Comedy hits come in many varieties. Some are parodies, many rely on the incongruity of a comedian singing a well-known song, others are simply desperate reels of catchphrases slapped over any track the producers had lying around. “Ernie” is none of these – it’s a bona fide comic song, such as might have been sung in 1871 – minus most of its bluer jokes. It gives Benny Hill – best known as a boob-obsessed physical comedian – an opportunity to show off his comic timing as a singer, and he seizes it with chortling relish.
“Ernie” is more than just a rollicking music-hall throwback, though – it’s a canny snapshot of early-seventies comedy trends. The song is as soaked in sauce as a Carry On film, though most of the fun is in Benny’s delivery: the laugh in “seen the size of his hot meat pies” is in our expectation of smut, rather than in ‘meat pies’ resembling, well, anything really. More unexpectedly, this High-Noon duel of milkman and baker has the cheerfully surreal aspect of a Goodies episode or Monty Python sketch – in fact, the death-dealing pies are a close relative of the Goodies’ black-pudding Kung Fu.
“Ernie”‘s mix of traditional form and contemporary style was memorable enough for David Cameron to pick it on Desert Island Discs – a selection which earned him a certain amount of mockery. But the Tory leader is on to something – and not just because “Ernie” is a portrait of competitive entrepreneurialism. This is a superbly arranged and performed record that plays far better than any other 70s comedy piece.