Thursday, November 18, 2010

Peter Cook: The Funniest Man Who Ever Drew Breath


     There is a school of thought, which I belong to, which holds that Peter Cook was the funniest man who (in the words of English comedian and Cook disciple Stephen Fry) ever drew breath.

     Because (as I just said) I'm schooled, I know that is a historically unprovable statement, but like the other dogmatists in our academy (many of whom, I'm sure, hold such other hyper-observant, acutely expressive comedians as Jonathan Winters and Sam Kinison in high regard), I am prepared to stick by it and defend it if necessary (but I hope not ponderously).

     John Cleese, another Cook disciple, observed, following Cook's passing, that: 

"Most of us have to grind away for something like six or seven hours to produce three minutes of material, whereas for the first fifteen or twenty years of Peter's professional life it took him exactly three minutes to produce three minutes of material."

     Sanity-restoring, confusion clearing, hysterical laughter, reducing stress and providing insight into a pressurized world that had recently survived two world wars without, apparently, solving most of its  problems, was Cook's generous gift to his large audience. All his comedy (performances, writing, ad libs) was stamped with his powerful, retentive and unpretentious intellect and subtly extroverted personality.

E.L. Wisty

     From the beginning of Cook's career (amazingly, he authored a West End production, One Over The Eight, while still a Cambridge University student) until its too-early conclusion, Peter Cook's original "characters", including the Coal Miner from Beyond The Fringe (who wanted to be a judge, but "didn't have the Latin for the judging"), the very strange E. L. Wisty ("I thought I saw it move"), Pete (half of Pete and Dud, the funniest comedy duo ever), and Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling (not Greeb-Streebling; a man who spent his life trying to teach ravens to fly underwater), lived in the audience's imagination and were greatly loved because, for all their peculiarities and biases, we identify with their intense energetic curiosity.

Pete and Dud 

     These and Cook's other characters' concerns tend to be, at least sometimes, also our own, and their tics are all weirdly, subtly, scarily recognizable. Equally, if not more important is the fact that, unlike Monty Python's often amusing, but essentially tin-typed, academically referenced characters, you don't need to be university educated or think of yourself as an intellectual to understand or enjoy Cook's creations. Cook imparted this legacy to less obvious, but major disciples, like the Bonzo Dog Band, as well as the comedians and writers who made The Fast Show so great.

     Moving from Cook's Classical period to his Mannerist and Baroque styles, these same qualities carry over into the "Pete" character's later transmutation into the extraordinarily smutty Derek (half of Derek & Clive, one of the strangest, most unexpected acts ever, but mostly very funny) and Cook's real-time, radio call-in character, Sven, the Norwegian fisherman from Swiss Cottage who originally appeared late one evening, unannounced and incognito, on Clive Bull's radio program.  Apparently, both of these beings emerged in a highly stimulated state from inner recesses of Cook's mind that were enervated during periods of boredom and professional frustration.


     Relatively late in his tumultuous career, at Amnesty International's 1979 Secret Policeman's Ball celebrity revue in London, Cook created as a one-off one of his greatest and most important characters, the High Court Judge  presiding over the murder conspiracy trial involving former British Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. The story of how Cook created this amazing 8-minute parody of Mr. Justice Cantley's summing up for the jury is legendary (essentially, it falls under John Cleese's description of a man writing a perfect 8-minute sketch in 8-minutes flat), but what is most remarkable about the piece is how Cook (responding with a genius comedy pistol shot to newspaper criticism that the Secret Policeman's Ball consisted mostly of previously performed, tired and warmed-over material by the celebrity cast), devised a piece acutely and precisely keyed to the Amnesty International benefit's intended message, illustrating how justice for influential people is different from justice for the rest of us. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Peter and Judy Cook (Mr and Mrs)

     Apart from his undoubtedly on-and-off-again-through-Eternity partner, Dudley Moore, Cook outclassed all of his many performing accompanists and comedy disciples (Eleanor Bron aside).  John Cleese's petty and frequently repeated remarks about what a pity it was that Cook never became an "actor" like he himself did is silly and always makes me unhappy for that sad clown.  Watch Bedazzled, watch The Wrong Box.  (One of my best memories of my mother was hearing her laughing herself to sleep through the wall that separated our bedrooms after a late-night television showing of The Wrong Box).  Watch even Cook's charming, if slight 1981-2 American television series with Mimi Kennedy, The Two Of Us.   Peter Cook is always the  performer you can't look away from. You always want to see and hear from more from him, speaking the funniest lines in the world (usually his own work), standing slightly off balance, in his superb range of voices.  

Much has been published about Peter Cook since his death in 1995. The funny stories are varied and seemingly endless.

From The Wrong Box

Two I particularly like are the following.  The first I read about, the second is personal.

     Although Cook's relationship with Dudley Moore became increasingly fractious over the years, Moore was inconsolable when Cook died.  He told an interviewer that he phoned Cook's London answering machine from Los Angeles repeatedly just to hear his friend and partner's voice again. The journalist reported that whenever Moore spoke of Cook, he (seemingly unconsciously) adopted Cook's voice and inflections, sounding just like him.

     About ten years ago, when Caroline and I were visiting Dublin, we met a very nice person who we engaged as a driver and tour guide during our visit.  He was a charming, chatty man and one of our driving tours the conversation turned to Peter Cook. Our guide, to our surprise, was also a member of the Peter Cook Was The Funniest Man Who Ever Drew Breath School.  This surprised us because Cook was English and by that time we already knew and had witnessed on several occasions instances of our friend's Irish-on-English antipathy. But fair is fair and funny is funny and our guide was an honest man.  One of his proudest professional engagements, he told us, was driving Peter Cook in and around Dublin for a week.  He said that Cook was a kind, exceedingly polite man who laughed at his jokes and encouraged easy repartee. Our friend admitted, however, that Cook's responses to his own joking remarks all effortlessly "topped" them, but unpretentiously, like breathing.  He also said that the continual, convulsive amusement attendant in having Peter Cook as a passenger made the driving a little difficult.

     In 1999, in a marvelous act of tribute, the minor planet 20468Petercook in the Main Asteroid Belt was named after Peter Cook.   This, I think, is a much more fitting honor for this great man and subversive comedian than the standard issue MBE, OBE, CBE or knighthood.  Peter Cook is a star and planet in the night sky.

Notes to reader:  

1.Please scroll over text and captions to find various color-masked links to Peter Cook performance excerpts.

2. For more on this subject, please see Here.


 Author, editor, publisher, Private Eye founder


  1. Hi! I'm from Argentina (Southamerica). I just discovered Peter Cook work I have to say that he's the most inspiring and talentous man I've ever seen. Many comedian actors in Argentina doesn't know that they have inherited his comedy. I want to let people know who was him and how is/was the impact on people's laughing.
    My english is basic but I hope you can get what I'm trying to say.
    Greetings from Argentina.

  2. Hi Virginia and greetings from snowy Tuxedo Park, NY (3 feet). Your English is better than my Spanish, so thank you for writing. I love Peter Cook and I think you're very lucky to have discovered him. There is a collection of his scripts available called Tragically I Was An Only Twin, which you can order through or Amazon, which I recommend, and of course the Not Only, But Also dvd. He was certainly the funniest man. Whenever I hear current comedians, including the relatively unfunny Russell Brand, I am reminded of Cook's genius. Please keep visiting this page. You might find something else you like. I try to keep things varied. Happy Christmas and New Year to you. Curtis

  3. Hi Curtis. (I'm Virginia with my other account)
    Thanks for your recommendations. I'd like to have alla his stuff.
    Nice blog. I'll link it if you want to.
    Happy New Year!

    Virginia From Argentina

  4. That would be very nice for you to link to it.

    My best wishes for a very happy New Year.

    And, by the way, there are excellent Cook biographies out there and there is all sorts of stuff available on CD, DVD, youtube, etc.

    I would love to visit Argentina someday.


  5. Hi Curtis! I linked to my blog dedicated to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. You'll find it on "recomendados" category. I put the link on my name here on the comment box.
    I'll translate soon some biografies of Cook and Moore to put on my blog. Thanks for the recommendations!
    Happy New Year!

  6. Thank you very much for letting me know. I will check it out today. Happy New Year. Curtis

  7. Hi Cameron. Yes. For once a correct use of that terribly overused word. Thanks for writing. I'm sitting here looking at our first (and I sincerely hope our last) snowfall of the year. We've had terrible winter after terrible winter. A mild, non-destructive one would be really nice. Please visit again. Curtis