Friday, May 01, 2009

Death Comes To The Internet

I am officially a hypocrite.

Since writing my previous post, I have whined to quite a few people about the number of hits I get from people a-Googlin', trying to see if I have uncovered the gory Holy Grail of death obsessives; the Christine Chubbuck video. It's been quite shocking to think that there are people out there who are falling over themselves to see this poor woman end her life, some of them writing in eager language about what they think it would look like. Yuck.

No, grizzly death fans, I haven't uncovered the video - as I said in the blog post, if it's not been destroyed by the family, the 2" quad tape will no doubt be unplayable after all this time unless it's been stored properly - but since writing, another gory Holy Grail has turned up: the televised death of comedian Tommy Cooper.

And I watched it. I actively sought it out, and I watched it. Hyp. Oh. Crite.

Unlike Chubbuck's death, which took place in a small market in Florida in the early 1970s when domestic VCRs were out of the average American's pricerange, Tommy Cooper's final moments played out on national television, in primetime, at a time when videotaping was becoming more affordable and widespread. The real miracle, in fact, is that upon these here internets, where whole websites are dedicated to showing crime scene pictures, suicides and 'photos of peeplz what got run over by trains n shit', a recording of the comedian's death hasn't sneaked out until now, a quarter of a century after it flashed around the living rooms of seven million Britons.

Most British people of my generation and above are familiar with his thirty-five year career. I'll spare you the adjectives like "genius" and "comedy great", forgo the worn cliches like "cor blimey, 'ee only had to walk on stage and you'd be larrrfin'!" and "d'yer know, I 'eard 'ee was actually a very good magician!", but to add perspective, Cooper was at the height of his game. Having established and perfected the 'magic tricks going bad' act, he was comedy royalty in Britain, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, which is why his presence on those familiar late 70s/early 80s variety shows was a given.

The unavailability of his final performance and, thus, lack of detail and hazy memories, has given rise to many apocryphal stories about the incident. I was told in the playground the next day by friends who claimed they had seen it that he had staggered around, said "I'm not feeling very well" and received a massive laugh as he hit the ground like a stone. Newspaper reports claimed that "the audience chuckled as he clutched his chest". Tales have been told that his size thirteen feet continued to poke through the curtains as the show went on to great gales of laughter as CPR was administered backstage. The actual event is less dramatic, albeit still not pleasant to watch, but there is one tragic thread of truth that runs through these tales; the fact that the audience did, indeed, keep laughing as he died.

See, Cooper was a comedian who specialised in the unexpected. The whole point of his act was that he would bring out the cheezy magic tricks and screw them up. Boxes would explode, metal rings would get tangled up, an endless stream of Martini bottles would appear from the tube and he would be unable to stop the onslaught, props would malfunction. He was known even within the industry for adding bits in to his act at the last minute, so when his expression changes and he slumps backwards into the curtain, there's still an undercurrent of laughter from the audience and no-one backstage twigs that something's gone wrong. His peroxide dizzy dolly assistant looks back and giggles at him hunched over before she prances off stage.

What follows feels like an eternity, with Cooper's broad six foot three frame crumpled against the curtain, his final gasps being broadcast around the theatre and around the country by his wireless microphone. The director even mixes in a few wide and close shots, apparently also under the impression that this was part of the act. Cooper's confused expression never changes as he puffs, eventually either being pulled through the curtains or slumping backwards, the trademark fez tumbling comedically off his head, giving the audience one final guffaw, assuming they are all still in on the joke.

The version that's now doing the rounds bears all the telltale signs of it being a home recording. And I'm quite pleased about that, I can't fathom ITV licensing the original clip to anyone, let alone to the show where it eventually ended up. It appeared on You Tube via a Dutch TV show, "De Wereld Draait Door" (literally, "The World Runs Through") which appears to be a sort of cross between 'The Daily Show' and Leno/Letterman. Worse, it was shown on a section where they show 'hilarious' clips from TV around the world, like a Southwest Airline steward rapping safety procedures to his beatboxing passengers, and a fishing show host getting his line jammed in a ceiling fan. Ho ho ho. They did have the good taste not to cut back to the giggling host after the Tommy Cooper clip, though. Instead, they jumped straight to a flashy promo, hawking some of the show's merchandise. Tasty.

What is it that draws us to these clips? What pulls people to search so thoroughly, bother ex co-workers and negotiate trade deals with people for the Chubbuck tape? What draws people to be so obsessed with the tape of R. Budd Dwyer's suicide that they write songs and make movies about it? Why did I cheerily search for the video of Tommy Cooper's last moments, knowing that I'd regret watching it? Knowing that thanks to my own myriad of health issues and heredity that that's probably the way that I'll go too? Do we watch these clips to feel better about our own lives and perceived immortality? Are we looking for a clue that there's something else after death? A look? A smile? A whacking great angel coming down and pulling a white outline of the person upwards?

....or are we just voyeurs who like to watch the things we're told we're not supposed to see?

7 comments:

The Film Geek said...

I've never heard of Tommy Cooper, so this was a very interesting story for me to look up and become familiar with. We are voyeurs, I think, who get s bit of a thrill seeing things we've been told we shouldn't see.

The stranges thing about the story to me: While Cooper lay dead nearby on stage, the show went on...now THAT's fucked up.

Buzzardbilly said...

Excellent read! Very thought-provoking. I, too, had not heard of Tommy Cooper, but do remember a story about a singer who blew his brains out on stage in the 1950s (cannot remember the name). I do not get the fascination with seeing how fragile and messy the body can become, depending on its end. I'm one of those people who get images stuck in my mind. I don't need that kind of thing there.

I used to love to read stories about serial killers and true crime. For me, it was like a window into a world I could not imagine, it was shocking, and it was informative to learn how serial killers pick and take their victims. The shockingly strange (like Albert Fish or Ed Gein) were like some book form of the circus sideshow, where you enter to be shocked.

The murderbilia collectors and real-live gore fans, though, I do not understand. To me, all of that leaves the humanity of the people involved behind. It's like the desire to own one of clown paintings John Wayne Gacy used to sell or the original letter that Albert Fish wrote to Grace Budd's mom about eating that child. I feel like that glorifies the criminal and leaves the victims a number at best. I once saw a show (Montel maybe) where they had the neighbors of serial killers on to discuss the guilt they felt at not realizing something was going on. The people who lived near Gacy used to hear this awful crying sometimes in the middle of the night. They knew someone was hurt, but they thought it was perhaps a child who'd been rightfully punished, so they never called the cops.

I think that people who tend to like to watch real-live suicides are likely the same kind of people who read and collect serial killer stuff because death's cool in some circles...when you're still young and think you're invincible and looking for the greater shock, greater thrill is still en vogue.

Cases that fascinate me know are the ones where people saw stuff happening and assumed someone else was calling the police so they did nothing, like Kitty Genovese or Denise Lee. Seriously, look up either name on my blog and follow the link to ABC's "Primetime Crimetime" on the Denise Lee case. People need to learn to call the police when they see something happening. If that case doesn't convince you (and maybe inspire a blog of your own on the subject), then nothing will.

Oh, and welcome to the roost as I'm following you.

Buzzardbilly said...

Oh, and all that being said, I'm certainly not above rubberneckin' on the Internet myself. If a lot of folks are talking about it, sometimes I look too. I think that's kind of human nature, isn't it?

Paul Higginbotham said...

Excellent post. Quite though-provoking. I think people (myself included) "enjoy" watching these scenes for the same reason we enjoy watching horror movies or disaster scenes on the news -- we like to see death from a safe distance. We're all fascinated by death to some degree. What will the final moments be like? Will I wince? Cry? Cough blood and crap pea soup?

Therefore when we have a chance to see death from the comfort of our homes our curiosity compels us to do so.

Chris James said...

"You'll see it's all a show, Keep 'em laughing as you go, Just remember that the last laugh is on you." -- Eric Idle

Spike Nesmith said...

OK, so be honest....

how many of you watched it?

Michael555 said...

I did, and regretted it. It made me cringe, it was frigging horrible.
Although I disagree with you about the Christine Chubbuck tape. I'm thinking there IS more then one copy out there but it's possibly in the ABC archives and maybe the FCC. Someone claimed on findadeath that they had a friend with the FCC and that they said they had the footage, but they were NOT permitted to see it, and this person apparently had worked with the FCC for 20 years.