The Highlights of the Beatles’ Solo Comedy Careers
Usually the most famous people in the world do not have a very good sense of humor about themselves, or a capacity for self-effacement. Angelina Jolie and Bob Dylan, for example, look to be joyless chores of boring and seriousness. Fortunately the Beatles, the biggest celebrities who have ever dared to walk amongst us and change the weather with their moods, were perhaps too famous to ever not be completely weirded out by fame, and thus had a pretty witty attitude about the whole thing. What I’m saying is that unlike Jolie or Dylan, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, have been consistently funny and game over the years. (I’m not counting the innately funny Beatles projects like A Hard Day’s Night or Help! — strictly solo stuff here.)
John Lennon was generally regarded as “the funny one,” because he took the lead in interviews and press conferences, offering up quips to the delight of the parents’ of the hysterical teenage girls watching at home. Sometimes they were amusing:
Other times, not so much.
Apart from some weird experimental short films he did with his wife, Yoko Ono, Lennon had a limited acting career (plus he dropped out of show business in 1975 to raise his son, Sean, and was murdered in 1980 at age 40), but he did star in the 1967 satire How I Won the War as a solider named Gripweed under the command of an inept officer (played by future Phantom of the Opera Michael Crawford). The film was directed by Richard Lester, the guy who thought Superman II and III should be slapstick comedies. It’s best known as providing a publicity still of Lennon in costume that was used as the cover photo for the first issue of Rolling Stone.
Also, here he is guesting on Not Only…But Also, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s ‘60s sketch show. He plays a doorman at a cool club giving an American, played by Cook, a hard time (and whose accent comes and goes).
All three Beatles surviving when The Simpsons went into production guested on the show. All have their qualities, but only Ringo Starr’s appearance was the impetus for an entire episode — his long overdue, enthusiastic response to teenage Marge’s painting of him inspires her to take up art again (and also that in England fries are called chips). This will be the only thing Ringo does better than any other Beatle. (Sadly, this isn’t on any of the video sites. Stupid intellectual property laws.)
Shining Time Station (1989-93) was a gentle show for extremely young children about trains and stuff. An American public television station built the show as a framing device for the presentation of those popular Thomas the Tank Engine cartoons from England. Starr had done voiceovers on those cartoons and so was hired to play the foot-tall Conductor on Shining Time Station. (It also starred Grease’s Didi Conn, widely regarded as “the Fifth Beatle.”) Starr provided broad, lightly comic relief to the audience of toddlers. He left the show after two years and was replaced by somebody far too overqualified for the job: George Carlin.
Lennon was a supporting player in How I Won the War, Paul McCartney co-wrote and starred in the not-intentionally funny/self-indulgent/self-reflective melodrama Give My Regards to Broad Street, but Ringo was the only Beatle who starred in a full-length comedy film. And that movie was the incredibly bizarre, totally underrated 1981 film Caveman. Starr plays Atouk, essentially a caveman nerd who gets expelled from their caveman town and have run-ins with dinosaurs, snowmen, and other tribes on the verge of major discoveries and developments in humanity and science. It’s basically Year One. The love interest, Lana, is played by Barbara Bach; Starr and Bach met on set and later married. Oh, and the movie is presented almost entirely in caveman language.
McCartney wrote “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude,” but more importantly, he assured Lisa Simpson that being a vegetarian was alright. He’s also the only Beatle to perform on The Simpsons, sort of, accompanying Apu on his rendition of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
McCartney has performed and made cameo appearances on Saturday Night Live a few times, and it’s always an event because he’s down to appear in silly sketches. In 1991, he made his most famous SNL appearance as the guest on the inaugural episode of The Chris Farley Show.
In 2006, he appeared in the “Platinum Lounge” sketch with host Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin and others in what’s basically an update of the old “Five-Timers” sketch.
A little over a year ago, McCartney was the musical guest on Paul Rudd’s episode, where he made cameos in the opening monologue, in the digital short “Stumblin,’” and on “Weekend Update.”
A couple of years ago, McCartney also appeared in Weird Al Yankovic’s fair-touring experimental film project Al’s Brain in 3D. He has one line as “Man on the Street.” Hopefully that will be released on DVD at some point.
Harrison loved Monty Python almost as much as he loved losing wives to Eric Clapton, so much so that when EMI Films defunded Life of Brian because of its highly controversial subject matter, Harrison (with a business partner) formed HandMade Films specifically to finance the movie. Intending it to be a one-time thing, Harrison kept the company going, which produced a number of cult comedy classics, including Time Bandits (for which he also composed the soundtrack), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Withnail and I. And for good measure, here’s Harrison’s Life of Brian cameo.
His Python associations continued, as he appeared in deep makeup as a reporter in Eric Idle’s All You Need is Cash in 1978 — the Rutles movie, a brutal parody of the Beatles and Beatlemania. Idle also directed Harrison’s 1976 video for “This Song,” which satirizes Harrison’s long legal battle over subconsciously plagiarizing (really) the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” for his 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord.” The video takes the joke up, set in a courtroom and putting Harrison on the stand.
Idle also directed Harrison’s bizarre, surreal “Crackerbox Palace” video which debuted on Saturday Night Live, a show produced by Lorne Michaels, who produced All You Need is Cash. Comedy nerd cred: Harrison has it.
And of course, here’s Harrison’s bit from The Simpsons, directing Homer to a plate of brownies.
Brian Boone is a paperback writer.