A Note on Peter Cook

Mark Kaplan writes of Peter Cook:

This stare is like an empty demand to laugh appended to whatever content Cook happens to light upon: laugh, or be a prude; laugh or be subject to the ignominy of “not getting it”. The stare says, defiantly prior to any utterance: “I’m in on the joke–how about you?”

As Kaplan implies with his Adorno quote, the insecurity and ultimate conservatism of the satirist, who depends on the object of his ridicule, has been the downfall of writers from Gogol to Mencken to Harvey Kurtzman. It reminds me of Ian Penman’s precision demolition of Frank Zappa:

He had long hair but sneered at longhairs; he made a long and lucrative career out of endless guitar solos but sneered at other rock musicians; he constantly bumped his little tugboatful of ‘compositions’ up against the prows of the classical establishment, but he lambasted that, too. In stuff like “The Torture Never Stops” and “Dancing Fool” he got some of his biggest audiences by exploiting the very idea of exploitation he was supposedly upbraiding. He sneered at people who took drugs; he sneered at their parents who didn’t. Most of all, he sneered at women; girls trying to get by in a world of hateful, mastery-obsessed fools like himself. He sneered at anything which represented the mess and fun and confusion of life. He sneered, in short, at anything/everything that wasn’t Frank Zappa.

Although Zappa built a career on purporting to despise the facades of Western consumer culture, he could never actually tear himself away from its value system (he just recycled it, reflected it back in myriad ‘negative’ forms); he could never step out of his circus-master role and plunge into the world of the Other.

(The whole article is like this.)

Penman is dead-on when he says that Zappa was wholly unable to transcend the zeitgeist; most of his stuff sounds incredibly dated, often to a specific year. Like Cook, he got the good stuff out of the way early, when there was still a bit of celebration and joy (in a 60’s Southern California kind of way) in the music of his little band. Likewise, Cook’s best work with Beyond the Fringe is less satirical than absurdist, with jokes like “One Leg Too Few” and “The Great Train Robbery” (“a misnomer, since it involved no loss of train”) dispatched brilliantly. (Alan Bennett always seemed to me to be doing the heavy lifting on the satire.) Bedazzled is comparatively limp, and I’ve been fortunate enough to spare myself most of the Derek and Clive material.

But the man had raw talent until the end. The best thing I’ve heard of his besides Fringe was Why Bother?, a set of short, improvised dialogues with his most talented scion, Chris Morris:

I mean, I held out no great hopes that he wouldn’t be a boozy old sack of lard with his hair falling out and scarcely able to get a sentence out, because he hadn’t given much evidence that that wouldn’t be the case. But, in fact, he stumbled in with a Safeways bag full of Kestrel lager and loads of fags and then proceeded to skip about mentally with the agility of a grasshopper. Really quite extraordinary.

Morris was right. Eager to match wits with his hero, Morris repeatedly taunts and derails Cook, refusing to respond to Cook’s setups and repeatedly mentioning that Cook will die soon. Cook, relishing being challenged for once in his life, is damned sharp. I can’t imagine the partnership would have lasted had they been peers, but I think it shows that the old Cook had at least learned something about the emptiness of easy ridicule.

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