Ken Dodd: Master of mirth still spreading a little happiness

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Katy Wheeler has a rib-tickling time with Ken Dodd

If you could bottle happiness and sell it there’s a fair chance it could have Ken Dodd’s face on the label.

In my eight years at the Echo, he’s got to be one of the most ebullient people I’ve ever interviewed. In fact, he made me happy.

Indeed, this is a performer that spreads smiles wherever he goes.

The 85-year-old tours virtually non-stop with his Happiness Show, clocking up thousands of miles each year.

The Sunderland date, on Saturday, is one the master of mirth is particularly looking forward to.

“I have a huge soft spot for the Sunderland Empire, it was one of the first big theatres I played when I started in September 1954. I spent a whole week debating who had the better football team -–Sunderland or Liverpool,” said Ken.

“They do appreciate you there, they love a good laugh. It’s a place with a heritage of great comics, people like Bobby Thompson. There are two cities in Britain – Liverpool and Sunderland – who produce more funnymen than anywhere else.

“The Empire’s a beautiful theatre and a big credit to the people who preserve it and take good care of it. Those slipper seats they have on the side, that look like a helter skelter, those are quite unique.” In his 60 years in the business, Ken has racked up more awards and accolades than you can shake a tickling stick at including an OBE in 1982; the British Comedy Award for Lifetime Achievement; countless appearance on Royal Variety shows and his legendary Audience with Ken Dodd show.

In 2009, he was even honoured with a statue of himself and fellow Liverpudlian Bessie Braddock in Liverpool’s Lime Street Station. So what makes Ken’s Happiness shows so perennially popular?

“People all over the world are searching for happiness,” he says. It’s what being alive is about: being happy. I have the best job in the world because I only ever see happy people. I only see them when they are laughing or have a smile on their face.

“In theatre terms I’m stage -struck. I just love it, getting up on stage is the best feeling in life.”

Ken was a comparative late starter in entertainment. He and brother Billy helped his father (Arthur) in the family coal business. Then Ken worked semi-professional to supplement his earnings as a door-to-door salesman ‘on the knocker’ in Merseyside.

He had his own van and sold household goods around the local housing estates, but he also entertained on a semi-professional basis and his reputation as a comedian was growing all the time.

Eventually he turned professional in 1954 and made his stage debut at the old Nottingham Empire.

In those days he loved ‘daft’ billing like: Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty – Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter.

Just a little over 10 years later, and without the back-up of TV exposure, he made his debut at the famous London Palladium – where he enjoyed an unprecedented record breaking 42-week sell-out season.

Since then there can be few big theatres in Britain that haven’t hosted Ken and his Diddymen.

And he says he still gets a buzz from live performance.

“You don’t get any less nervous, you just get used to the nerves,” he says. “I get apprehensive before I go on stage, like a race horse in the stalls ready to go. It’s the thrill of it, the excitement.”

Ken’s in The Guinness Book of Records for telling 1,500 jokes in three-and-a-half hours – but he never struggles choosing which to tell.

“I only do jokes that I enjoy myself and that make me laugh,” he says. “A good joke is like a good friend, you never forget it.

“The first 30 seconds in a show are the most important as that’s when you establish the relationship and link with your audience. And there are certain jokes you can rely on.” He added: “Comedy is a fascinating subject. You can break it down. Humour is the stuff of comedy, the meat and potatoes, laughter is the result, hopefully, and comedy is the technique.

“When you look at humour, it’s like music, in that you can’t explain it in just one sentence. There are probably about 25 different types of humour and comedians and they are all good in their own way.

“I could have gone down any of those roads. One of my favourite people is Roy Chubby Brown but his humour is very hair-raising. Then there are shock comedians like Frankie Boyle who deal with being outrageous. They’ve chosen that way but I think it will run out quickly because where do you go after that?

“To me humour is experimenting, tickling the mind and juggling with concepts. My humour is whimsy.

“When I first started out I wanted to be different, because I thought being different was being successful, when it isn’t.

“I wanted to be a visual comedian like Laurel and Hardy. I wanted to be a comedian who doesn’t tell jokes. But back then being on radio was like being on television and so I had to change my routine quickly.

“Every new city I started going to, like Sunderland, I would go the library and find all the books on humour and jokes. To me it’s an obsession, I live, eat and sleep jokes.”

* Ken Dodd and his Happiness show will be at Sunderland Empire on Saturday, May 18. Tickets are £20.90 – £23.90 Tel. 0844 871 3022.