Apr 5, 2018

What can we learn from Eric Morecambe's paper bag trick?

We all know Eric Morecambe was a special talent, and his partnership with Ernie Wise is pretty much universally acclaimed. The glasses waggle. The stripper song at breakfast. The speeding 'ice cream van'. All the right notes, not necessarily in the right order.

But when analysing the depth of someone's performance skill, I don't think the big routines are enough. As with Les Dawson's tiny glances off camera, Morecambe made the best of his talent in the small stuff.

Take his paper bag routine, as seen in this video. Skip past the David Frost stuff and watch Morecambe and Wise on stage in Croydon.

Eric's laughing at Ernie's song. Some ad-libbing about Eric's wig. Earnest carries on in, er, earnest as Eric gets out the paper bag. The audience is laughing because they've seen it before. It's a signature Eric prop. Eric begins to catch the imaginary ball, as the ever-straight Ernie presses on with the "singing, folks".

Then comes the twist: Ernie grabs the bag, and of course, he fails to replicate the trick. And then a lovely bit of audience interaction which gifts Ernie the funniest set-up line of the routine, where the bag itself becomes a pun.

But hold on. Rewind. We've skipped my favourite bit. It's a part of the routine that lasts ten whole seconds, but you wouldn't notice it because the Sooty line distracted you.

After Eric laughs at the Sooty line, he decides to get out his trusty paper bag. He's half-ignoring his partner as his attention wanders. The paper bag will liven things up, he thinks. Eric then reaches into the wrong pocket. Eric then reaches into the wrong pocket.

Morecambe knows exactly which pocket the paper bag is in - watch him retrieve it with ease back in the Frost studio. Yet he has the confidence to bumble clumsily for the bag while the routine picks up pace. This is the same Eric who trips over nothing, who flinches at imaginary goosings, who second-guesses everything for that extra laugh. It's the same Eric who asks Ernie to move along the sofa, then sits on the chair instead. An inexhaustible supply of sleights.

His deliberate mistake elevates his performance into something that's deeper than the big-hitting gags and comedic face slaps. Every time I watch that routine, I'm so grateful for the moment of Cooper-esque humanity. If Eric can make an error, albeit very small, then I'm okay too.

Except it's not an error. It's pure professional dexterity that keeps the audience hooked. All performers can learn from this. What extra can you do between the things that are there to be noticed? What can add a pleasing ripple as we go from A to B?

All the right moves, exactly in the right order.

1 comment:

Keith Whalen said...

Great review, Eric was a comedic genius