Scott Agnew discusses his comedy heroes

Billy Connolly, Doug Stanhope, Johnny Vegas and Jackie Gleason are among his heavy-drinking heroes

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Scott Agnew discusses his comedy heroes

It struck me as I was drawing up my list of comedy heroes that not only did I admire their comedy, I wanted to doff my cap to their lifestyle as well. My list of four have all been spectacular drunks. As a Glaswegian, obviously reformed boozer Billy Connolly is in there and still trucking it on the bevvy bandwagon is US comedian Doug Stanhope. But both have already been mentioned in these dispatches before. My other choices are real heavyweights, as comedians, as drinkers and simply in size too. Johnny Vegas has to be the most fearless performer I’ve ever had the privilege to see live and lick his left nipple.

Where to begin on my final hero? He did it all, knew how to be a star and truly live life. Jackie Gleason is probably best known as Buford T Justice from the Smokey and the Bandit movies or Minnesota Fats from The Hustler (for which he earned an Oscar nomination). However he was a club comic working the circuit and honing his improvisational skills before hitting it big and becoming the highest paid TV star of the 50s. He effectively invented the sitcom with The Honeymooners, the show which The Simpsons is pretty much based on.

He would never rehearse but never got a line wrong, was frequently drunk but always on the money with his performances. When he went on tour he hired a train fitted with a bar and built-in jazz club: musicians included. Gleason was so good he was able to stagger drunk into a meeting with CBS TV executives covered in paint from a party the night before and demand a $11m contract and a house built in the shape of a flying saucer before promptly falling asleep. The suits agreed. The house was built.

He spent millions on a box which allegedly contained ectoplasm, but couldn’t open it or the contents would escape. He vomited on Frank Sinatra, was friends with Richard Nixon and claimed he’d been taken to Area 51 and seen the Roswell alien. Gleason turned down the role of Patton, which George C Scott won the Oscar for in order to do the Bandit films because he heard Burt Reynolds took a drink.

Salvador Dali taught him to paint and he created his own music album covers, Dali-style. His first ten albums sold in excess of a million copies; despite not being able to write or read a note of music, Gleason would hum the tunes to the orchestra he had assembled. He smoked non-stop which led to ill-health in later life, and when he was admitted to hospital in his dying days he made sure his room had a bar installed, fully stocked with Jack Daniels.

Jackie Gleason was known simply as ‘The Great One’. He was genuinely a comedic first, completely unique and a real star as far removed from the sober, bland, middle-of-the-road comedy ‘talents’ that are paraded on TV today whose material is as dull as their life. Gleason’s comedy was as loud and colourful as his own life and the world was a better place for it.

The Stand, Edinburgh, Thu 21--Sun 24 Jun.

Jackie Gleason on The Ed Sullivan Show

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