WHEN is a comedian not a comedian? Simple answer: when he doesn't make people laugh. But a short study of what might be called the Hancock Syndrome suggests that the reply is somehow too naive.
Certainly Tony Hancock, in his first appearance in his new series, Hancock's, was not funny. Round our box we watched in almost unrelieved glumness. Yet this man was twice voted Best TV Comedian of the Year by the Television Producers Guild, and there was a time when. on the morning after one of his shows. there was hardly any other topic of conversation.
One of the reasons for the appalling unfunniness of last week's debut arises, I suggest, from the nature of the solo comedian's art itself. Many of the arts exploit the personality of the artist but the comedian's does so more than most. It is a process fraught with danger.
The human mind is almost .always at the mercy of various precariously balanced forces; it is, too, a lot more complicated than your room-sized computer. So deliberately to put in a finger and stir, as it were, is a hazardous thing.
And this is what you do when you ask a man to develop and put on show his personal qualities. To produce a striking and original imagefigure you ask someone to turn themselves into a sort of moral castrato. And in doing so as often as not you create something of an egomaniac.
You build up a person till they believe that whatever way they see a thing is the right way. You manufacture the by no means rare phenomenon of the prima donna. You probably have to do it to achieve the overwhelming comedian, but once done it may often happen that what the come dian thinks is immeasurably funny will strike every one else with a dull thump.
Hancock, the preliminary publicity significantly told us, "is concerned not only with his own performance but with all levels of any production in which he appears."
There is, too, another effect of this demand for sample after sample of an individual's persona! reaction to events to be considered. Asking someone constantly to put forward before the world his cherished inner conceptions and sometimes greeting them with stony silence makes that person hyper-sensitive. "Tread softly for you tread on my jokes," Malcolm Muggeridge has succinctly put it.
And a hyper-sensitive comedian is liable to try too hard. Even the most apparently extrovert one is much more vulnerable in this way than is generally realised.
And Hancock is less extrovert than many. Hence the frenzy of contortions of limb and face he treated us to. From the first awful smirks behind the titles they produced an almost unquellable cold embarrassment. What was at stake for him was not just failure to do his job of making us laugh but the callous rejection of his whole outlook on life.
But there was also another reason for his failure, and one largely to his credit. He happens to be one of the handful of comedians with a conscience, He sees that things are askew in our society, which not everyone does, and he has an urge to use his art to point this out. So he saddles himself with the task of not only being funny but of being moral too. And it is all too easy, especially for someone seeing things subjectively, to let the second aim interfere with the first.
One sympathises with him. Swinging Britain, the target he chose for his present series of bombardments, is a magnificently juicy object. The setting of a nightclub in the heart of Swinging London put him in a position to have a go at a huge array of pretentiousness claiming pride of place in our little world. Who can blame him for wanting to wield the deflating plan?
If ever a tiny collection of curious tidbits was served up on the plate, with both the good solid beef and the stinking fish kept well out of sight, the Swinging Britain business is it. A powerful restorer of realities is needed to upturn the plate and show us plainly what is what again. Let us hope that before this series ends Hancock breaks free of his inhibiting tendrils and whams out with a dazzle of well aimed, much needed masterstrokes.
Could Be Good
Tonight, BBC-1: "Are You Man Enough to Lead?" A documentary on the Army Regular Commissions Board and perhaps a do-it-yourself psychology kit Monday, BBC-2: "Henry IV" Pirandello's tense classic with that extremely watchable actor Alan Badel.
Wednesday, ITV: "Sanctuary" The first episode of the Nuns' Series.