Before The Daily Show
, before Saturday Night Live
, even before Monty Python
, there was Beyond the Fringe
the 1960s West End and Broadway hit revue that reinvented comedy. While another Fab Four was revolutionizing music, Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller were giving birth to the British satire boom. With nothing but their brilliant writing and inspired performances, they created side-splitting comedy that held nothing and no one sacred. In the process, the four performers became international stars. It was long thought that no filmed record of the original cast existed, until this gem was discovered in a producers vault. A 1964 gala farewell performance in London, it features the troupes classic sketches, including "Man Bites God," "Aftermyth of War," and "One Leg Too Few."
One of the legendary landmarks of modern comedy finally gets a DVD airing: Beyond the Fringe
is the sole filmed performance of the satirical revue that hatched at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960 and subsequently conquered London's West End and Broadway. The four young cut-ups thrown together for the sketch revue all went on to illustrious solo careers: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller. Their success inspired a generation of comedians and helped birth satire as we know it.
In general, the more topical humor contained in this performance has aged uncertainly, and doesn't seem especially remarkable in the wake of political satire of the 1960s and 70s. Still, the "Aftermyth of War" sketch, which traipses through World War II nostalgia in a way that ruffled feathers back then, remains a pre-Vietnam bit of jaundice. The show's absurdist humor comes through like gangbusters; the classic Peter Cook-Dudley Moore sketch, "One Leg Too Few," about a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan, remains sublimely silly ("I've got nothing against your right leg--the problem is, neither do you").
Moore provides song parodies, while Bennett's two soliloquies (a vicar's sermon and a man who slightly knew Lawrence of Arabia) perhaps prefigure his later monologues for theater and television. Cook has a pair of bona fide masterpieces. One casts him as a detective on the case of the Great Train Robbery (Bennett: "So you feel thieves are responsible?" Cook: "Good heavens, no. I feel that thieves are totally irresponsible."). The other is "Sitting on the Bench," the rambling musings of a miner disappointed at not have been a judge. As Cook stares frozen-faced at the audience for the duration of the piece, you may get the uncanny frisson of genius.
The performance was recorded in London in 1964, during a final revival of the show. The technical quality is quite poor, but it hardly matters--this is the record of a seismic shift in comedy, and thus an essential disc. --Robert Horton