The Running Muse

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Jokers in the Pack

By The Running Muse, May 23 2015 04:11PM

There are many instances of comedians becoming runners, but rather fewer of runners becoming comedians. In the UK, for instance, Eddie Izzard and John Bishop have run many a marathon, but we're unlikely to see the likes of Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah doing stand-up.


But do you recognise this young American athlete in his school track team photo, a man who would go on to become one of the greatest stand-up comedians, a global star celebrated for the breathless pace, energy and originality of his onstage work? By the time of this 1969 pic, he had already run both the half mile and the 800 metres in less than 2 minutes, and his 4 x 400 metres relay team held the record there for decades. When he died last year, Runner's World paid tribute to his little-known running exploits.

Yep, it's Robin Williams, of course, pictured here at Redwood High School in California, where his class voted him 'the least likely to succeed'. He subsequently moved to New York to attend the Juilliard and joined the West Side YMCA running team, aged 23. In his first race he came 20th out of 250 in the hilly Central Park 10k in a time of 34.21 mins, and he was a regular participant in the club's weekly 16-mile training runs.


Once he achieved fame, he had little time for running, only returning to it after a couple of decades of cocaine addiction in which he had become the proverbial sad clown hiding depression behind the painted smile. He credited exercise, particularly cycling and cross-country running, with saving his life at that time, and he was a pioneer in the support of athletes with disabilities.


Here he is at 50 finishing a tough cross-country 4-miler at the Lonach Highland Games in Scotland:

In his stand-up act, he would occasionally make references to running - joking, for instance, about barefooted runner Abebe Bikile having to carry his sponsored shoes while storming to victory in the 1964 Olympic marathon. The clip below sees him comparing the 'runner's high' to the effects of cocaine:

In contrast to those quick-fire bullets of humour, English running comedy has mostly been far more sedate and visual. Here is Simon Pegg, for instance, star of the 2007 film, 'Run, Fatboy, Run', learning how to use starting blocks on the BBC's comedy sketch show, Big Train:


The recent British film The Imitation Game has another example of the understated running joke. It shows Alan Turing, himself an Olympic standard marathon runner, painfully trying to tell this one to his codebreaking team because he has been persuaded that their efforts would make better progress if he were to become friendlier, working with them rather than apart from them:


'Two hunters come across an enormous bear rampaging towards them, at the sight of which one of them hurriedly puts on a pair of running shoes.

"What on earth are you doing?", says the other, "We'll never outrun that bear!"

"I know", replied the first, "but all I have to do is outrun you....." '


The scriptwriter presumably chose this joke to reflect not only Turing's preoccupation with solo running and his unregenerative lack of team spirit, but also his logical mind, not to mention the more serious race he had entered, the race to crack each day's new code and build a faster-running machine to keep ahead of the 'bear', i.e., the Germans' Enigma variations.


Staying with the UK's gentle comedy gold, here's Monty Python's updating of the Olympic event schedule, including a couple of visits to the 'marathon for incontinents' and the '100 metre dash for people with no sense of direction':


There has actually been a long tradition of running jokes dating back at least to Nicarchus' 1st century epigram about a particularly bad runner who came seventh out of six. The oldest existing joke book, the 4th century Philogelos ('laughter lover') from Greece, also has fun at the expense of athletes.


One rather Pythonesque scenario in it has two astonished Abderites looking up at a famed athlete who has been crucified by the roadside, upon which one exclaims to the other 'By the gods, he may not be running much now, but, wow, can he fly!' (Abderites, the inhabitants of Abdera in Thrace, were supposedly gullible and uneducated, an ancient instance of the portrayal of a particular section of the population as archetypal fools).


This kind of non-PC humour has virtually disappeared from public comedy performance in the West, but it is still alive and kicking around the internet, where the ascription of stupidity to stereotypes continues to generate laughter of the nervous, naughty-but-funny type.


For instance, a quick online trawl finds jokes4us.com telling of the skinny blonde running backwards to gain weight, but it loses something as a joke in an era when skinny blondes win Olympic medals and run academic institutions, and the rest of the joke would still have been funny enough on its own. Maybe, like the Wise Men of Gotham*, history's supposed fools have indeed persisted in their 'folly' long enough to be deemed wise, as William Blake almost said.


Anyway, today's Apollo (the London comedy venue, not the god) would not exactly be rolling in the aisles at those old Abderite gags in the Philogelos collection, the jokes4us of its day, although many have been proposed as the origins of modern jokes, including Monty Python's 'dead parrot' sketch.


Other butts of ancient humour in it include Marcus, a hoplite runner (i.e., running in full armour, which was an event in the Games at Olympia) who lost a 200 yards race......by 200 yards! The stadium was closed before he had finished, as he was so slow that he was thought to be one of the statues, and when it was re-opened the next year, he was only just finishing.


Another 'funny' one simply describes a certain Eutychides as 'a slow racer, except when going to supper', while this more satirical one fires a salvo at corrupt soothsayers:


'Menecles was an athlete who went to see the prophet Olympus, wanting to know whether he was going to win at the Games. After inspecting his fee (a sacrifice), the seer remarked: "You will win - unless anyone overtakes you, sir." '


Most of today's running jokes rely on wordplay: the runner who ran for three hours but only moved two feet, the forgetful runner who jogs his memory, the podiatrist whose sign reads 'Time wounds all heels'.

Mmm.....I'm not sure there's been much improvement in 2000 years of written running comedy, but there's always the visual kind. Running somehow seems funny when speeded up, as in the old silent films (or even in Benny Hill).


So I'll finish by showing you some visual running gags from deadpan jester Buster Keaton, seen here in 'College' (1927). A comedian once said that comedy at its best could produce great art, citing Keaton's work as an example.....that comedian was Robin Williams, who was one of us, a runner.



'What made the Greeks Laugh?' by Mary Beard, Times Literary Supplement, 18th February 2009


* The inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham all pretended to be imbeciles when King John's messengers arrived demanding that they built a road through the area for the king to travel along to his hunting lodge. They hoped that engaging in absurd activities, such as drowning eels and building roofless bird enclosures, would be enough to sabotage the plans. It worked, but at a cost to their reputation, and they became known as the 'fools of Gotham'.

Only when it was later realised how clever they'd been were they referred to as the 'Wise Men of Gotham'. Six hundred years later, Gotham stuck as a nickname for New York (up until it became the 'Big Apple') after Washington Irving invoked the Gotham story when describing the politics and culture of the 'ingenious idiots' of New York, and it subsequently gave its name to Gotham City, Batman's home city based on New York.

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