Great Sketches #17: “The Bookshop Sketch” by Monty Python

Monty Python’s output represents a massive corpus of sketch, one that has sustained its entire cottage industry of analysis and critique. There is a profusion of brilliant, groundbreaking, and iconic bits to choose from, but for this blog I’m going to focus on a lesser-known sketch that exemplifies the best qualities of the group: specifically, its ability to stick to conventions while staying dynamic, surprising, and vital, not to mention uproarious.

A great deal of Python sketches fall into the category I call “customer service sketches”, in which a man (almost always a man) walks into a shop and has to deal with a proprietor. Python produced a great deal of these scenarios, including some involving butchers, bankers, barbers (who are closeted lumberjacks), career advisorsundertakers, cheesemongers, pet stores, hearing aid vendors, tobacconistsmarriage counselors, and businesses that don’t actually exist (but perhaps should). Sometimes the person behind the counter is the silly one, sometimes it’s the customer, often both have a screw loose. No matter the specifics, the basic structure of the transaction makes it easy to twist and subvert expectations, since you always start with two characters with presumed wants (the seller wants to make money, the buyer wants whatever’s being sold). These kinds of sketches existed before and after, but it’s impossible to talk about them without bringing up Python, who took things into a new direction by packing multiple jokes and diversions into a single scene instead of heightening one simple premise.

“The Bookshop Sketch” has always remained one of my Python faves for several reasons. Although it’s been done live in multiple venues, I first heard it on CD and think it’s a perfect audio sketch, when you can focus on the voices and sound effects alone. It’s a master class in the slow burn, featuring John Cleese as a bookseller who gets increasingly annoyed with a customer (Graham Chapman, although for a long time I thought this was Terry Jones) until he’s willing to upend the very idea of capitalism itself, just to try and give himself peace of mind. It’s essentially the reversal of the Cheese Shop sketch: both revolve around unusual lists, but this time, the customer is the silly one and the proprietor is the one getting frustrated.

That’s the basic outline of the sketch, but there’s no real coherency to a lot of what Chapman asks for. It’s true that the books he inquires about are all silly or non-existent (A Hundred and One Ways to Start a Fight, Biggles Combs His Hair, Rarnaby Budge by Charles Dikkens, the well-known Dutch author), but even the Dickens-related ones are all askew in slightly different ways. Compare this to a Fry and Laurie bookshop sketch, in which the joke is centered around one (real) book. The game in the Python sketch quickly becomes less about finding the right book and more about Cleese’s character trying to end the interaction as quickly as possible. At one point he recommends that his visitor try the chain bookstore W.H. Smiths, but Chapman replies that he’s already been there and they sent him to Cleese (I love the wonderfully bitter way Cleese mutters “did they?”, implying a whole wealth of resentment and rivalry).

Special mention must be made to the voice Chapman uses in this. It’s so outrageously nasal and exaggerated that it threatens to derail things from the beginning, but because he plays it with a straight face, his character never seems deliberately mean or malicious. Each time he’s rejected he has another request ready to go, without lingering on his disappointment (aside from innocently remarking that “you’ve got a lot of books here”, which only irritates Cleese further). You can imagine him earnestly preparing an absurdly specific list of books each morning to make his rounds. As the conversation gets heated, Cleese almost manages to shoo him out but stops when Chapman at last spies a books he wants: Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds. 

The game changes here, as Cleese verifies that the title is indeed spelled correctly (yes, that’s “B-I-R-D-S”). So that’s one problem sorted. Unfortunately, Chapman only wants the “expurgated” [censored] version, a.k.a a guide with all the birds he doesn’t like removed. The reaction to this news is a classic bit of fall and rise, as Cleese is at first quiet before loudly objecting, not unlike another master of the slow burn, Sam the Eagle. To oblige his customer Cleese, rips certain pages of particularly filthy avian beasts out, but once he’s done Chapman can no longer buy it, because it’s damaged. The pivot from “I can’t buy that, it’s torn,” to the next section of the sketch is brilliantly underplayed. About this time we realize that we’re really listening to several sketches bundled into one, but instead of feeling scattershot, it creates a feeling of freedom, like things could really go almost anywhere.

At this point, Cleese is beautifully agitated, but still determined to sell something, anything, simply to complete a transaction. Chapman, of course, has a seemingly endless supply of nonsensical titles to ask about but finally spits out one that happens to be in stock (Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying). As before, there’s no consistent theme to any of the books Chapman asks about, and that makes it funnier. He’s just your standard bloke interested in birdwatching, smut, fistfights, children’s books, adventure novels, and obscure Dickens knockoffs. What’s so weird about that?

The final leg of the sketch goes in another direction, building the tension but adding a new element, as Cleese desperately tries to close the sale (“There’s you book! Now….BUY IT!”). In a wonderful back and forth, Chapman reveals that he doesn’t have any money, checks, or even a bank account, to the point where Cleese buys the book for him and gives him money to take a cab home. Cleese no longer cares about losing money or even fulfilling his role as a shopkeeper. He just desperately wants this to be over, cackling dementedly as he rings the book up. But as he’s almost finished, Chapman gives the final reveal: he can’t even read. We expect Cleese to explode in fury, or question Chapman and perhaps prompt a final punchline. Instead, the ending subverts expectations as Cleese sits his customer down and reads him the book. The customer wins, in a way, but Cleese is at least able to reach some sort of endpoint, even though his role has now completely changed.

It’s become cliched to compare comedy to music, especially jazz, but it’s hard not to focus on the rise and fall of the voices, especially in the audio version above. Cleese’s final burst of exasperation comes in the form of five rapid, squawked “whats” that are almost like a series of trumpet blasts, and the change in “games” throughout also comes with a change in cadences and tones. While I don’t know the story behind this one, it’s easy to imagine the dialogue coming about through casual riffing, as some of the best sketches have.

A lot of these “customer service” sketches, including Python’s can get tedious quickly. There are so many ways for such a basic premise to go wrong, either by emphasizing the wrong joke, or being too mean-spirited, or functioning more as lightly humorous “branded content” or commercial sketches. The American versions of this in particular tend to focus on stores itself rather than the exchange between characters: SNL has produced roughly a zillion sketches set in inherently zany businesses. Here, the shop is just a skeleton for some great escalation. This is a fresh, evergreen sketch, one that could theoretically work with any actors yet thrives in this particular version. Although there are some satirical elements here, if you dig (and I think I have), it’s more about the thrilling joy of two talented friends bouncing off of each other, and makes me miss Chapman all the more.