Over the past couple of days I’ve read the words “caught the lurgy” to describe catching either the flu or Covid. It pinged in my brain because I knew the word “lurgy” from a skit by the classic British comedy troupe The Goons, and hadn’t realized that the word had actually entered into common usage.
The Goons (Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers) are largely forgotten today but in their time (the 50s) they were massive stars. Their impact on British comedy was foundational, and deeply influenced everything that came after them. Without the Goons, there would have been no Monty Python.
The writing was largely the work of Spike Milligan, whom Muppet fans will remember from one somewhat infamous episode of The Muppet Show. Spike was a comedy genius and The Goons was where his full powers were on display. It is here that we get the trend so common in later British comedy, that the subject of the humor is the absurdity of “Britishness” itself, it’s customs, class structures, etc.
Like much of the comedy at the time, a lot of it hasn’t aged well. There are huge portions of the show that are deeply culturally insensitive and inappropriate. And yet, like everything else, the work needs to be understood in context. Not only were British customs the subject of farce but British attitudes to other cultures as well. Everything is presented in a fun-house mirror, distorted, magnified and twisted. With common recurring characters and themes it feels very much like a continuation of the Commedia dell’arte tradition.
I’ve always agreed with the plea that people should “watch movies older than you”. This applies to all other media as well. Mercifully the particular show that gave birth to the term “lurgy” is relatively free of the more problematic bits of The Goon Show, so enjoy this. You’re forgiven for skipping past the musical bits. And try not to get The Lurgy.