This seems to be a day for bidding farewell to great comedic talent with the death of George Cole two days ago and last night's final episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
The first movie I saw George Cole in was 1970's The Vampire Lovers where I completely failed to notice him. But he played a very minor role in that film which featured Ingrid Pitt, Jon Finch, and Peter Cushing in the leading roles. It was a rather misleadingly innocuous tip of a brilliantly funny iceberg--I next saw Cole in 1956's The Green Man which I saw for Cole's mentor Alastair Sim but it was Sim whose role was minor in that film and an unheralded Cole who thoroughly stole the show, pulling a trick only a few comedic actors manage. He could play an utterly unselfconscious fool, his face and voice conveying sincerity even as every beat had the perfect timing of a watch.
I saw several more of his films over the past couple years. I talked about Cole with my friend Martin Johnson last year who said Cole was an actor who could always play a different character yet somehow always remain himself. Whether he was the ringleader crook in Too Many Crooks or the innocent clerk in Laughter in Paradise, he was earnest, dedicated, but always just slightly "off" in that perfect way like Thelonious Monk hitting notes off the beat, knowing where to put them even when you can't hear that beat. So natural was Cole that he began as a remarkable child actor, a streetwise orphan with dishevelled black hair and a face that already conveyed an inner world seemingly without effort. That was Cottage to Let, a 1941 World War II comedy where Cole essentially played the lead at sixteen even though he was among many established comedic talents--including Alastair Sim. I have a hard time imagining not loving this film, particularly Cole in it who's so weird, vulnerable, and clever, unlike any other child performer I've seen.
It seems he was best known, though, as Flash Harry in the entertaining Saint Trinian's films and for a television series called Minder that began airing in the late 70s which I've never seen. I've seen so much George Cole and I have admired him and I still haven't seen him in one of his best known roles. I certainly look forward to it. You can read my reviews for George Cole films by clicking here.
Jon Stewart, meanwhile, is not dead, I should say, merely "taking a pause" in his conversation with the audience, as he put it last night. I started watching The Daily Show in high school when it was hosted by Craig Kilborn. I watched every episode but at that time it wasn't much more than an imitation of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, or rather an imitation of the sort of newsroom spoof Weekend Update used to be rather than the imitation of The Daily Show it is now. This reversal in comedic influence is attributable entirely to Jon Stewart who took over as host of The Daily Show more than sixteen years ago. At the time, I thought he was wrong for the job, and in a way I was right, and that's what made him work so well. The job, which as adequately filled by Kilborn, really wasn't as good as the one Stewart created in the same seat, a bastard child of calculated satirical comedy and a genuine, heartfelt conversation. He brought the legacy of Lenny Bruce into a different arena, he took unprecedented advantage of the obvious lies people are too petrified to acknowledge.
Like so many people, I first became interested in politics watching Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. Stewart has always been a little gentler than Maher which has at times allowed him to score more complete victories over his targets. Maher could never have gone onto Crossfire and gotten the show cancelled just by saying the show was hurting America. It may have been true the type of meaningless false equivalence indulged in by twenty four hour news networks was harmful regardless of who observed it but Stewart had earned a particular place of trust with everyone.
It's easy to push the churning clouds of cynicism out of your mind as you feel completely disconnected from the workings of powerful people and institutions but Stewart could shine a light sometimes that gave you the feeling that meaningful things could still be said and done. That it was okay to say the Emperor had no clothes. It's going to be a little harder to feel that way without those sad, plaintive, yet angry and restless eyes looking at us from the screen.