Malcolm Hardee , whose body was found in the Thames on Wednesday, was a 55-year-old former jail-bird, stand-up comedian and impresario instrumental in launching the careers of the likes of Paul Merton, Jo Brand, Vic Reeves, Harry Enfield and Jerry Sadowitz. A Hardee performance usually involved the flourishing of genitalia and was not for the fainthearted. He was famous as part of The Greatest Show on Legs, a three-man act in which he performed a "balloon dance" stark naked except for a pair of socks and Eric Morcambe specs, a steadily dwindling bunch of balloons usually failing to preserve his modesty. He did an impression of Charles de Gaulle, his penis playing the part of the General's nose. He was also celebrated for a bizarre juggling act performed in the dark and with nothing visible apart from his genitals, daubed with fluorescent paint. Fans would greet his arrival on stage with cries of "Get yer knob out". He was said to be huge in Germany and Sweden. He was also a regular draw at the Edinburgh Fringe, where he always managed to be listed first in the brochure by calling his shows Aaaaaaaaargh. On one occasion, disappointed by a thin audience, he got his friend and fellow comic Arthur Smith to write a glowing review, adopting the prose style of one of the Scotsman's regular critics then phoning it in for the next edition. No one twigged, and the piece appeared under the critic's byline the next day. Hardee's most infamous prank was driving a tractor in the nude through a tent where the American performance artist Eric Bogosian was giving a show, because Bogosian was disturbing Hardee's performance next door. But Hardee's most notable contribution to comedy was as godfather to a generation of comic talent in the 1980s, as proprietor and compÃ¨re of the indescribably seedy Tunnel Club, near Blackwall Tunnel, and later of Up the Creek at Greenwich, venues at which fledgling comedians could pit their wits against some of the most boisterous heckling on the circuit. "Don't show us your tits," they told Jo Brand. Many of Hardee's protÃ©gÃ©s went on to carve a niche on television, but Hardee himself was too much of a white-knuckle ride for mainstream programme makers (one of his least savoury habits was urinating on hecklers). When he did appear, doing his ballooon dance routine on Chris Tarrant's OTT show in 1981, there were angry protests from the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association. Most of his jokes are unprintable in a family newspaper. Malcolm Hardee was born at Lewisham, south London, on January 5 1950, into a family of lightermen who earned their living by pulling barges up the Thames. At school he became involved in petty crime, once setting fire to the Sunday School piano because he wanted to see "holy smoke". He spent time in Gaynes Hall Borstal, from which he escaped, dressed as a monk. After leaving school, he served several sentences for fraud and petty theft, once for stealing the Conservative cabinet minister Peter Walker's Rolls-Royce. In between spells inside, he freelanced as a mobile disc jockey under the name Wolf G Hardee. In 1977, he decided to swap crime for showbusiness and joined forces with Martin Soan to form The Greatest Show On Legs, at the time a pornographic Punch and Judy act. From Salcombe, the act got them a booking at the Tramshed, Woolwich. Soon afterwards they moved to the newly-opened Comedy Store in Soho, where Hardee got to know Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall. He made his first appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1979. In 1984 he opened The Tunnel as a venue for new comedy acts. Many of those who first appeared there went on to stardom. The less celebrated included Terri Rogers, the foul-mouthed ventriloquist; Chris Luby, the aircraft impersonator; and The fatherless Son of Tommy Cooper, a nipple-ringed Welsh magician in fez and boxer shorts whose sword-swallowing routine sometimes ended in bloodshed. The Tunnel was eventually closed after a police raid, and in 1990 Hardee opened Up the Creek in Greenwich. He continued to have minor run-ins with the law. In 1996 he was sentenced to 150 hours community service for driving a car without insurance. His most famous misdemeanour inspired the title of his autobiography, I Stole Freddie Mercury's Birthday Cake (1996). The birthday was Mercury's 40th; the cake had cost Â£4,000; and Hardee donated it to an old people's home just a few hours before the police arrived to search his house for crumbs. Hardee twice stood for Parliament in Greenwich, on the second occasion with the sole purpose of getting a free mailshot to publicise his club. He had a two-year affair with Jo Brand, whom he persuaded to give up nursing for comedy, and who described her former mentor as an "appalling, trampy old mess". He was married twice, secondly in 1994, but when asked on a Channel Four documentary what he would do if he had to choose between his wife and the bottle, he chose the latter, adding "but I'd miss the wife, obviously". In 2000 he cancelled his show at the Edinburgh Fringe, complaining that his wife had chucked him out. He had two children by his first marriage. Hardee enjoyed pottering about on the Thames, but was a notoriously dangerous sailor. In 2001 he bought a floating pub, the Wibbly Wobbly Boat at Surrey Quays. It is thought that he fell, probably on Tuesday, from the rubber dinghy in which he travelled from the pub to his houseboat, moored nearby.