George Roper: The Comedian

My dad had a lot in common with Matt Roper’s. They were were born and died the same years (1934-2003), both died of cancer prior to their 70th birthdays, both were in the Air Force, and both came from humble beginnings. There was one major difference between the two men, however: Matt’s dad was a famous comedian.

For over 30 years, George Roper’s stout, dour but droll presence was a familiar sight on British television and in venues throughout Britain and as far away as Hong Kong. His greatest fame came from a tv show called “The Comedians” (1971-1993), a showcase for British stand-ups. Roper emerged as one of the most popular comedians on the show with an act of the sort they simply don’t make any more, and which was a throwback even at the time. Simply put, he was an expert joketeller, his material consisting of highly structured verbal bits, shorter (and more contrived) than entire stories but longer (most of them) than one-liners. It was the sort of stuff ordinary people still do around the water cooler (“These three guys walk into a bar…”) but we’re not accustomed to seeing onstage or on tv any more. The thing is, it killed, and when I say he was an expert at it, it’s just what I mean. He brought a professional’s delivery and timing to it, cloaked in the disarming naturalism of his working class scouse dialect, so that he seemed like a guy entertaining friends in a pub. Both the material and the man were sure-fire. This kind of performer had been a staple of vaudeville, music hall, burlesque and night clubs for as much as a century. It vanished during my lifetime. Why?

Roper’s great uncles were the music hall team of Cullen and Carthy. His real last name was Furnival. He was from an Irish Catholic family in Liverpool. He went to strict Catholic schools, lived through the Depression and the Blitz, and then went off to sea as a galley boy at age 15, eventually working his way up to steward on a passenger line. After this, he served in the Royal Air Force, which is where he first began to sing for audiences.

In time, he dropped the singing and kept the comical patter. In his laconic Liverpool style he’d tear through his gags (British comedians use the term slightly different than we do), often unsmiling, but with just enough of a twinkle to clue you in that he was doing this all for you. His live audiences were mostly working class people. His act and his style were fiercely regional, but national audiences embraced him once he was on television, which was a holdover from the days of vaudeville and music hall. This is what has changed very much today, both in Britain and America. Decades of television have flattened us out, have made entire countries more like their capitals, and made the capitals more provincial. (Currently, both America and New York are having identity crises as part of this historic shift). The same thing is happening with class. Working class performers could once take it for granted that they could be themselves in front of working class audiences, and be embraced and beloved for it. I don’t know how it is in Britain but this has largely evaporated in mainstream American show business now. To their credit, a handful of Southern comedians occasionally mount “Blue Collar Comedy tours”, but mostly nowadays, entertainers tack to an audience that has been groomed by several generations of television-watching to be region- and class-free. But there is something universal about being who you are. My main thought in watching tons of old clips of Roper last night was that my dad would have loved this. “Down to Earth” carries over the footlights; it transcends geography.

I was particularly interested in the ocean sized generational gulf between Ropers, father and son. Matt Roper is a chameleon-like comic actor. He is a completely different character every time I ever see him perform. I first met him because he played Chico Marx in our revival of I’ll Say She Is (and amusingly, it was a while before I ever heard his real voice). He is most famous for playing a weird Spaniard with bad teeth named Wilfredo. In Androboros he played a callous British aristocrat. In Jack and the Beanstalk he was a wide-eyed, accessible little boy. By contrast, George Roper’s only persona was himself. He didn’t act or play roles, apart from brief moments in his jokes when he would do a character. I am reminded a lot of the differences between Ed Wynn and Keenan Wynn. Very similarly, they were generational, each man more in tune with his own generation than father and son were with each other. The elder Wynn was a bizarre vaudeville clown; his son Keenan scorned that jazz as corny and became a character actor. Not that Matt scorns George’s comedy. But similarly he has staked out his own turf, taking quite a different approach from his father.

The common denominator of course is show business. People in show business are more like other people in show business than they are like people outside of it, no matter what their act. One can be a lion tamer and the other a tuba player — it’s still a life of constant travel, living from gig to gig, craving attention, and pleasing roomfuls of strangers. I say it is a noble calling. May there be generations of funny Ropers for all eternity.

(It just occurred to me — what an excellent Father’s Day post this would make! I guess I’ll post it again at that time. But today, May 15, is the late George Roper’s birthday).