Sir Ken Dodd: “I say thank you for happiness”

On his 90th birthday, we look back as Ken Dodd talks the 'dark forces' of laughter – and what he has in common with a doctor.

Tickling audiences since 1954, Ken Dodd is a formidable force of nature. A man of infinite jest – Kenneth Branagh agreed and cast him as Yorick in his film version of Hamlet – Dodd remains an eccentric outsider, defying convention, living life on his own terms. A true trendsetter, he has influenced generations of comedians who followed in his wake (and, perhaps, tax-wary corporations and individuals; Dodd resolved some tax ‘issues’ in 1989).

At the height of his fame Dodd enjoyed an unprecedented record-breaking 42-week sell-out season at the London Palladium and knocked The Beatles off the top of the charts with Tears, the UK’s third best-selling record of the ’60s. The 88-year-old still lives in Liverpool’s Knotty Ash and regularly pounds across the country with his Happiness Show, exercising his audience’s chuckle muscles as he has done for over six decades. Who better to raise the nation’s mood following weeks of electioneering? Steven MacKenzie grabs some tickle sticks…

Ken Dodd: Hi hi! Mr MacKenzie! That’s you is it?

Big Issue: Indeed it is, from The Big Issue magazine.

KD: MacKenzie, it’s a famous name you know. Doug McKenzie was the best theatre photographer ever. So you’re up in Glasgow are you? I played the Glasgow Empire when I was… much younger. It was my third or fourth week in show business. We called it the House of Terror. If they liked you they let you live.

It must have gone okay if you survived! You were performing in Mold last night. What time did you get home?

About four o’clock this morning. I’m convalescing today.

Sir Ken Dodd after receiving his knighthood at Buckingham Palace in March 2017.
Sir Ken Dodd after receiving his knighthood at Buckingham Palace in March 2017.

I’m sorry you have to speak to me today then.

Talking to you is a pleasure young man! I’m a great admirer of your Big Issue vendors. They’re very courageous. Everybody has a story. Everybody is important. We’re all walking miracles because everyone has a new way of looking at life, everyone’s got something to contribute… So when do you want to start your interview.

To what extent do you attribute your success to your hairstyle?

Very little actually. It goes way way back to when I was a little lad. I really wanted curly hair so I used to ruffle it a lot to make it look like I was eccentric. Breaking the rules is really part of my persona. When I first started I had cards printed to hand out to agents. I went to this printer, an old man in Liverpool, and said: “I want you to put ‘Ken Dodd, the comedian who is…’ and I want you to put the word ‘Different’ upside down.” He said: “I can’t do that, I’m a printer, people would laugh at me!” I said: “That’s what I want!”

We’re all walking miracles because everyone has a new way of looking at life

I stole that question from a clip of you being interviewed with The Beatles in 1963. What was happening in Liverpool around that time that made it a cultural capital?

Don’t forget there was a generation revolution. Before that a teenager was someone who had pimples and didn’t know if they were coming or going. All of a sudden a teenager, possibly because mother and father had just been through the war, was given free rein to be a person. The teenage revolution was a world-shaking event – in music, their dress and their haircuts. The teenager was a star. But I met The Beatles several times (pictured below) before they turned professional, long before the basin crop haircut. They were lively lads.

In the clip you say they are successful because they have a great gimmick – talent and originality. Is that still the best recipe for success?

Oh yes. There are always new people coming up all the time, thank goodness. The ones who are going to be stars are the ones who have an original slant and fresh ideas. The talent sparkles when it’s new.

Ken Dodd and The Beatles. on 'Late Scene Extra' in 1963.

Is it more difficult to be original nowadays?

No, you just be yourself.

You made your professional debut a year after the Queen was crowned. Like her, it seems your job isn’t just a job but a duty and cause to be entirely dedicated to.

My life is dedicated and disciplined to show business. I feel a duty to do the best I can. You have to have a certain amount of discipline, although as a comedian you do have the licence to break rules. Providing you don’t do anybody harm, anarchy and perhaps doing things differently is the hallmark of the comic.

You’ve been in the business for more than 60 years. Are you still telling some of the same jokes?

There’s no such thing as an old joke, just jokes that people have heard before. A good joke is a good joke at any time, anywhere. This is my theory – an old joke is an old friend. You never forget them and they’re always there to help you. Although a new joke is a wonderful thing to try out on an audience. Every show I do, I try to do about half a dozen new jokes. That’s the thrill, that’s the adventure. That’s the bungee jumping bit of the act. You look forward to that and it’s exciting. Sometimes you can’t wait to try them out and it falls flat on its face. You’re shocked. Nothing. You can never tell. In the 60 years I’ve been a performer, I’ve never done the same show twice.

An audience has to trust you. You’ve got to win them over as a friend

Do you still take notes after every performance?

It seems like common sense to me. Before I turned professional I was what they call, ‘on the knocker’, a travelling salesman selling things door to door. At the end of the day I’d take notes on what I had managed to sell, whether it was a good area, how I may be able to do better. When I started in the business I was, what we call, stage struck, absolutely totally committed to show business. I used to eat, sleep and dream about being a success. So I used to make notes about how the act had gone. I put a keyword down for each gag and wrote either ‘very good’, ‘fair’ or ‘useless’. If you think about it, airline pilots keep a log, doctors make notes after a consultation… I still do it now, make copious notes. I’ve got stacks and stacks of notebooks all over the place.

When you play in a certain theatre do you refer to notes from previous performances there?

Oh yeah. You have to plan your act beforehand. A bit of architecture has to go into it. When you hit the stage you’ve got about 30 seconds to build a bridge between you and the audience – a minute at the most. An audience has to trust you. You’ve got to win them over as a friend. So you start by talking about the most important thing in the world – them.

Sir Ken Dodd after receiving his knighthood at Buckingham Palace in March 2017.
Sir Ken Dodd after receiving his knighthood at Buckingham Palace in March 2017.

What were the notes from last night? Lots of ‘very goods’?

Oh yes, a great audience. You play an audience like you play music. They are your orchestra and you’re the conductor. You have to find out where the hotspots are and stimulate them, and you have to find out where they’re a bit cold and need a little coaxing. You try to play the audience so they make a beautiful sound, and the beautiful sound is laughter.

With your notes you will have a unique record of how people have laughed in different places at different times.

There is a rainbow of laughter. At the very top of the rainbow is a wonderful thing called white laughter. If you want to hear it pass any school playground and you’ll see little kids jumping up and down and laughing for the sheer joy of being alive. Further down are different colours. Yellow laughter is the laughter of clowns, so you do visual gags, red laughter is the laughter of romance and love so you do a lot of sweetheart jokes, and right at the very bottom are the dark colours of satire and cynicism. They’re good laughs but at the same time you are dealing with mysterious dark forces.

The dark arts.

Mostly journalists do that. They seem to be preoccupied with all the things that go wrong, not the things that go right.

If I have an obsession it’s my passion for books

So much of what happens in the world seems to be motivated by the negative emotions of fear, anger and hate. Are these more powerful forces than happiness?

You’re speaking like a journalist. Anger and despair and depression are the enemy of the jester. Your job is to try and dispel those thoughts. Being an optimist, there’s always something to find joy in. It’s an often used, and sometimes a very ill-used word, but love is a marvellous thing. Some people love a goldfish, some people love a dog or a cat, some people even love each other. You try to foster that on stage.

Is the audience the true love of your life?

Being on stage conducting an audience and trying to tickle their funny bone is the most wonderful feeling in the world. Absolute ecstasy.

Issue 1204
The pursuit of happiness with Ken Dodd

Another love of yours is reading. Is it true you have a library of around 40,000 books?

I love books. If I have an obsession it’s my passion for books. Particularly books about show business, humour or comedy. But I also love whodunnits, Ian Rankin and writers like that.

Is it about collecting books as much as reading them?

Ah, you’ve touched a nerve there. I don’t know whether I’ll get to read all the books I’ve bought.

I was reading the lyrics to your signature song Happiness. Is happiness a gift that’s inside you or is it something you have to give to receive?

I remember singing it the very first time, in a cine-variety, The Granada in Shrewsbury. The words suit me because I am a believer. They’re quite philosophical: “Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that we possess. I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed with more than my share of happiness.” If you believe there is a great creative force that guides us you have to say thank you. I say thank you for happiness.