Anarchy and Absurdity: The Comedy Stylings of the Beatles

Reflecting upon the ways by which the Fabs tickled our funny bone

The Beatles (Art: Ron Hart)

One of the first things we found out about The Beatles was that they were funny.

They arrived in New York City in February 1964 to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and do a couple of concerts, and the press turned up at Kennedy Airport to cover this odd pop group and get the usual stock answers to the usual dopey questions that reporters asked. But the Beatles, these four young men from Liverpool (!), were in on the joke; they knew there was something silly about this game they were expected to play, and they were going to turn expectations on their head by being quick-witted, snappy. They were practiced in the art of PR by then, having gone through their initial burst of fame in England (it was like the play was rehearsed and honed prior to opening on Broadway, where Sullivan’s theater happened to be). They had banter, and it was tremendously charming. They made good copy.

Pop stars were supposed to be self-effacing and polite (“Honestly Sincere,” as the Elvis parody Conrad Birdie sang in Bye Bye Birdie), even if their music was raucous and disruptive. Presley and Cliff Richard (in England) played fine young gentlemen, devoted to God and family, and they played their roles earnestly. That’s not how the Beatles did it and, in a way, that was as revolutionary as their music: their impudence, their irreverence. We heard about how John Lennon, at a Royal Command Performance, instructed the honored guests to “rattle their jewelry” as audience participation (not the sharpest one-liner, but a very quotable dig at the Royals). When they appeared on the BBC, and were interviewed by presenters like Brian Matthew, they made jokes about painting Buckingham Palace “green with black shutters.” Their Christmas records, distributed to members of their fan club, were filled with goofy wordplay: “It’s been a busy year Beople peadles, one way and another.” “Hello, this is John speaking with his voice.” “I’d love to reply personally to everyone, but I just haven’t enough pens.”

 

AUDIO: The Beatles Another Beatles Christmas Record (1964)

They were shaped musically by American rock and roll, but their comedic roots were British. They were, famously, fans of The Goon Show, the trio of Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers, whose show aired on the BBC starting in 1951, when the Beatles were kids. It was whizzingly adept comedy, filled with puns, sound effects, an anarchic spirit, a post-WWII sense of liberation, and creative freedom. England had been battered severely, suffered loss and deprivation, and by the early ’50s, it was more than ready to laugh. America didn’t receive The Goon Show, but by the end of the decade and the beginning of the ’60s, the U.S. was starting to be infiltrated by British humor: the Carry On films, movies with Terry Thomas and Peter Sellers (they co-starred in 1959’s I’m All Right, Jack, and Sellers made a strong impression in The Mouse That Roared, Only Two Can Play, and Two-Way Stretch), Kingsley Amis novels like 1960’s Take a Girl Like You, the satiric news TV show That Was the Week That Was, and Beyond the Fringe, a live sketch-comedy show that introduced the American audience to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore when it hit Broadway in 1962.

It was a prelude to the musical British Invasion. It turned out that the Brits weren’t so stiff-upper-lip stuffy after all: in the months before the Beatles arrived here, we were reading about Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies and the Profumo sex scandal rocking Parliament and the British government. What was going on over there, anyway??

The Beatles’ two major artistic collaborators each had Goon Show connections: George Martin produced the Goons’s albums (and 1959’s Songs for Swinging Sellers album), and Richard Lester co-directed, with Sellers, their short (11-minute), madcap, Oscar-nominated The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. Those credits were enough for the Beatles to put creative faith in them: Martin must have seemed like the type of chap who would be indulgent of their antics, a grown-up who got them, and Lester clearly had a sense of how to capture those antics on film (he also showed he could make visually unpredictable choices in shooting musical sequences, in the movie It’s Trad, Dad!, aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm).

 

AUDIO: The Goon Show “Rommel’s Treasures”

In the non-musical parts of A Hard Day’s Night, you can see how much Lester and screenwriter Alun Owen drew on sketch comedy: the lads taunting the condescending old coot on the train who “fought the war for your sort” (“I bet you’re sorry you won,” Ringo snaps back), George Harrison being asked to assess the “dead grotty” shirts (that scene even feels like a Cook and Moore sketch), the cocktail party/press conference that was a cinematic version of the give-and-take at JFK (“What do you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?” “Arthur.”). Critics were surprised by A Hard Day’s Night, and now the film feels like a blissful convergence, the moment when the Beatles went beyond the fringe, as it were.

From the start, well before the group became THE BEATLES!!, there was a touch of the absurdist about them. In an early piece (1961) in Mersey Beat, Lennon wrote about their “origins”: “Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’,’ ‘Thank you, mister man, they said, thanking him.” In 1997, Paul McCartney made an album called Flaming Pie, and in an interview promoting it said, “The Beatles were not a serious group. So I wanted to get back into some of that, to have some fun and not sweat it.” That was so much a part of what the Beatles were.

The Beatles

In his introduction to Lennon’s In His Own Write, a collection of short pieces (some of which, like “At the Denis” and “Scene three Act One,” are little playlets) published at the height of Beatlemania, McCartney said, “None of it has to make sense and if it seems funny then that’s enough.” 

 

VIDEO: The Beatles Funny Interviews

 

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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

2 thoughts on “Anarchy and Absurdity: The Comedy Stylings of the Beatles

  • October 8, 2020 at 7:04 am
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    So interesting and so much fun to read!

    Reply
  • October 10, 2020 at 4:01 pm
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    Great essay! I was drawn to their humor first, when I saw them on TV and in movies as a kid, and found the music afterwards. I was almost exclusively listening to country music before that, much of which also displayed a sense of humor. I think it helps. If you have a sense of humor, if you’re a naturally funny person, it likely means you see juxtapositions others don’t see. That translates to the rest of the artist’s creative sensibilities. Someone who can make you laugh with a flaming pie story could be a person who could find humanity in Strawberry Fields. Or put a sitar in a pop song. Or write songs with a British dance hall feel for a psychedelic album.

    I never made the connection with George Martin’s credits until I listened to a pre-Beatles Martin compilation that covered just about every style and mood the Beatles ever presented. What would they have sounded like without him?

    Reply

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