge-lizard performer singing "The Girl From Ipanema."

Let's also hope that whoever is sitting on those Marty Feldman Comedy Machine shows will decide there's a buck to be made by reissuing the series on a DVD box.

Unfortunately, because these shows - and Feldman's BBC programs - are obscure, there seems to be a lot less interest in him out on the Web than in his contemporaries and successors.

Here's an inspired and Python-esque program (that actually preceded Monty Python's Flying Circus) in which Marty Feldman was a cast member, At Last The 1948 Show, featuring John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and the late great Graham Chapman:


Craig D said...

Ah, yes! I have fond memories of watching that Marty Feldman show with my Dad and both of us laughing ourselves sick. IIRC, there was an NBC special that used a clip of the veteranary sketch on a network retrospective. Pretty weird, given that it was a one-time-only summer replacment series for the Dean Martin Show (I think!)

There was also a Des O'Connor summer replacement that aired in place of the Kraft Music Hall (maybe?)

Thanks for the memory blast, Paul!

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah...Marty Feldman is wonderful and you're correct - it seems the reason that there's not more hype about him is simply because his stuff seems unavailable...at least compared to some of his peers. There's certainly enough interest...it's just hard to find stuff.

You Tube is starting to have a decent amount of his rare sketches and things which is good and there's always that "Best of" dvd...but really that's not enough.

He's deff. and underrated genius of comedy...no question about it.


Steve S said...

Just stumbled over this post. Hope you are still checking comments!

Thanks for the mention of Barbara Feldon singing "The Codfish Ball." I knew I remembered seeing it, but I didn't (and still don't!) remember the show you say it was on.

Anyway, I remember that at the time, Feldon's rendition of this song seemed incredibly sexy. I had a crush on her anyway as Agent 99, but I think the "fish mouth" impression she did while singing that song put me over the edge!

I've looked in vain for a clip of Feldon and "Codfish Ball." Would love it if someone on the web could find it and post it.

Steve S.