'Ying Tong'? Why, That's English for Postwar Silliness

(By Jim Roese -- Wilma Theater)
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 9, 2008

PHILADELPHIA -- A flammable dromedary. A mincemeat enema. Pointy-eared leprechauns, one of whom turns out to be Jewish. What are such zany inventions doing on the stage of Philadelphia's prestigious Wilma Theater?

They're visions from "Ying Tong: A Walk With the Goons," a hallucinatory comedy that was a hit in the United Kingdom and Australia and is now making its U.S. debut in this city (the nearest place Washingtonians can catch it). Written by British dramatist Roy Smiles, the play recounts the history of "The Goon Show," the groundbreaking 1950s BBC radio comedy series that launched the career of Peter Sellers and paved the way for Monty Python.

Written for four actors who shoulder multiple roles (including psychiatrists, the leprechauns and a viking), "Ying Tong" focuses on the unstable psyche of "Goon Show" writer-performer Spike Milligan -- a war-scarred genius of buffoonery whom Python member John Cleese once called "the Great God to us all." Cleese's tribute hints at the extent of "The Goon Show's" sway on Anglo-American humor over the past half-century.

In weekly installments from 1951 to 1960, Milligan, Sellers and Harry Secombe conjured up a harebrained universe: loopy tales of Wurlitzer organs racing across the Sahara, doltish detectives tracking villainous pudding-hurlers and bits of string, and the like. Spruced up with absurdist sound effects ("set of false teeth hitting inside of bucket," "distant zither"), the show established a madcap comic style whose flavor has been detected in everything from the early works of Tom Stoppard to the Beatles' antics to the movie "Shrek."

Smiles talks of a "through-line" from the Goons to funny-bone-twanging ensembles such as the "Beyond the Fringe" performers, and he calls Stanley Kubrick's Cold War satire "Dr. Strangelove" "a whole Goons movie."

Yet though "The Goon Show" itself has an avid following in Britain, its U.S. fan base has been smaller. "I never in a thousand years envisaged my play about the Goons in America," says Smiles, a former stand-up comic who has also written dramas about Lenny Bruce and George Orwell.

Wilma co-artistic director Jiri Zizka, who learned of "Ying Tong" from acquaintances in Australia, admits that the Philadelphia production, which he staged, is a gamble. During Zizka's long-ago stint creating animation for "Sesame Street," colleagues had introduced him to the work of the Goons -- Sellers and Milligan are the patron saints of actors who traffic in funny voices -- but he did not expect most Wilma subscribers to be equally Goon-savvy.

Still, he thought Smiles's script stood on its own, and he suspected that given the Iraq war, Americans might be intrigued by the play's darkly jocose depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. Milligan's grim experiences in World War II took a toll on his psychic health: In Smiles's play -- set in a London mental hospital in 1960 -- belated combat fatigue and overwork prompt Milligan to fantasize about killer bees and stampeding wildebeests assassinating "Goon Show" characters.

"Ying Tong" places such violent fancies on a continuum with the Goons' trademark lunacy: One minute, a pajama-clad Milligan (actor David Beach) is attempting to slay Sellers (Steven Beckingham) with a potato peeler (a "slightly exaggerated" version of a real incident, Smiles says); the next moment, the comedians are cheerfully warbling the nonsense song that gives the play its title. (Ed Jewett and Colin McPhillamy depict Secombe and announcer Wallace Greenslade, respectively.)

The juxtaposition of trauma and wackiness is not accidental. Commentators have hypothesized that a kind of delayed societal shell shock fueled the anarchy of "The Goon Show." "This style of silly comedy was very important in 1951 in England, because society was so bleak," Zizka says, pointing to such phenomena as postwar rationing.

Smiles thinks the disconnected hilarity of "Ying Tong" -- which mirrors "Goon Show" humor by "leaping everywhere" -- is "absolutely" on the wavelength of "the MTV generation" and YouTube addicts.

Scholar Robert J. Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, also emphasizes that the Goon aesthetic has filtered down to the mass market.

"The Goon Show" and Monty Python were "really important to the environment of comedy of America in the 1970s," he says, "including places like the Second City, which would become essentially a nursery for a place like 'Saturday Night Live.' "

As a result of such cross-pollination, through late-night TV and the like, "Spamalot" is romping in the tourist trap that is Broadway. Moreover, Thompson notes, in "the ads during any Super Bowl, there's a lot of that 'Goon Show,' Monty Python sense going on."

Thompson thinks that between the 1950s and our own era, "the anarchy of 'The Goon Show' has become the orthodoxy of mainstream entertainment."

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