Television/Heroes of Comedy (C4) Tommy Cooper was funny. But why? Jasper Rees is left in the dark

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The Independent Culture
They say poetry is the new rock 'n' roll. Before that they said comedy was. So how come there's been an Oxford Professor of Poetry for years while the two comparable forms of entertainment are still not on any university syllabus? You can see it happening for rock 'n' roll, what with all those musicologists poring over Beatles' chord progressions and rushing their findings to the printers. Somehow, it wouldn't work for comedy. A cursory study of Heroes of Comedy will demonstrate why.

First up for assessment in a six-part series was Tommy Cooper. A bit like Milton, or Elvis, no one argues about how good he was. He was very good, even great, possibly the best. Unlike Milton, or Elvis, no one can really explain why he was good. That's the thing about being funny: you can't take to bits and determine what makes it tick.

Eminent Cooperologists understand this. Most of those consulted testified that all Cooper had to do was come on stage to get a laugh. Paul Daniels recalled an event at which the comedian was invited to speak. As soon as he stood up he brought the house down. "Now I don't care how much you study comedy," said Daniels, "you can't define that." And even if you can, you certainly can't fill two sides of A4 doing it.

It's not unreasonable to assume that Paul Daniels has never slain an audience by merely standing up. Accepting that as a given, we can therefore deduce that he was reading in Cooper a compendium of his own shortcomings. Cooperology brings that out in people: everyone else seemed to see something in him that they lacked too. Spike Milligan, the most chronically depressed comedian still living, argued that "the face was a call for help". Anthony Hopkins recalled his astonishment at discovering that Cooper was a Welshman. The Welsh are many things but they are not comedians, as Hopkins ruefully admitted and as was illustrated by a cleverly cut sequence showing the two men telling the same joke.

So this was academic enquiry with fairly narrow parameters. Hopkins was the only surprise guest among a host of usual suspects. Gwen Cooper's were the only female memories, and that's because she was married to him (which didn't always sound like a bundle of laughs). And there were no young comedians kneeling at his feet. As Cooper was a proto-surrealist, it might have been enlightening to hear from Vic Reeves.

Once it was established that Cooper specialised in the comedy of error, of getting things wrong to sometimes brilliant effect, beyond that there was little option but to offer endless, very funny examples of his craft. An examiner marking this essay would find it much stronger on quotation than argument. And because this wasn't the first tribute to Tommy Cooper, nor the second nor even the third, some of the quotations were as familiar as the most famous lines. To tee hee or not to tee hee? There's no answer to that question.