Great Sketches #11: “Bus Stop” by French & Saunders

There’s a kind of approach to sketch writing that I call the “Field of Play”. Rather than rigidly write out everything that happens, this method involves treating the original script for the sketch itself as flexible, like the borders of a playing field. You have to stay inside certain boundaries, but you also have the freedom to mess around and try new things. It’s part of what I’ve always loved about doing sketches, since it never completely rules out the possibility of improv or spontaneity.

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that’s what’s going on with this sketch, which has appeared in multiple tweaked forms and suggests two performers with natural chemistry goofing around and adding new bits here and there. I’m calling it the “bus stop” sketch, but the setting doesn’t really matter, and in the version I’ve chosen to embed above the two comedians do the whole routine with just a couple of chairs (and some awesome 80’s hairstyles).

A little bit about those comedians: Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders were a powerhouse comedy duo during a time when so-called “alternative” comedy was booming in the UK, the same period that gave us shows like The Young Ones, Blackadder, Split Ends and Red Dwarf, as well as numerous comedy duos, including Hale and Pace and Fry and Laurie (why there was was never a Stephen and Dawn pairing called French & Fry, I’ll never know). To this day, French and Saunders remain one of the most well-known female comedy duos in the western world, even though both of them would rise to greater fame in other projects. Saunders created and starred in Absolutely Fabulous, which recently spawned a feature film, and French is known to many a PBS diehard (and Johnny Depp, apparently) as The Vicar of Dibley.  Like many a comedic partnership, they can fall into the standard roles of straight person/wacky person pretty handily, as they do in this sketch, though they were also skilled at sending up this format in various ways.

Even in this sketch, though, where French does most of the talking, you can see some excellent interplay between the two of them. The beginning of their conversation about horses may not seem to be relevant to the rest of the sketch but it serves an important function, setting up the dynamic at play. Saunders is shy, guilty and embarrassed, while French is posh, domineering, and puts her feet up solely so she can occupy two seats. Like many teenagers, what they really want to talk about is sex, particularly Saunders’ apprehensions about an upcoming encounter with her boyfriend. Because she of course knows everything abut everything, French takes the opportunity to explain the birds and the bees in a way that starts off unappetizing and ends up positively Lovecraftian. Sex may be messy, but it (usually) doesn’t involve spikes, green fluid, skin trampolines, or giant fish you have to beat to death with whatever’s handy.

It’s funny that this version of this sketch I posted is one of the longest sketches I’ve posted in this series, and yet there’s not that much to it in terms of content or “plot”. The Comic Relief performance adds an extra beat where Saunders’ character reveals she’s actually already had sex and been pregnant this whole time, giving French an excuse to apply her same grotesque dream logic to abortions. It’s amusing, but it overshadows the line that at least one other version treats as the punchline (“it’s really quite a pleasurable experience”) in favor of a bizarre put-down about Saunders being an orphan.

If you don’t mind me getting enormously pretentious here, whatever faults and flaws this sketch has are, at least to me, like pockmarks on a vase that’s otherwise beautifully crafted. The core of it is profoundly solid and familiar. There’s probably relatively few people who’ve made it through puberty without some kind of conversation like this, where they were the wide-eyed friend asking for advice or the confident friend giving advice who had no idea how wrong they really were.

Because of this, it’s interesting to see some of the choices French and Saunders made in their different riffs on the same material. The TV version, which shows the two girls actually at a physical bus stop, keeps some of the same beginning bits but goes in a wildly different direction, with Saunders deliberating about which form of contraception to choose. It relies far more on obvious wordplay, with French using terms like “Philippine tubes”, “diagram”, and “UFO”, but also on some amusing alternate ideas of what a sponge and jelly might be in a sexual context. French also comes up with a pretty cringe-inducing cure for thrush and enjoys pronouncing the word “condom” with stress on both syllables in a way that unavoidably reminds me of this.

This sketch ends on something of a dark note, with French sternly warning “don’t die of ignorance” before getting on the bus, a reference to an actual AIDS campaign launched in the UK the same year French & Saunders debuted on TV. While it’s hard to not to think about how fucked up Saunders’ poor character would be if she actually believed everything her friend said, the very real threat of HIV lurks behind the sketch, at least in the TV version, and almost gives the whole thing a PSA kind of feeling. There’s an argument to be made that all of the jokes actually encourage proper sex ed, since they’re only funny if you know how off-base French’s character is.

Then there’s the version from the pair’s later 2008 reunion tour, which features pretty much all of the same stuff as the Comic Relief one but amps it up to 2,000 with French tripping all over the stage at the beginning and adding many syllables to the word “please”, threatenings to derail the whole thing before it even starts. If you already have affection for the sketch, then this might be funny, and if not, it might be annoying. To me, it’s weirdly funny because it’s annoying, a type of comedy that often makes me laugh despite myself, when I can tell that the performer is totally aware how dumb what they’re doing is (but not in a Jimmy Fallon, “I do this so often you might wonder why I chose a career in comedy” kind of way). To reference Monty Python again, the differences between the different versions reminds me of the many John Cleese performances of the “Dead Parrot” throughout history, which have ranged from quiet indignation to complete raging insanity and everywhere in between. I will admit that seeing this sketch that far from the 80s robs it of some of its then-topical relevance, but it still holds up perfectly well as a vehicle for a classic double-act.

Since I’ve spent so much time talking about the acting in this sketch, let’s spare one quick moment for the writing of this sketch, which contains such gems as the phrase “a man’s toilet parts”, the “four holes” of the female body, the wise advice to avoid citrus in your contraceptive jelly and the meek way Saunders answers “not” when French asks “do you know about contraception or not?”.

So, in a way, there is a lot you can learn from this sketch, you know, nothing about the way genitals work. But if you’re looking to comedy sketches to tell you the truth about your genitals, you might have a lot of work ahead of you. Good luck!


Great Sketches #10: “Homeless Game of Thrones Spoilers” by Natasha Rothwell/Upright Citizens Brigade

(Note: It’s finally happened. I’m covering a sketch I can’t find a full clip of online. It especially sucks because it’s one of the more obscure sketches I’ve written about so far, and the first anchored by a performance from a woman of color. You should definitely watch it, though. I’m embedding the early staged version because it’s the cleanest, most audible rendition of the material, but I’m going to comment on the version on Netflix. If you can stand YouTube gigglepusses, you could try to watch this clip, but I would recommend you look it up on Netflix instead if you can. It’s Episode 5 of The Characters, and it starts at about the 3:15 mark. There’s enough interesting stuff in the whole episode to make it worth your time but for me, this is the clear standout).

Our last sketch was an old, theatrical British piece about class, and in some ways, today’s sketch is a modern American take on the same issue. As you can (hopefully) see above, it originated onstage through an Upright Citizens Brigade group, and while it was written Erik Tanouye, it will forever be associated with writer/performer Natasha Rothwell and her episode of Netflix’s awkwardly titled The Characters, a show that none of my friends seemed to have watched the entirety of and is most likely destined to be a one-season oddity, perhaps deservedly so. (Tanouye is listed as a “Creative Consultant” in the credits of the show).

If you weren’t one of the precious few to check it out, The Characters was a sketch series with an ingenious premise. Each episode centered around one performer, who portrayed multiple people and starred in numerous filmed sketches. To me, the most exhilarating part was the intro, in which a camera wandered down a dressing room hallway and pushed through a door decorated with the name of that episode’s star. As someone who loves shows that promise something new in each installment, this is pretty much a distillation of what I want: a door opening, with the possibility of anything being on the other side.

Unfortunately, a lot of what was on the other side proved underwhelming, meandering, shapeless, and sometimes out-and-out bad. Still, all of the performers were clearly talented, and there were some moments of brilliance that don’t deserve to be forgotten. I also believe the concept is too good to abandon, no matter how hit or miss the results may have been. So let’s take a look at the most direct hit from the episode that seems to be the general favorite.

Rothwell has written for several episodes of SNL and stars as Kelli on Insecure. Her Characters episode has an overarching story but you don’t need to know it to get this bit, in which she plays a formidable homeless man with an immensely chewable comedy beard. Instead of begging for change or trying to get onlookers to pity him, he threatens to reveal spoilers from the Game of Thrones books (technically A Song of Ice and Fire, but I’ll allow it). It proves to be effective right off the bat, as a terrified commuter forks over some change to avoid finding out exactly what happens to Jon Snow (“A subway rider, like a Lannister, always pays his debts”, Rothwell responds). Soon, the homeless man is using this same tactic to score an HBO GO password. The sketch takes such hilarious turns and is filled with so many amazing lines that I’m tempted to just quotes it (minus the use of the word “midget”, which it should be noted is not ok, although perhaps forgivable given this particular character).

There’s a weird scene in the middle that feels like it would normally go at the end, where Rothwell’s character suddenly launches into a soliloquy about his tragic downfall in the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, which he can only describe by dropping Game of Thrones references like Brienne of Tarth and the White Walkers (“the White Walkers were WHITE MEN who WALKED up to my house with EVICTION PAPERS!”). But no sooner has he ceased his tale than he’s lashing out again at a “grown-ass man reading Harry Potter” (guilty as charged). He can even sense that a quiet white woman is reading 50 Shades of Gray on her Kindle and spoils what happens in the book despite getting money from her (“it’s more butt sex”).

I’ll admit that someone who doesn’t take public transportation every day (or read while doing so) might not relate to this sketch very much. I’m willing to bet that a lot of people do, though. I personally have seen countless people who resemble Rothwell’s character here make speeches to silent audiences on moving trains. You can almost feel everyone rivet their eyes to their laps. How is a good person supposed to react in this situation? Most people will tell you that they’d prefer to give to charities or be sure that their money is going somewhere that will do good, but how many people actually do? Confronting the truth of poverty is uncomfortable, and this sketch punches up with an oppressed man getting a sort of revenge and hitting the subway riders where it hurts (it’s also a nice touch that Rothwell’s victims include members of multiple races and genders, depicting a realistically diverse train car all full of passengers trying to avoid the homeless man’s comments).

In the end, the well-read man may only have gained enough money for Chipotle and a side of chips and guac, but there’s a kind of symbolic justice in the way he gets to evict the passengers out of his “house”. As he says, “I’m well-read and that undermines your expectations.” He’s actually underselling himself here, since he’s not only literate, but also fluent in ASL and knowledgeable about the best internet password security practices. Rothwell’s voice jumps brilliantly between sarcastic cajoling to shouting (the way she bellows “GAME OF THROOOOOONES” at the beginning should be edited into every GoT intro from now on).

Nobody in this scene appears to have their mind changed by this encounter, but I’d wager that it might make you consider how you interact with and judge strangers a little differently. If The Characters is truly dead, let’s hope Rothwell’s career only continues to thrive. She definitely deserves it based on this, and at the very least I’d want her to come up with more incredible HBO theme songs.

Great Sketches #9: “Class” from The Frost Report

Time can do an awful lot to improve any work of art, and comedy sketches are no exception. A great example of this comes from The Frost Report, a show largely remembered as a breeding ground for Monty Python and a precursor to the fast-paced, wacky laffaminit style of Laugh-In and Benny Hill. While I’m only vaguely familiar with it, theres a lot to admire in its ambition, and one sketch in particular seems to have sparked waves of imitators.

To give you an idea of how influential it is, co-writer John Law is described on Wikipedia as being notable for working on this sketch alone (the other writer was lovable bug-eyed goofball Marty Feldman, who would go on to host his own show shortly after).  Even with its iconic status, there’s something more than a little revolutionary about its sentiment.

For once, we can sum up a sketch in one word: “class”. That’s the subject being examined here. In a style that’s both avant garde and somewhat like a PSA or a live-action political cartoon, we see three men standing next to each other in descending order of height. The first is upright gentleman John Cleese, looking much like his future member of the Ministry of Silly Walks, who declares “I look down on him, because I am Upper Class.” It’s a beautiful opening line, delivered almost like the start of a song, and with that kind of rhythm I’m sure you could remix this sketch into something listenable, if not danceable.

Cleese is referring to Ronnie Barker, the slightly rumpled man to his left, who explains that he’s Middle Class, which puts him below Cleese but above Ronnie Corbett, dressed incongruously like a 1930’s newsboy in a cap and scarf. The other two may have introduced themselves by their class position first, but poor Corbett’s first line is simply “I know my place.”

We get precious little time in this sketch and we only get a few more details in the following minutes, as each man takes a turn describing himself. Since he’s so low class, Corbett says he looks up to Cleese the most due to his innate breeding. “I have got innate breeding,” Cleese responds, “but I have not got any money.” This is an interesting development, since it leads Cleese to momentarily stoop under Barker, hinting that his position may not be as stable as it appears. Corbett, too, brags that he could look down on those above him, even though he doesn’t. The final round asks an important question: why does this class system persists? There have been entire fields of study created to answer this, of course, and the sketch boils it all down to the notion of superiority. Cleese gets total superiority, Barker gets partial superiority, and Corbett gets “a pain in the back of my neck.”

Kind of a bleak punchline when you think about it, isn’t it? The audience laughs but it’s not hard to see this as a bit of an exhortation for the oppressed. As presented, Corbett’s character actually has the most freedom here. Because he’s the lowest-ranked of the three men, he’s excluded from the one-upsmanship of the others, who generally ignore him while they jockey for power. And it’s no big secret what the punchline means for class relations: no matter how poor or powerless you feel, you’ll keep going if you know you’re better off than somebody. You don’t even need to have as rigid a class system as the British to see this in action, as the famous quote about poor people in the U.S. seeing themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” rather than a put-upon social group capable of protesting their position.

The sketch itself is obviously quite relevant even beyond its original era, and if you’ve never heard of it before, you might be surprised at how enduring its been. Aside from garnering a Wikipedia page of its own (not common for individual comedy sketches), it’s also been reprised and adapted to cover British history, mental health professionals, body image, and…uh…IT services, I guess? The unreality of the staging actually fits the format of a commercial pretty perfectly, and I wonder if the Apple/PC ads don’t owe something to this setup as well.

Theatricality can get a bad rap in filmed media, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. None of the characters in this sketch directly interact with each other and that enhances the message all the more powerfully. The sketch stops short of staging a revolt from Corbett (which might have been amusing in its own way), but it does raise potentially provocative questions about the exact nature of your place in society. It can certainly be a lot easier to notice differences when you’re side-by-side with someone who thinks they’re better than you.

One thing I’ll say for the Upper Class, though: they have quite the taste in hats.

Great Sketches #8: “White Like Me,” Saturday Night Live

Eddie Murphy has been open about how much he owes his career to Richard Pryor. He’s referenced it in his standup, he’s joked about it on talk shows, and fans of both comedians inevitably notice the similarities sooner or later. However, there’s a kind of impression that Eddie’s comedy, despite being self-proclaimed as “Raw“, was less political, less angry, less confessional, and more centered around celebrity impressions and observational humor, two types of comedy that often get sneered at.

He may have a legacy of homophobia and fat shaming in his routines to contend with, but we can’t deny the impact of Eddie Murphy on comedy and pop culture, and one of his most memorable moments comes from the one time he returned to Saturday Night Live to host it in 1984 after he left the cast a year earlier. It’s a sketch of seismic significance that seems divorced from SNL itself: no cast members from the time it was produced appear, and there’s a good chance you’ve seen it without knowing what show it first aired on. In tone, subject matter, and delivery, it feels like the ancestor to entire careers: the tone of Chappelle’s Show, Chris Rock, Hari Kondabolu and many others feel like they’ve sprung from this particular look at white privilege, one that’s almost chilling now.

Oh, in case you forgot, the sketch in question is called “White Like Me” (Pryor actually used this title himself when he appeared on SNL in it’s very first season, but that bit wasn’t nearly as developed as it is here so I think we can forgive the steal). It’s a parody of the famous 1961 book Black Like Me, in which a white journalist went undercover as a black man. Here, the tables are predictably turned, and you can guess what the joke will be long before it plays out. That means it’s largely up to Eddie to sell it, and that he does.

Having not seen this sketch in years, I was struck by the faux seriousness of the beginning. Eddie sets up the premise without smiling in an empty hallway before he heads into a makeup room to dramatic music. The first significant laugh from the audience doesn’t come until he tries on a mustache (over his actual mustache) and dismisses it as being “too Harry Reems-ish” before immersing himself in Dynasty and Hallmark Cards, and then we get the real first laugh, when Eddie rounds a corner in full white face, determined, alert, and, indeed, walking as if something were stuck up his butt.

Eddie’s odyssey begins in a small convenience store, where a white clerk informs him that he doesn’t need to pay for a newspaper and aggressively insists he just take it for free (“Slowly I began to realize that when white people are alone, they give things to each other for free”.). As I’ve already pointed out multiple times on this blog, absurdity played straight is a comedy gold mine, and Murphy reacts to this as if he’s made a major discovery.

His next encounter takes place on a bus, which transforms into a kind of speakeasy, as soon as the only other black person steps off, complete with a cocktail girl who sits on Eddie’s lap. The scene gets laughs but in 2018 there’s a palpable queasiness about it, with the strained smile on Murphy’s face playing as almost haunting. Throughout the sketch, he’s not indulging the kind of fast-talking we expect. Almost all of what he does in his white guise is simply react.

The bank scene completes the triptych, with Murphy going from merely being present for freebies and luxury to actually trying to take out a loan. The core of this sketch has centered around a classic “rule of three” structure and this one manages to twist things by introducing a black loan officer who can clearly tell that Murphy doesn’t qualify…only to be thwarted by an old white employee, who kicks him out and tells “Mr. White” he can have as much money as he wants. Once again, I’m convinced that there’s a twinge of wariness behind Murphy’s performance here, and in the way he fake-laughs while scooping up piles of cash. It’s probably stretching to call it quiet indignation but there’s a sense that he’s not going to forget this any time soon.

In fact, he tells us as much in the denouement, when he reveals that he’s sharing his stash of white makeup with his black friends (is that Eddie’s brother Charlie Murphy in the back?) and that the next “really super groovy white guy” or “great super keen white chick” you meet might be a person of color in disguise.  It’s a grand statement on the absurdity of race: why do we put so much important on something that can be easily changed with the right concealer? The fact that Eddie himself would go on to actually play a white man under layers of makeup (among many other characters) in a major movie makes this seem like a showcase for how chameleonic he could be as a taste of things to come.

Many of the zillions of jokes hacky jokes in the comedy world about how boring and uptight white people are carry with them the subtext of a culturally barren class trapped in their own stifling privilege. The oft-mimicked “white voice” that Murphy uses here is another steal from Pryor but it serves a good purpose, since he’s supposed to be a man awkwardly playing a role. The fact that this is a filmed piece and apes the style of a documentary also helps with the faux-seriousness of the whole thing, particularly when it comes to the stirring soundtrack at the end.

This feels like a sketch that will always be relevant in some way or another, whatever the current discussion about race happens to center around. Considering I literally had a professor show this to a class I was in during college, it almost feels as important as an actual documentary. Not bad for five and a half minutes.

(Bonus: you can hear the editor of this sketch talk about his experience working on it here).