Extract: Shakespeare for Snowflakes

 On 15 April 1984, the comedian Tommy Cooper sunk to the floor during the recording of the popular LWT show Live From Her Majesty’s . He was centre-stage at Her Majesty’s Theatre, just in front of the curtain, and was halfway through a skit involving a ‘magic cloak’; a younger comedian, Jimmy Tarbuck, was tasked with passing objects from behind the curtain and between Cooper’s legs. The audience laughed as each object ‘magically’ appeared, each bigger than the last: a paint pot, a plank of wood and, eventually, if things had turned out as planned, a step-ladder. But instead, as Tarbuck puts it, Cooper ‘dropped on to his haunches and was just sort of sitting there upright with his knees underneath him’. Many of the audience laughed; the performers, too, laughed along: ‘we all thought he’d just stuck another physical gag into his set’, Tarbuck says. Among the many onlookers familiar with and amused by Cooper’s shambolic, clumsy brand of physical comedy, there were some who didn’t laugh as his 6 foot 4 frame toppled backwards, as the stage curtains were pulled across him, ‘his size-13 boots protruding’ and visible in front of the curtain, and as his feet began to twitch. ‘I never found Tommy Cooper amusing,’ one LWT employee told John Fleming in 2012; ‘I never “got” his act — so I wasn’t laughing and, perhaps because of that, as soon as I saw him collapse, I thought he was ill.’ While several other performers took their turn on stage, an ambulance was called; Cooper, who had suffered a heart attack, was dead by the time the ambulance arrived at Westminster Hospital, some 20 minutes’ drive away.

 Tommy Cooper made a career out of clumsiness. ‘Some comedians’, David Quantick wrote in the Telegraph  in 2014, ‘are born funny: we say they have funny bones, as though their sheer comedicness infuses their entire body and soul. And one such comedian was the late Tommy Cooper.’ Many of Cooper’s fans find the phrase useful: the actor David Threlfall arguing, for instance, that ‘his bones were funny, that’s just the way he was’; Jimmy Tarbuck, reflecting on Cooper’s death, said too that ‘Tom had funny bones.’ The comedian Tim Vine believes Cooper ‘was physically hilarious with the way he looked and held himself’, adding, ‘I mean, when you can breathe out and it’s funny, who needs material?’ Given how central Cooper’s physicality was to his on-stage persona, it’s understandable that many of those present interpreted his heart attack as ‘another physical gag’.

Search through the accounts of Tommy Cooper’s death, though, and it’s clear that there wasn’t a consensus interpretation of his fall to the floor at the time: while some people laughed, others did not; while other acts were performed obliviously in front of the curtain, desperate efforts were made to resuscitate Cooper a few feet behind it; the audience in the theatre were unaware of Cooper’s condition, by and large, but LWT abruptly stopped broadcasting the show before cutting quickly to adverts. In short, nobody knew whether Cooper was ok .

While different onlookers might always have different reactions to the same spectacle, the kinds of actions which we might term slapstick seem to elicit a particularly volatile range of responses. When bodies are presented as inscrutable, inexplicable and out of control, they can be found amusingly or  distressingly alien. In the examples I’ve given here, the slapstick action doesn’t seem to have any a priori comic or traumatic quality inherent to it. The footage of Cooper at Her Majesty’s Theatre hasn’t been broadcast on any television networks since he died, but it has been uploaded to Youtube on several occasions (something noted by media reports in 2009 and 2014; and, at time of writing, the footage has since been uploaded to Youtube by users in 2016 and twice in 2018). Scroll through the comments below these videos and you’ll find people bickering about whether or not the action of Cooper falling down was funny or not. One user, ‘TreyAllDay’, is adamant that ‘that shit wasnt even funny he just sat down and laid down’, which arouses the disagreement of several other users; 2 months after TreyAllDay’s initial comment, for instance, another user, ‘ThatGuyYouArent2’, cites a number of other successful comic performers in taking issue with TreyAllDay’s analysis:

 Yeah, and Robin Williams just did some stupid voices. David Mitchell just complains about things that annoy him. George Carlin told everyone they were stupid.

Pretty much any comedy can be made unfunny if you describe it literally. This was what the dude was known for – the comedy came from his delivery, not the actual content.

 Perhaps TreyAllDay is right to be criticised — for not attending more to Cooper’s ‘delivery’, or not being more aware of context (as another user puts it, ‘it was funny back then cause tommy cooper did shit like that all the time’). But his retort — ‘Bruh in what universe is laying down funny’? — does highlight how challenging and how ambiguous this unexplained physical action is when considered in isolation.

 Another user, ‘Lickopotamus Slurperton’, muses that the footage proves ‘that “comedy” and “tragedy” aren’t all that different sometimes’. When considering the Youtube comments en masse , it becomes clear these labels rarely arise as an individual’s affective response to the spectacle of Cooper’s fall in isolation. Many of those comments talk about Cooper’s fall in relation to the gaze of the audience members who were present, and they formulate their own reaction based on that perceived relationship. A particularly popular sentiment in thecomments — based on the perception of that context — is that Cooper died ‘doing what he loved’, i.e. ‘making people laugh’. Others, though, dissent:

 To all those people saying that this was a beautiful way to go for him because he ‘died doing what he loved’:


His heart went into cardiac arrest at a too young age. It hurts like hell and the last thing on your mind would be ‘gee well at least people laugh instead of help’. He could have been saved but people weren’t aware of what’s happening, otherwise he could have done what he loved a whole lot longer. This death is a damn tragedy, let’s not romanticise it.

Even if we don’t demand that those watching should have realised what was happening and gone to help him, it’s still possible, it seems, that we might be upset by the spectacle of a
crowd laughing at a dying man. ‘Jayden Vlogz’ finds the footage ‘so sad because he died and they were laughing’. In thinking about the laughter of that crowd, we are reading that crowd’s reading of Cooper’s body, and it seems it’s eminently possible to read this reading in different ways: they should have done something to help; it is nice that they laughed; it is sad that they laughed.

 We can talk about the affective value of the performer’s body, then, and we can also talk about the affective value of the audience’s treatment of that performer. In the particular case of Tommy Cooper’s on-stage heart attack, we’re also required to make an ethical judgement about our own act of bearing witness to the entire spectacle. When the footage was first uploaded to Youtube in 2009 several news outlets reported on the ‘storm’ that it provoked, with many of them quoting the Conservative MP Philip Davies, who was at the time a member of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. ‘Most people’, he said, would find the video ‘tasteless’:

 Everybody knows he died on stage. I don’t think we need to see this to be reminded of that. They ought to have some regard to his family. It does YouTube a discredit. If they have decided that this is the sort of material that people should be free to watch then I think they should reconsider.

Some of those commenting on the footage when it was uploaded again later on Youtube seem to have been similarly troubled by its being so freely available: ‘N Shaw’ says baldly: ‘This should be removed. In very poor taste.’ ‘This is messed up,’ reads one comment; another, ‘This is horrifying’; another, ‘hard to watch’, rounding off the comment with a crying emoji.

 As the comments swirl around the footage of Cooper’s falling and then prone body, it’s hard to pin down the precise source of people’s disquiet. Perhaps it’s ‘hard to watch’ because it’s simply very distressing for any spectator who watches another person in the middle of some kind of traumatic episode. Yet the vagueness of what ‘this’ is — ‘This is messed up’; ‘This is horrifying’ — hints that our analysis of what’s upsetting here needs to encompass the role of the spectators in the theatre too, and perhaps also our own role as spectators here, now, watching on Youtube and subsequently discussing what we’re watching. This discussion right now, is — in its way — horrifying, ‘messed up’. To this end, using Tommy Cooper’s on-stage death as a case study serves to highlight two things. First, it reminds us that terming a spectacle ‘hard to watch’ may actually mean that we’re talking about a subject of such extremity that ‘hard to watch’ is fundamentally euphemistic; indeed, throughout these discussions, we’ll encounter other phrases, ‘upsetting’, say, ‘discomforting’, or ‘distressing’, (or others similar) which very often bely the seriousness of the spectacle that they’re applied to. Second, that formulation ‘hard to watch’ points up how theatrical spectacle is founded upon a basic reflexivity: it’s hard to isolate the question of whether it’s proper to show something from our discussions of how it affects spectators. When the MP Philip Davies argued that the footage of Cooper’s death shouldn’t be showcased online, he remarked that Youtube’s decision ‘that this is the sort of material that people should be free to watch’ ought to have been reconsidered. Though this might just about pass as a point of propriety — an assertion that some sights are so taboo that nobody ought to be ‘free to watch’ them — it’s made with reference to the idea that people should be reasonably permitted not to have to watch: ‘they ought’, Davies says, ‘to have some regard to his family’. In other words, a) we might have to acknowledge that some spectators, like Cooper’s family, might be so involved in what’s seen on stage that it can be recognised as unbearably ‘hard to watch’, and b) the action of others watching and watching in a particular way might compound the pain felt by those people.

A person falls down in front of us, then, and in that moment their body is inscrutable — radically so. When scanning the comments underneath Youtube footage of Tommy Cooper dying it’s remarkable how various the different possible readings are — each different comment positing its own take on the affective value of the physical event recorded on camera, and each offering a different interpretation (in more or less explicit terms) of the affective value of that event’s overall context (its being watched by those in the theatre; its being watched by us). It’s striking that these different interpretations do not co-exist peaceably. Take, for instance, ‘Stephen Goddard’, who tells us he has chosen to stop the video, affirming ‘if you enjoy this you have no respect for yourself, or empathy’; evaluate that alongside the pithy rejoinder from ‘rob b’, who says ‘whoop de doo for you mr high and mighty.. now go fuck yourself Stephen’. Such points of contention are an important reminder that we’re not just considering a collection of different readings: each comment is in miniature a literary project, each constructing a representation of Cooper and of those watching him in order to assert a particular argument about how empathy functions and how it ought to function. The angry outbursts of ethical judgement among these comments are all bound up, then, with a process of aesthetic remaking. We’ve considered attempts to transform Cooper’s person one way or another to suit a particular empathic model: ‘his heart went into cardiac arrest… it hurts like hell’ presents a very different kind of entity to a figure imagined with ‘funny bones’, say. But the anger stocked in many of the comments also shows us that many of those writing are picking up on attempts to transform their own person as much as Cooper’s. Though ‘rob b’ can hardly be said to offer a constructive counter to ‘Stephen Goddard’ (‘go fuck yourself Stephen’), his ire may have something to do with being told that he doesn’t feel  correctly (or, perhaps, doesn’t feel — or is incapable of feeling — at all ). ‘If you enjoy this,’ Stephen tells ‘rob b’ and everyone else, ‘you have no respect for yourself, or empathy.’ Played out in the comments below the Youtube footage, then, as much as on stage at Her Majesty’s Theatre on the evening of 15 April 1984, we witness a grim kind of drama; a theatre of judgement in which onlookers compose the people they’re looking at out of more or less ‘funny bones’, rendering them more or less thin-skinned, and more or less capable of pain.

You can pre-order Shakespeare for Snowflakes: On Slapstick and Sympathy from Amazon (UK), Amazon (US), Waterstones, Blackwell’s, and many other booksellers.

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