. . .
He showed that it was possible for humor to be adult without being obscene, and for people to make jokes about religion without being sacrilegious.
He was a lapsed Catholic (or as he put it, “an atheist, thank God”) but his jokes about the Church, or the differences between Protestants and Catholics were pointed without being vicious.
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WQED ran his show on Saturday nights. We used to go to Mass Saturday nights. Can you imagine the irony? Our priest was Irish, too, a kind and decent man, but he was as dry as the sands of the Mojave, and prone to giving these long stem-winding homilies. Then I’d go home and sneak off and watch another Irishman deconstruct the Catholic Church!
Like I said, no wonder I turned out weird. Years later, in high school, I discovered that the guy who would turn out to be my best friend — still is, in fact, thank God — also knew about this comedian, and like me, had snuck off to watch his routines on Saturday nights. To this day, when one of us is getting ready to tell a story, we’ll lean way back on our chairs, pantomime holding a cigarette and a highball glass, and begin, “So an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a pub …”
. . .
At some point, WQED stopped running the programs — which were several years old when I first saw them — but I never lost interest in the comedian.
Occasionally, notes about him would appear in the newspaper (not much, however, because he never made much of a splash in the U.S.), and I even called a talk-radio program one time when the topic was “obscure celebrities.”
Later, the Internet made it easy to track him down — he was still working clubs in the U.K., had a regular series on the BBC, and had done bit parts in a few European movies.
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There was even a minor scandal a few years ago when a joke he told on the BBC included the big granddaddy of all swear words: “We get up by the clock, eat and sleep by the clock, get up again, go to work, and then we retire. And what do they give us? A f–king clock!”
(Echoing the sentiments of Lenny Bruce 30 years earlier, he explained that it was the only appropriate word to use in the joke. “It’s a disdainful word,” he told reporters, “because it’s not a damn clock, it’s not a silly clock, it’s not a doo-doo clock. It’s a f–king clock!”)
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A few years back, I thought of him and Googled his name — and found a website for British TV buffs where many of the posters had the same kinds of memories as I did.
I kept hoping that WQED, which keeps cramming “Waiting For God” and “Are You Being Served?” down our throats, would some day rediscover this guy and import some of his newer stuff to our shores, but they never did.
I don’t have digital cable, so I don’t know if any of his stuff ever showed up on BBC America, but if it did, I never heard about it.
. . .
Like I said, he was a much bigger star in the U.K. and Australia than he was here; his humor was an acquired taste. Maybe Americans prefer British comedians to work in broad farce, like Benny Hill and John Cleese.
Still, I was hopeful: everything else is coming out on DVD, including “Hee Haw,” for crying out loud. Surely, sooner or later, someone would do a retrospective of his work, right?
. . .
And then one day, about four years ago, I checked in at Ivan Shreve Jr.’s “Thrilling Days of Yesteryear” and learned that Dave Allen had died suddenly over the weekend at the age of 68.
The poor sod didn’t make it to St. Patrick’s Day that year, which doesn’t quite seem fair for a professional Irishman.
. . .
I learned a lot about him from reading the obituaries in the British press; he was the son of a famous journalist, Cully Tynan O’Mahoney, an editor of The Irish Times.
Allen wanted to be a reporter himself at one time, and worked as a copy boy for a while before getting a job at a British resort, the Times of London reports.
He tried out his comedy act on tourists in the talent shows and was encouraged enough to go on a BBC talent show in 1959. In the early 1960s, Allen gained some notoriety as the opening act for a then little-known band called The Beatles at many of their performances in the U.K. and France; given the group’s subversive sense of humor, that’s some how not surprising.
. . .
He produced a number of documentaries and hosted several TV series in Britain, the last of which left the air in 1993. Allen also continued to tour the U.K. and British Commonwealth countries with success, though a series of concerts in Boston in 1981 was apparently a disaster.
According to the Guardian, “U.S. audiences (found) the sacrilegious content of his act more difficult to stomach.” No offense to the Grauniad, but Dave Allen was about as sacrilegious as a Jesuit, and the fact that his concerts in Boston were received so poorly says more about the uptight nature of that city’s Catholics than it does about him.
. . .
I reconnected with Dave Allen through imported DVDs, which unfortunately won’t play on a U.S. DVD player without some finagling.
(If you’re brave enough to finagle, there are two fine Dave Allen collections available through Amazon.com’s UK store — “The Best of Dave Allen” collects his sketches, while “Dave Allen on Life” is a compilation of concert appearances. Warning: Neither PBRTV.com nor this writer endorse buying DVDs not licensed for the U.S. market.)
. . .
It’s kind of criminal that — four years after his death — his stuff still isn’t available on a U.S.-released DVD, but “Mister Ed” is.
There are two books available in the U.S., however — a biography by Carolyn Soutar that came out the year after Allen’s death, and a written collection of his routines called The Essential Dave Allen. Maybe the printed word will do his work justice, but I don’t know if it’s the same as hearing and seeing him spin a story.
In the meantime, thank heavens for bootlegged video clips on YouTube.
And to Mr. Allen, wherever you are, your sign-off makes a fitting epitaph: “Good night, and may your God go with you.”
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(Portions of this article originally appeared in The Tube City Almanac, March 15, 2005.)
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P.S.: And here’s an affectionate tribute to Dave Allen from another comedian (also dead, alas):
When Mr. Monday Morning Nostalgia Fix was just a little shaver, knee-high to a Zenith 27-inch color console, I discovered a show on WQED-TV (13) that I didn’t know of anyone else watching — I don’t think my parents watched it, anyway — and I thought it was just about the most wonderful thing in the world.
The show, “Dave Allen at Large,” didn’t have any elaborate sets or special effects. All it had was a dapper-looking Irishman, sitting on a stool with a glass of whiskey and telling stories, taking occasional breaks for sketch comedy. Usually there was a theme linking the stories with the sketches, but not always.
. . .
The host was calm, suave, droll — imagine an Irish Dean Martin, and you’ll have something almost, but not quite, like the impression he gave. For one thing, he was much more dismissive of authority than Dean Martin ever appeared to be.
It wasn’t until years later that someone pointed out that he was missing part of one of his fingers; I never noticed that. I was too busy watching him. To a small, impressionable child, this what was being an adult — a man of the world — was about.
. . .
Dave Allen would have been 73 today. I can thank him for opening my eyes to the wider world in general, and sketch comedy and British humor (or should I say “humour”?) in particular.