THE GENIUS OF MARTY FELDMAN
As a new play based on Marty Feldman’s life opens, its Monty Python director reveals how the late comedian was such an inspiration
MY REMIT for this piece was how I first got to meet and know Marty Feldman. That’s a very abstract question. When do you first meet or know anyone like Marty? He was part of my lexicon from as far back as I can remember. He tickled my funny bone as a writer of television comedies, The Army Game and Bootsie and Snudge, and later, radio’s Round the Horne.
Yes, that was later. Marty, like his esteemed co-writer and friend Barry Took, didn’t do things by the book. Telly first, then radio. It was a little like my esteemed co-writer and friend Michael Palin. We had been chums at Oxford, then we were writing and performing comedy, and being paid for it! Sometimes together, often apart. I was on the payroll at the BBC when I got the call from Lord God Almighty. You would know him as David Frost! Frankly, we owe everything to David Frost. His weekend satirical show, The Frost Report, gathered in the great and good of comedy writers, and us!
Marty Feldman had been put in the unenviable position of script editor. For all of us. Antony Jay, Frank Muir, Bill Oddie, John Cleese, all of us. Mad- ness. Marty did it. Brilliantly. What’s more, he did it without any ego. He was an established writer. Mike and I weren’t established writers. By any means. Still, when we made our way to that first writers’ brainstorming session, it was Marty who leapt from his seat, shook my hand, and welcomed me to this exclusive inner sanctum. Somehow, he knew how I was feeling. Absolutely terrified!
After that, he advised, suggested, encouraged, but never rewrote. He was a brilliant comedy writer. Mike and I were doing other things while my friends Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Junkin as second stooge, Marty started to believe his own press. Fatal. Mike Palin and I were still jobbers at the BBC, writing bits for Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd, all the greats, but we were offered a few more shillings for Marty’s shows if we would double as writers and extras. Believe me, it was only a few more shillings.
I didn’t mind. We would play footballers, waiters, anything. The script was the thing. And that was my bête noir. We wrote this sketch about a gnome keeping an appointment with a bank manger, in order to get a mortgage to buy a property. It was all Dingley Dell this, and Fairy Dust that.
On the evening of recording, Marty came out in front of the audience and went off script completely. He just did 10 minutes of gnome
Marty began to believe his own press and that was to prove fatal
jokes. Funny, but not our material. The audience loved it, laughed a lot and I thought: “Sh*t, I’m done”. Fair play to Marty, after he had got the audience on his side, he did the sketch as written, but I certainly felt from that point on that Mike and I were the only people who could play our sketches properly.
Literally, weeks later we were hatching plans for what would become Monty Python’s Flying Circus. After that, everything was so hectic. We were doing the television show, and records, and stage shows, and Marty was being what he always was, the figurehead for brilliant, pio- neering comedy. I seem to remember a surprise 40th birthday party for him, at his home in Hampstead, and then we lost touch.
He went to America, and did those marvellous films with Mel Brooks, and directed his own films. Looking back at the comedic time-line, I see we both tackled organised religion at the same time. We went biblical with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, while Marty went contemporary with In God We Tru$t. The message was the same, and we both got severe brickbats from the bible-bashers. I still tremble at some of the comments to this day, but Marty’s film was using the studio dollar to question the deep-rooted reli- gious belief across America. It’s an extraordinary exposure of organised religion, evangelist preachers, and pay-to-pray television.
It was box-office poison. Universal Studios cancelled his contract. What do you do when you can’t write? As a writer myself, you crumble. If you don’t know Marty’s final years, I don’t want to spoil the play, but thankfully at the end, he was with my chums Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Eric Idle and Spike Milligan on Graham’s pirate comedy Yellowbeard.
When Marty died, it seemed ridiculous to me. That’s not to be frivolous. It seemed ridiculous. He wasn’t much older than me. Cer- tainly less than 10 years. How could he die so young? Forty-eight. Madness. Graham died in 1989, also at the age of 48. Equally insane. Apparently, Marty’s wife, Lauretta, went to her grave convincing herself that Marty was still in Mexico City, filming one last scene for Yellowbeard.
For me, Marty is always with us. As writer, funny man and friend. Hopefully, with the play, Jeepers Creepers, old fans and new comedy lovers will embrace him and find him as funny as he ever was. And that was very, very funny indeed.
‘Jeepers Creepers’, by Robert Ross and directed by Terry Jones, is at Leicester Square Theatre.
For me, Marty is always with us - as a writer, funny man and friend
Funny men: Terry Jones, left, began his career with Feldman