I realised that what had begun – in my mind – as a radical experiment was slowly moving towards the centre, and I had ceased to be its leader. (Alexei Sayle, 2022, on the radical young comedians of the early 80s. When Lynn Barber interviewed him, he kept telling her, rather to her bafflement: “I was emcee at the Comedy Store!” He’d helped to launch the careers of the likes of Paul Merton, French and Saunders, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Ben Elton, Jo Brand. The others had got TV series or parts in sitcoms (or films) and dropped their earlier activism. Sayle was probably too left-wing. As he said, “What did we get instead? Vic and Bob!”)
Judy Carne kept saying “I was the ‘Sock it to me’ girl” when appearing on a chat show after a car accident wearing a head and neck brace. (She’d had a role on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a 60s US TV show that employed a lot of fringe comedians. She was genuinely English, but – like Monkee Davy Jones – she adopted a strange accent that Americans thought was Cockney. Judy’s real name was Joyce Botterill – but she briefly married Burt Reynolds. "She received training at the Pitt-Draffen Academy of Dance before being accepted into the prestigious Bush-Davis Theatrical School for Girls in East Grinstead, West Sussex,” says Wikipedia, which gives a full account of her career highs and lows.)
In Noel Coward’s short story Stop Me If You've Heard It, a has-been comedian doesn't realise he isn't amusing anyone any more.
If you’re a young, hard-hitting, iconoclastic standup comedian you end up in a TV sitcom as a grizzled cop/solicitor/doctor. That’s if you’re middle-class to start with. If you’re working class, you get a part in Eastenders, or present nature programmes, and flourish. Sometimes a comedian takes on a few straight roles in his 70s and acts everybody off the screen. (If you can do comedy, you can play anything. Nancy Banks Smith)
One of the weirdest things to happen this decade is all these sharp-eyed 90s comics turning into people who are indistinguishable from parodies of themselves, without any apparent awareness of it. (@Mc_Heckin_Duff. Sadly he's been suspended from Twitter.)
Kenneth Williams was brilliant when given funny lines (sometimes written by himself). Towards the end of his stage career, producers would cast him in some ill-written tosh and expect him to carry it. He was probably hell to work with, but he tried desperately to rewrite and redirect and keep the show afloat. The resulting shambles left him drained, exhausted and ill. And then he’d start again in a new role with renewed hope...
What happened to comedians who were actually funny, like Phil Cool, Jasper Carrott and Kelly Monteith? Phil Cool toured with Jasper Carrott before retiring in 2013. Despite a heart bypass, Carrott is still working. Kelly Monteith was discovered in the early 70s – in 2021 he suffered a stroke.
Some comedians’ careers just disappear after their death, and no amount of referring to them as “the great Arthur Haynes” will change things. Nicholas Parsons started as Haynes’ straight man, but when Parsons became popular, Haynes dropped him. Wikipedia says Haynes was once “the most popular comedian in Britain”. Cary Grant called him “the greatest comedy star in the world”. He died of a heart attack aged 52.