How Peter Sellers and ‘The Goon Show’ Paved the Way for the Comedy Podcast

Celebrating Peter Sellers’s birthday by taking a look at The Goon Show’s massive impact on comedic podcasting.
By  · Published on September 6th, 2017

Celebrating Peter Sellers’s birthday by taking a look at The Goon Show‘s massive impact on comedic podcasting.

In the wake of the Second World War, a small group of British comics knit the world back together with a revolutionary brand of comedy. The Goon Show—the BBC radio comedy child of Spike Milligan (the show’s primary writer), Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers—has left a huge fingerprint on comedy as a whole. However, the most wide-ranging influence of the show can be found in the medium it was originally presented in: radio. Going further than radio, you can definitely see the influence in your favorite comedy podcast from Earwolf and other podcast networks. Seriously, what The Goon Show did for comedy broadcasting cannot be overstated.

But let’s step back. Before we see how the show has influenced the radio medium sixty years later, we have to know what the show really was. The Goon Show was a thirty-minute scripted comedy program that aired between 1951 and 1960. It was the impetus for Peter Sellers’s comedy career and many of Spike Milligan’s nervous breakdowns. The three actors would voice multiple characters throughout each episode, playing one leading character each, along with multiple background characters. In this way Sellers honed his skills in playing multiple roles in one project—a talent he would show off in his film career including his multiple roles in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

John Cleese of Monty Python fame puts The Goons into perspective by equating the audience response to The Goon Show and Monty Python. They were a big deal, performing comedy that simply was ahead of its time. Another Python, Michael Palin, likens hearing The Goon Show to hearing Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel for the first time. Additionally, comic Eddie Izzard praises the show for inspiring the first generation of alternative comedians, a term that can describe the majority of comics with popular podcasts today. This type of comedy represents a less-polished, more childlike sense of humor. While many of The Goon Show’s contemporaries were presented as polished acts, The Goons tended to give the listener a surreal and absurd half-hour of comedy.

The alternative comedy boom of the mid-1990s echoed this reaction against a polished piece of comedy. This period saw Janeane Garofalo thumbing through her notebook onstage, and the Eating It show at the Luna Lounge (a show where comics were forbidden from performing their act, leaving them in many cases to talk about their personal lives). This entire movement was predicated on the destruction of veneer—what The Goon Show was doing forty years before. Spike Milligan described The Goons as a “loose assembly of hungry young comics.” He credits their hunger as the basis of their comedy. They were compelled to create The Goon Show. In a similar way, Scott Aukerman created the Comedy Death Ray live show in the early 2000s and subsequently the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast as a way to showcase hungry young alternative comics.

The first thing you’ll notice on your first listen to The Goon Show is its linguistic flexibility. While the jokes may seem tired to the hip youngsters of today, Spike Milligan was breaking new comedic ground with every episode. Jokes like, “You jest.” “You jest what?” “You jest told me that.” Alright, writing out these jokes does not do them justice. Just listen to this:

The fact that writing out these jokes does not translate shows just how inventive the comedy was. The best comedy is not found in jokes that are hilarious on the page. It takes a special performer to understand the inventive material and elevate it.

Izzard pinpoints the looseness of reality in The Goon Show as the hinge on which the program swung. The world of the show seemed to be in a vaporous state. Characters would seem to leave rooms, but suddenly they would be back where they had been. Sound effects were used to trick listeners into imagining one scene until the punch line would snap the correct image into their minds. In this way, The Goons presented their show in a way that is only possible on the radio.

The Comedy Bang! Bang! Podcast works similarly in weaving characters in and out of the narrative of the show, surprising the audience and taking advantage of the auditory medium. In one instance of surreal humor, Jay Leno jumps through the studio window every few minutes to force himself into the conversation, disappearing as quickly as he appeared.

The comics create a more and more detailed account of how exactly Leno is able to jump through the window and how he is able to disappear so fast none of which would be possible to do in a visual medium. These images conjured in the listeners’ minds are Goon-esque.

In addition to The Goon Show’s groundbreaking joke structures, the show’s anti-establishment vibe can be seen in many podcasts today. Harry Secombe was noted for having a complicated relationship with the BBC, a notoriously strict institution. Secombe was seen as being friendly to the gatekeepers of the station until they were out of earshot, then he would try to sneak language forbidden by the station into The Goon Show broadcasts. This borderline antagonistic relationship with the powers that be can most clearly be seen (though in the form of satire) in the relationship between the Hollywood Handbook hosts Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport and Earwolf creator Scott Aukerman. The hosts have a running joke of blaming Aukerman for almost any problem they have. While there is no real bad blood between the hosts and Aukerman, the relationship they are satirizing is based on the archetypical relationship The Goon Show had with the BBC.

On a broader scale, The Goon Show found a global audience much like that of a modern day podcast through the BBC Transcription Service (now called BBC Radio International). This section of BBC Radio distributed The Goon Show across all territories controlled by Britain, which meant huge numbers of listeners could be exposed to the alternative humor of The Goons. The British Empire acted for The Goon Show as an analog to the Internet for modern day podcasting. This infrastructure was invaluable to the show’s success, enabling The Goons to become household names from the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean to the Falkland Islands.

In addition to the sweeping distribution system The Goon Show benefitted from, Milligan started a co-op of scriptwriters in the early 1950s called Associated London Scripts. This group of young radio comedy writers is reminiscent of the podcast network companies started in the late 2000s. Both types of organizations pulled together young talent to create a community of like-minded, original voices. The major difference is that the Associated London Scripts focused primarily on scripted content while most of the comics associated with Earwolf and the like focus on improvised content.

So the next time you listen to your favorite podcast, remember: Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers did it all sixty years ago. It’s the Goons’ world. We’re just living in it.

Currently on the lam from three California public library systems.