Tonight the life of Tommy Cooper is explored in Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This. Here six famous faces explain why we’re still laughing at Tommy Cooper long after he’s been on the stage…
Tommy didn’t like reading scripts — when I was writing for him, he’d just get the general idea from the script and then wander off on his own. You needed people who’d worked with him beforehand to guide him back to the written word. He used to repeat himself, “Good evening, good evening”. So I put that at the start of a routine. He pulled meuponit,“Well,yousayittwicesoIputit twice,” I said. “You put it once, I’ll say it twice and you’ll have the best of the deal,” he replied. I’ve no idea what that meant.
One of the sketches we submitted just said: “Tommy is a ventriloquist on an ocean liner in rough seas”. That’s all it needed. The final sketch was him, a dummy and portholes splashing water. It was brilliant because he was born funny. Funny bones they call it. You’ll never be able to teach someone to be that funny. He’d spot the best joke instantly — and if he didn’t spot it, that was usually because there wasn’t one there.
My favourite routine was the the one with the hats. It’s basically him switching through hats and pulling faces. If you watch it now you can see he’s a bit wobbly, but doesn’t miss a trick. Tommy liked a drink or three, but his hands were never p****d. I think he survives partly because he never did any topical comedy. There’s nothing in any one of his jokes that identifies it with anything going on at the time. That’s why you can revisit his routines and they never seem dated.
I wouldn’t say Tommy was a direct influence on me — people laughed at him when he got tricks wrong, but they laugh at me when I get tricks right. He was a clown but he was a true professional. I owned two drawings he had of his two tables on stage showing the stage manager where to put all the props when they laid them out. Even if you’re pretending to mess the tricks up, it’s important that you know exactly where the props are when you reach down for them. I also had a filing cabinet of his old scripts and I’d annoy my wife by reading them in bed and waking her up to hear the best bits. The scripts were from writers, but Tommy would add scribbles. In a routine about a sawing a woman in half trick going wrong he’d written: “Take out a yo-yo”. No logic, but hilarious.
The first year he appeared on TV he was playing a west country club, came off to thunderous indifference and the manager said, “You haven’t done one trick right.” ‘That’s what I do,” Tommy said. “Not here you don’t. Go back and try harder.” When he came off for the second time the manager said, “You see what you can do if you try?” I wonder what that manager thought over the next few years…
He was so big because everyone thought he was one of them and that was his gift. We all thought that any of us could get up on stage and do a trick like Tommy. Although the level of respect he got from his peers was huge because they knew it was much harder than doing the real thing.
Tommy had an extraordinary combination of skills. On the one hand his delivery of silly one-liners is just perfect, and on the other he was physically hilarious with the way he looked and held himself. I mean, when you can breathe out and it’s funny, who needs material? I wish I could have seen him perform live. It would have been wonderful. I always distrust people slightly if they say they don’t think he’s funny.
My favourite story is about a camera rehearsal to make sure all the camera angles are right. Tommy wouldn’t do a full run-through for camera rehearsals — he kept his powder dry — so he’d walk through the whole thing, stopping at each point and just saying, “Patter, patter, patter… trick, trick, trick… patter, patter, patter.” The crew would be cracking up. There’s another story I use in my act about him dozing off on sentry duty while in the Army and, when two officers approached to put him on a charge, saying, “Amen” before opening his eyes.
That’s what I love about him — silly, harmless humour. Sadly I never got to see him. I had tickets for a show in Watford, but they were for two weeks after he died. On a personal note, Not Like That, Like This is my daughter Lucy’s first professional role. It’s just a small part, but she auditioned and won it off her own bat and I couldn’t be more proud.
Even today you can see Tommy’s influence in the slapstick of Lee Evans, the old-school delivery of Peter Kay and Rob Brydon, the one-liners of Tim Vine and Milton Jones and circuit comedian Steve Best, the off-the-ball comedy of Harry Hill and any magician-comics you see. Pete Firman, Piff the Magic Dragon and Swedish Carl Einer Heckner would be nowhere without Cooper. But I think his biggest influence on many modern comedians, myself included, is his willingness to do literally anything for a laugh.
In the 80s comedy changed — out with the old guard mother-in-law jokes and in with comedy that was dubbed: “The new rock‘n’roll”. Out of that were born a lot of great comedians who made us think, who held a mirror to society, who satirised politicians and captured the zeitgeist of the day. But with all due respect, they aren’t the ones filling arenas and capturing Saturday-night telly audiences. Michael McIntyre, John Bishop, Sarah Millican, even Ant and Dec are all showing signs of Tommy’s attitude to comedy: “We will do anything to get a laugh even if we look daft!”