Sam's a Laugh: Comedians on Beckett's Funny Side

Samuel Beckett. Photograph by Frank Herrmann
'I’ve loved Beckett for years — whether it’s Krapp’s Last Tape and the way he plays with repeated phrases, toying with the word “spool”, or Endgame, with the minutely detailed stage directions simply for positioning a stepladder. What annoys me most about Beckett is the audience. I went to see his sketches at the Young Vic directed by Peter Brook and there were skits with men dressed as women that the audience were howling with laughter at, and I thought, that’s just like Les Dawson, but if it actually was Les Dawson you wouldn’t find it funny. That audience wouldn’t go to the circus either, but Godot is like a weird, dribbly circus — at least, that’s what I thought the first time I saw it as a kid. If it wasn’t for the clowning it would be so unbearably, unremittingly bleak, which makes me wonder if Beckett began with the laughter or gave in to it. Beckett was essentially clowning, but it was such perfect, precise clowning.'

Mark Thomas
This week, two friends have kindly pointed me in the direction of an article in The Sunday Times, where popular comedians are climbing over each other to voice admiration for Samuel Beckett. The article, comprising interview snippets gathered by Stephen Armstrong, includes a number of personal encounters with Beckett's theatre, and reveals the influence the playwright has had on their own work.

Among the contributors are Ricky Gervais, Omid Djalili, Phill Jupitus, Mark Thomas, and the wonderful Stewart Lee pops up to offer his thoughts. Many of the quotations focus on Beckett's vaudeville stage antics, and there are a few references to the Laurel and Hardy dynamic of Vladimir and Estragon. Comedian Robin Ince puts it nicely:

'My envy of his writing is about two things: his absolute lack of wastage - even though his lines are about waste and futility - and his confidence with the pause. You can tell trly great stand-ups if they can get to a moment where they just pause for a moment of silence and they still have you can you can see what's going on in their head. I suppose that's why comedians are so obsessed with him [...] Beckett has somehow taken that and raised it to the kind of philosophical level that requires critical acclaim. The only thing that's come close is The Music Box with Laurel and Hardy, wjere they have a 10-minute sequence trying to get a piano upstairs, only to meet the delivery man, who says, "Why didn't you bring it by the road?" They pause, and you think, no, they won;t,m but they take it back down the stairs and p the road. In that scene, Stan Laurel is saying as much about the futility of any human task as Beckett at his most profound.'
You can read Stephen Armstrong's article in full at the Times Online website, by clicking here.