Culture Club #4: "Alan-a-Dale"

The strangest and funniest comedy sketch of all time

There comes a time in everyone’s life when one must declare what one stands for. And there comes a point in every Culture Club series when one must make the full weirdness of one’s comedy tastes known. That time is now, and therefore I have taken it upon myself to introduce you, the unsuspecting reader, to what may just be the most bonkers comedy sketch ever to make it to TV.

“Alan-a-Dale”? Yes, “Alan-a-Dale”! It’s “Alan-a-Dale”, “Alan-a-Dale”, “Alan-a-Dale”, yes, “Alan-a-Dale”.

(Just watch it and everything will make sense. Well it won’t, but you’ll have a good time. Link below.)

In the last Culture Club installment I talked about Beyond the Fringe, the show that launched the careers of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Thankfully the pair realised they had a comedic bond and kept working together for years afterwards, making TV shows, films and recordings right up to the late ’70s. “Alan-a-Dale” first aired on their program Not Only…but Also in 1965, four years before Monty Python’s circus first spread its wings. For my money it’s both funnier and weirder than any of the more famous sketches from that show.

There are a few uploads of the clip-and-nothing-but-the-clip on YouTube, but I recommend watching the version featured in this Cook & Moore compilation video — the resolution’s that bit better, and every little helps with stuff of this grainy vintage. (Bonus: you get an extra hour-and-a-half of one of the most underappreciated comedy acts of all time!) “Alan-a-Dale” starts at 51:17 and ends at 55:31.

A few thoughts on why this is the greatest four minutes of anything I’ve ever seen:

  • I love that the song’s structure, key changes and orchestral arrangement are surprisingly complex — the whole thing must have taken everyone involved a good while to learn — while by contrast the choreography is the most half-assed thing I’ve ever seen. The moment when “Alan” himself first walks on is deliciously awkward.

  • Peter Cook (top right) may have been the mastermind of the Cook-and-Moore operation, but man oh man is Dudley Moore (bottom left) the great comic actor of the pair. Every grimace, head-bob and worried side-eye here is exquisite. Love the contrast between his manic, OTT style and the perpetual Zen of Cook, who just keeps on smiling the same braindead smile in the background.

  • This is a really small detail, but “Alan’s” voice breaks ever so slightly in his introductory solo the second time he sings ‘I’ll tell you the tale’. That’s really funny.

  • Right afterwards Dudley does this little ‘What the…’ look, and straight after that Alan does one of his own. Then while the other four drone on about him the titular character looks increasingly bored and uncomfortable. It’s like things aren’t going according to plan somehow, but we’re never shown how or why. If everyone keeps rhyming with each other and singing the same thing at the same time, surely things are going according to plan?

  • Is Alan annoyed because he wants to get on with his story but everyone else keeps interrupting him? Then why doesn’t he get on with his story? Instead, he keeps re-committing to the song and joining in as the others sing the same inane chorus a billion more times.

  • Why is Alan singing about himself at all, let alone in the third person? He’s not even consistent with his nonsense — one minute he’s saying ‘This is the tale of Alan-a-Dale’, and the next he’s saying ‘Gather round and listen to my story.’ Pick a lane, Alan!

  • While I’m on the subject, why does his smile as he says ‘Gather round’ mask such a Saul Goodman-like undercurrent of desperation? I’ve never seen less convincing mirth. Also, why does he repeat the ‘y’ of ‘story’ like that? He didn’t say it wrong the first time, and he wasn’t even looking at the wrong camera (as he does at the end). Really odd.

  • Why do all five of them do an epic buildup right afterwards, then deflate it by singing the next chorus in an even goofier way than before? Look at Alan’s face as the others prance around him. Why isn’t he uncomfortable any more? Why that indescribable mixture of dopiness and self-satisfaction? What the hell is going on?

  • Of course the glorious hero of the tale being the one guy who can’t whistle is hilarious, but why is the whistling already so funny in itself? The demented look in Dudley’s eyes? The speed the song demands they go at? The fact they do it about fifty times?

  • After Alan’s botched whistling solos, why does everyone suddenly get all furtive and animated at once as if they’ve just heard some shocking information and need to tell everyone about it? They’re still just singing “Alan-a-Dale” aren’t they?

  • After they recover and navigate the most tacked-on key change I’ve ever heard, why does Dudley steal Alan’s thunder for no reason? And what in the name of Sherwood Forest are the others doing in the background? And when Dudley gets dragged back from the camera why does he start full-on panicking as if it’s vital he stay where he is, all while continuing to sing “Alan-a-Dale”? Why does he then proceed to forget his worries instantly while the gang indulge in yet another stupid buildup?

  • Why is everyone so pleased with themselves throughout the Grand Finale? Have they just blotted out all the tension, unease, boredom and panic from a few seconds ago? Must be nice to move on from difficult feelings so quickly, eh?

If this was a Monty Python sketch, it’d have a clear premise that would get repeatedly subverted until the whole thing fell apart in chaos at the end. If it was a Morecambe and Wise sketch, Ernie would consistently play it straight and Eric would consistently get the laughs. If it was a Two Ronnies sketch, they’d have a cast of poker-faced actors doing everything properly while the pair undermined proceedings with some ridiculous dancing and a barrage of wordplay. (Actually, that’s exactly what they did.)

But “Alan-a-Dale” never puts the rug down in the first place, so it never gets the chance to pull it out from under us. It isn’t subverting social norms or even its own premise, it’s subverting the whole idea of having a premise. It keeps giving us potential themes then not following through on them: oh, the idea is that Alan’s going to be exposed as a fraud at the end, wait no it’s not, OK it’s about the other four interrupting him until he can’t take it any more, wait no it’s not, OK it’s about Dudley gradually winding him up until they get into a fight, no it’s not, OK it’s all building to the moment when we finally hear what Alan’s story is and it’s not such a great story after all, wait no it’s — wait it’s over? What was that?

Erik Tarloff on why the sketch works so well (yes, none other than the Atlantic has also published a forensic dissection of this random fragment of pop culture. I feel so vindicated): ‘[“Alan A-Dale” uses] a strategy of cheated expectations, of disconnection and dissociation, of an apparently random, arbitrary assemblage of ill-matched and discordant elements…to call [this] satire is to completely misapprehend the sketch’s comic impact. Nothing is being satirized. This was a new sort of humor. It had no purpose, no object, no logic. Insofar as it had a point, its point was precisely that it had no point. Its unstated larger point, I would argue, was that nothing has a point, that searching for a point is an absurd and futile exercise.’ This adds up to ‘an implicit philosophical nihilism’.

Wow. That’s a lot to put on a song about one of Robin Hood’s Merrie Men.

He’s right though. There’s no throughline at all to “Alan-a-Dale” except what’s not happening: we’re not hearing about Alan-a-Dale. His story is like a sort of narrative Godot that never comes. Squint a little and this silliest of sketches is aggressively confronting you with the arbitrariness of the meanings we assign to things and the stories we tell ourselves about them. ‘Things aren’t neat and tidy in life, much as we’d like them to be,’ it says. ‘Why should they be any tidier in art?’

The sketch almost sounds like an Ingmar Bergman movie when you put it like that, so why is watching it the least bleak experience you can possibly have? Why do I enjoy “Alan-a-Dale” so much I think joy would be a better word than enjoyment? Actually, I reckon that the more chaotic, anarchic and meaningless a piece of comedy is, the funnier it is. There are lots of reasons I think that, involving life being meaningful but not in the way we usually think it is — but they’ll take another post to tease out. Watch this space.

Actually no, watch “Alan-a-Dale”. Much more fun.