About fifteen years ago, I met the comedian Harry Enfield for lunch in a Chelsea restaurant. The first thing he said was: ‘Ken Dodd ate here yesterday.’
‘Did he?’ I said.
‘No – Doddy’, he replied.
Since then, I’ve tried the same gag on any number of people, and it generally works pretty well, just so long as they don’t reply, ‘Oh, really?’ Now aged 87, Ken Dodd has become part of the language, a byword even among those who don’t know who he is. These days, ‘Ken Dodd’s dad’s dog’s dead’ is a popular playground tongue-twister, and, after his 1989 trial for tax evasion, ‘a Ken Dodd’ became Cockney rhyming slang for a wad.
W H Auden wrote of Edward Lear, ‘Children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.’ The same might be said of Ken Dodd, though those who swarm to him – next month, he is performing in Dudley, Chesterfield and Bridlington – tend to be well into their seventies.
The first time I saw him on stage was at the Ipswich Regent. He opened the show by observing that though Ipswich isn’t twinned with anywhere, it has a suicide pact with Grimsby. It was hardly the standard opening line of visiting royalty and politicians, but it went down a storm.
This was the opening salvo in a one-man show that began at 8pm and went on until well after 1am. Received wisdom has it that Ken Dodd’s live act doesn’t transfer well to television, yet no one ever offers the simple reason, which is that the standard television slot is five minutes and the standard Ken Dodd show is five hours.
‘The sooner you laugh at the jokes, the sooner you can go home,’ he says, after an hour or so. He aims to crack six jokes a minute, or roughly 360 an hour. He delivers them so fast that you are generally laughing at the last joke but three, or perhaps just generally laughing at the surrounding laughter. It is the speed and quantity of his jokes that matters rather than their quality. Some are entirely meaningless. ‘Did you get your free sausage on the way in? Well, you will on the way out.’ Professor Richard Wiseman has observed this curious phenomenon of laughter produced from nowhere. ‘He gets a rhythm going with the audience and once you get into it (the rhythm is, I say something, you laugh), after a while it doesn’t matter what he says. But you enjoy it and you keep going and it takes you over.’
After a while, the audience begins to suffer from a sort of collective Stockholm syndrome, howling with laughter as much at their inability to escape as at anything more obviously funny. And Doddy revels in his role as their captor. ‘This isn’t like television, missus,’ he says, roughly three hours in. ‘You can’t switch me off!’ To squeeze Ken Dodd into a guest spot on telly would be like trying to run through Wagner’s Ring Cycle in a couple of minutes.
In 1965, Ken Dodd found his way into the Guinness Book of Records after telling 1,500 jokes in a ‘Marathon Mirthquake’ at the Palladium lasting three and a half hours. For some reason, the two-hour press conference that preceded it, packed with nearly as many jokes, went unmentioned.
‘You think you can get away, but you can’t,’ he tells his audiences after four hours or so. ‘I’ll follow you home and I’ll shout jokes through your letterbox.’
Just after midnight in Ipswich, he brought out a snack in a Thermos and a Tupperware box. ‘You mean you didn’t bring any?’ he asked us. ‘One thing about my show is that you always go home in the light. I’ve seen children grow out of their trousers while I’ve been on. Under your seat you’ll find a will form.’ An hour later, he was still at it. ‘This is like antibiotics. You have to finish the course!’
Ken Dodd was born in the Knotty Ash district of Liverpool in 1927. His family was pretty well-to-do: his grandmother had been the first woman magistrate in Liverpool, and his father was a prosperous coal merchant. He still lives in the large former farmhouse in which he was born. Even more unusually, he keeps the table set just as his mother used to set it, with the HP sauce bottle always in its familiar place.
Unusually for a comedian, his childhood was very happy. His father lived for comedy, and nicknamed his son Professor Yaffle Chuckabutty. Even the young Doddy’s one serious accident was somehow fortuitous: aged eight, he was trying to ride a bicycle with his eyes shut when he mounted the kerb and fell off onto the pavement. This resulted in his teeth sticking out at the same funny angle at which they have remained ever since. ‘By Jove, missus,’ he says. ‘I’m the only one in our house who can kiss a girl and nibble her ear at the same time!’
Like many of the best comics, his routine is finely balanced on the borderline between sanity and madness, or, if you will, between craft and instinct. Offstage, he has made a lifelong study of comedy, accumulating a library of 10,000 books by psychologists and philosophers; onstage, there is no hint of the scholar – instead, he plays the giddy goat, or court jester, complete with tickling stick. In Knotty Ash, he keeps what he calls a Giggle Map of Great Britain, which charts every single performance he has given, complete with time and date, first or second house, audience capacity and weather conditions, plus jokes that worked and jokes that failed to work. At each performance, his companion, Anne Jones, sits by the side of the stage with a clipboard, marking the jokes that get the most laughs. Those that get the least are ruthlessly discarded.
When not cracking jokes, he likes to analyse them. ‘For forty years, I have read every possible book on humour and the psychology of humour. I have formulated formulas for the creation of jokes and comedy and believe that I have cracked it. Some people say there are only seven original jokes. Well, I think there’s 27 formulas.’
Yet at the same time, he acknowledges the ravine between theory and practice. When he appeared on Celebrity Mastermind before Christmas (coming a creditable second), John Humphrys attempted to ask him what makes a joke funny. ‘Let me ask you what is probably an impossible question...’ he began, before being cut off by the smiling Doddy, who said, ‘I never lend money to a stranger.’
Victoria Wood has noted that Ken Dodd’s uniqueness lies in his view of life as something worth celebrating. ‘Whereas most comedians come on and say, “You know, I’ve had a terrible day,” or “I’ll tell you something awful that’s happened,” Ken comes on and says, “What a beautiful day...” I can’t think of anyone else who starts in that way, who manages to get jokes out of something positive.’
Early in his career, he applied his brain to working out a suitable catchphrase. ‘I wanted a catchphrase that would stand the test of time – that you could permutate. So I’d say, “How tickled I am,” and then you could put another bit on to it – “How tickled I am under the circumstances. Have you ever been tickled under the circumstances, Missus?” ’
In a just world, he would be Sir Ken, or Lord Dodd of Knotty Ash. Until that day comes, he can at least be tickled by his tattyfilarious new title of Oldie of the Year. After all, he richly deserved it. Did he? No – Doddy.