Norman Wisdom dies - nobody notices outside Albania

Sir Norman Wisdom died on Monday but nobody noticed over here.

The British comedian, who died at the age of 95, has never had a high profile in America but was rather famous in places you wouldn’t expect a diminutive British comedian to be popular such as China and Albania.

I have early memories of finding Wisdom funny. But this is probably not a reliable indicator because I also found the Goodies to be hilarious when I was six-years-old.

Wisdom’s comedy was in the best traditions of slapstick, a genre that was becoming unfashionable by the end of the 20th Century. I blame all those scenes in which Benny Hill chased half clad women around in speeded up footage.

But while Hill is unmentionable in polite society, there is an example of British slapstick that does have a following in the US, namely Mr. Bean.

So when I asked a colleague today if she’s heard of Mr. Bean she replied: “Of course.”

And Norman Wisdom?


Yet Wisdom was doing a Mr Bean routine long before Rowan Atkinson and his rubberfaced US counterpart Jim Carrey.

In an AP story that I didn’t see carried on any of the US networks, Albania paid its tributes to Wisdom.

Wisdom was apparently the only Western entertainer shown on Albanian television during the grim years under paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1941 to 1985.

He apparently amused Communist authorities with his portrayal of the downtrodden Englishman.

In 2001 the appearance of Wisdom at an England v. Albania game in Tirana eclipsed that of David Beckham; which just goes to show what exposure to prolonged bouts of Communism can do to one’s sensibilities.

In Communist China too, Wisdom had a cult following because he represented the downtrodden little man. There are apparently lots of downtrodden little men in China.

There was certainly something reassuring about Wisdom and his kind of unassuming celebrity in an age of reality TV egos. I can’t think of anybody else famous called Norman, unless Norman Tebbit counts, and the name always reminds me of an introverted Scottish guy on my college course with a bad case of acne.

Wisdom makes me think of England the way it used to be when the idea of a good night out was haddock and chips on the street corner and the latest must-have gadget was a black and white TV.

Or maybe it was just because England was more like Albania in those days, albeit Albania with freedom of speech.

“He was the source of humor in our homes, a glimpse of the Western world that we could not taste ourselves, living in isolated Albania," Vladimir Mollaj, a 49-year-old owner of a fish restaurant in Albania's capital, Tirana, told AP.


  1. Does it help that this American has at least heard of him? I do have a lot of British friends.
    Are you familiar with Red Skelton? He had a slapstick humor that I loved as a kid, could they be compared?


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