Great Sketches #14: “Colonel Angus Comes Home” by Saturday Night Live

I’ve written more than a dozen blogs about sketch comedy and somehow am only just now covering Saturday Night Live, aka SNL aka the Harvard of Comedy TV aka Lorne Michaels Might Already Be A Cyborg And We Wouldn’t Know. There are so many SNL contenders for the title of “a great sketch” that even Rolling Stone’s top 50 list leaves off several classics. But I’m going to go with one I keep coming back to, one that isn’t on that list at all, and one that truly makes the case that a one-joke sketch can be milked dry and still work if it’s milked well.

See, “one-joke sketch” is generally used as an insult, but as I’ve argued before, there are some sketches that take one joke and develop it rather than simply stretching it thin. And in the case of the legendary Colonel Angus, that one joke has a surprising amount of dimensions.

If you’re not yet clear as to why the name “Colonel Angus” is supposed to be funny, it’s probably because you’re not reading it with an exaggerated stereotypical Southern accent in your head. Try this: Cuhnel Angus. Better. Now put the emphasis on the “Cuh”. Get it yet?

Yes, the entire bedrock of this sketch is basically just “ha ha, oral sex” (dictionary definition of cunnilingus: “stimulation of the female genitals using the tongue or lips”). It’s accomplished with a straight face, though, and that’s the entire reason it works. And it works way, way more than you think it will.

To begin with, the sketch gives us a full 44 seconds of bravura acting on the steps of a Civil War-era plantation house before Rachel Dratch’s bespectacled old lady peers out into the cotton. “Well, that must be the Colonel!” she says. “Colonel Angus!” It will be the only time anyone in this sketch pronounces it like two separate words. All it takes is Amy Poehler’s “Could it really be Cuhnel Angus?” and the audience begins to get it.

Basically every line after that about the storied Confederate soldier is a double entendre, conjuring up pretty much any and every innuendo involving the Cuhnel that you could imagine. It’s worth noting what does and doesn’t get a response. There are smatterings of applause when Chris Parnell’s gentleman says “They say once a lady is introduced to Cuhnel Angus, they’ll settle for nothing less”.  But nobody seems to notice Dratch’s line about the Colonel’s “shining face” or the fact that the Colonel has suffered an injury to his jaw. And the description of the Colonel as an “old carpet bagger” takes a second before it lands. I didn’t even catch the throwaway use of the phrase “taint sure” until someone in the comments pointed it out.

This is a true ensemble sketch, which means everyone, including Maya Rudolph’s character Bedelia and the curiously old boy (Chris Kattan?) who has one line gets something funny to do. By the end, we truly know what they all think about Cuhnel Angus, and probably cunnilingus as well. Everyone hams it up commendably and does a good job of hitting the rhythms of this kind of melodrama.

It’s worth mentioning that the Colonel is played by none other than Christopher Walken himself, here in one of his seven appearances on SNL to date. Walken hasn’t hosted in eight years but for a time he was one of the legendary champs of the Five-Timer’s Club, known for running with any premise, no matter how ridiculous. Affecting a drawl that isn’t miles away from his later performance as Captain Hook, Walken delivers a speech about Colonel Angus that’s truly awe-inspiring, but his best line (and the best line of the entire sketch) comes later: “If I overstay my welcome, just tap me on the head”. Only Walken could deliver that with the kind of conviction he does here.

That’s a pretty clever joke, no matter how obvious, and it gets the recognition it deserves. This sketch isn’t just a bunch of references to cunnilingus: it’s actually about the act itself, what it involves, and how it feels, both to give and receive it. As one of the top commenters on YouTube noted as of this writing, this is a very dirty bit of writing, especially once we learn that the Colonel’s real name, god help us, is Enil Angus. Walken may have the single best line but Poehler steals the show with this unforgettable groaner: “I so love the sound of Cuhnel Angus, but I guess I could give Enil Angus a try.” If that wasn’t enough, she says it while staring directly into the camera, almost daring you to get what she’s saying. I have to say, I’m impressed this got on NBC. It’s not a network known for appreciating the finer points of Enil Angus.

When you really examine it, this sketch is like a finely woven wicker chair of dirty wordplay, where even the setups are all in the gutter. The capper for the whole thing is the ending, after Parnell delivers the final line: we hear a canned horse’s neigh and then the cast lines up for a bow, as if we’d just watched the filthiest town hall history pageant in history. It’s an absurd touch but it fits with what’s come before and even gives it a kind of context.

If something is made with joy and care, even if that something is just trying to jab you in the ribs and tell raunchy jokes, you can sense it. In terms of commitment to the bit, this sketch belongs up there with other SNL classics like Lord and Lady Douchebag and Schweddy Balls, not to mention Fry and Laurie’s turns as American servicemen obsessed with ass. They all fall on the right side of the scale when it comes to “one-joke” sketches, and in fact, there’s way more than just one joke going on here. Like a lot of verbal humor, you have to have some knowledge of what’s being discussed to even begin to make sense of it.

This post is dedicated to the brave men who lost their lives at Big Beaver.


Great Sketches #13: “$65 Funeral” by Nichols & May

Like short stories, sketches are often based upon relationships. If you have two characters and some sort of relationship between them, you’ve got a scene, and if you’ve got a scene, you’ve got the makings of a sketch. One of the most frequent iterations of this has been what I call the “customer service” sketch, in which a patron comes to a shop with a simple transaction and discovers that the business he or she is dealing with is silly, complicated, or rude. Monty Python are, in my mind, the masters of this, playing out ridiculous situations involving mattresses, butchers, tobacco, and cheese. They even had an infamous sketch about undertakers which isn’t a million miles away from today’s subject.

But that’s not what we’re talking about. Today we’re on the U.S. side of the pond with (Mike) Nichols and (Elaine) May, the hip groundbreaking comedy duo of the legendary 50’s/60’s improv generation. My favorite sketches tend to have a lot going on in them (even if it’s just a lot of dumb puns) and this is an example of enormous comic generosity. If you’re in a duo and want to know how to break out of the “straight man/wild card” dynamic, the “$65 Funeral” sketch  is required viewing.

Nichols plays Charlie Maslow-Freem, a mourner who comes to Longdust Funeral Parlor looking to arrange an affordable funeral for someone he’s related to named Seymour (no precise relation is given in the Jack Parr version of the sketch posted above). He’s forced to deal with May’s Miss Loomis, a “grief lady” who seems completely tone-deaf to Charlie’s grief and brings up one awkward question after another. It would have been easy to make her character dumb, something the sketch thankfully avoids. Instead, May plays her as someone clearly more concerned with data-gathering and upselling than making her client happy (“Would you be interested in some extras for the loved one?” she asks. Her follow-up question could have easily been the sketch’s curtain line).

It turns out that every bit of this funeral comes with tier pricing and a round of irritating questions, both of which seem designed to shame the customer into paying more for things that should be included. First, there’s the casket: the corpse has to have a casket, right? (“It looks better,” May says). The most affordable option is way, way lower than the others and made out of, and I quote, “knubby plywood”, which is just fun to say. Charlie is just about ready to go when Ms. Loomis reveals that there’s another wrinkle: “How had you planned on getting Mr. Maslow-Freem down here?”

One thing that really stands out to me is the even displacement of jokes throughout this sketch. This really is sketchcrafting at its finest, where every nook and cranny has something to marvel at. There’s tons of hilarious or quirky details, from the name of the deceased’s former street address (“441118 Southeast Huguenot Maloon Dr.”) to the delivery (Nichols’ line reading of “MADAME, THAT WAS FOREMOST IN MY MIND!” is pure, undiluted roflsauce).

But the neatest thing is the way both actors get lots of funny stuff to do here. May and Nichols take turns setting up each other’s jokes and one-upping their applause breaks. This isn’t the set-up/punchline structure we’re used to from so many sitcoms: its’ like a Jenga tower, with each performer adding a new piece that builds on the previous one. Escalation can be an essential comic tool, but this sketch breaks away from that to simply follow a funny thought process until it runs out of gas. It helps because death, much like sex, is a kind of taboo we’re supposed to respect. The thought of taking your dead relative to his funeral in a cab is actually pretty gross, which adds some friction and dark comedy to the premise.

And best of all, both characters are funny: Nichols is the standard frustrated customer, but he’s also still in the throes of grief, which gives him even more reason to get put off by all the work he has to do. May also has a stock role that she makes her own by committing to the character’s phoney baloney sales ethos. Note that instead of listing what the basic funeral package contains in the beginning, which would have ruined the joke, she forces Charlie to admit he hasn’t paid for all the essentials. This is both a great way to keep the sketch going (it really could have included any number of “extras”) and makes perfect sense as a motivation for her character.

I’ll admit that the ending feels a little abrupt: as far as I can tell, the sketch ends once the grief lady says that the $10 burial plan involves two men doing “god knows what” with the dead body. We don’t get a resolution or have any of the traditional final turns. But everything else is so good here that it doesn’t matter.  When your audience is already howling before you’ve made it to the REALLY funny part of your act, I’d say that’s a good sign.

Catch Me on the Fun Dip and Cherry Coke podcast!

Hi there, readers. I’m on a podcast! My friend Kira had me on her pop culture show Fun Dip and Cherry Coke to talk about a movie that shaped me in my delicate childhood years: Heavyweights. I really like her podcast because it explores the personal connections each guest has with their pop culture object of choice. You can click here to have a listen, or visit the podcast’s page in the iTunes store to learn more. Support the podcast by subscribing!

Great Sketches # 12: “Corporal Punishment” by The Whitest Kids U’Know

I would like to say a few words in defense of puns. A pun has been the sign of comedic desperation for so long that the very act of making one can be somewhat transgressive. Like Atari games and obscure breakfast cereals nobody but Quentin Tarantino remembers, the pun is seeing a bit of a resurgence in certain circles, perhaps a reaction to more than a decade of mean ad hominem humor defended in the name of “irony”. Puns are demanding, because they require you to put your ass on the line if they don’t work. And while most people will tell you that they’re the “lowest form of humor”, I prefer to think of them more as a potentially volatile substance that will blow up in your face if not handled carefully.

The most skillful practitioners of puns, such as The Firesign Theatre, Zucker/Abrams/Zucker, The Muppet Show, or the characters in the Callahan’s Crosstime Salooon series, understood that punning is best when it’s woven skillfully into the fabric of something else. Maybe one pun is the lowest form of humor but after 500 of them you can only stand back in awe. Strung together in breathless succession, puns can be almost beautiful. Then there’s the opposite approach, in which you trot out pun after pun at a painfully slow pace until your audience is beaten into submission.

The Whitest Kids U’Know tended to base much of their sketches around “edgy” material, but dig through their catalog enough and you’ll hit their pure silliness streak, of which today’s sketch is a prime example. The concept is so pure that it could have played on vaudeville with very few alterations. My only beef with it comes with the punchline, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Trevor Moore, the breakout star of the group, is basically the only actor in this, as a stern drill sergeant reading out a list of “promotions and demotions” in front of a super realistic giant American flag.  The title of the sketch refers not to the act of physical discipline but to an actual, barely seen character whose name is Private Punishment until he gets promoted…to Corporal Punishment.

What follows is a series of variations on the same joke, and I have to believe that the group had to throw out thousands of other candidates in favor of this small group. This could easily last an entire set at a club, and yet it wisely is kept under two minutes, just to the point where it starts to try your patience (although a part of me could easily keep listening to this).

It really is that dumb. Various members of this platoon include Colonel Malaise (promoted to General), sergeant Conversation (demoted to Private) and Captain -ble Traits (who somehow ends up an Admiral, even though this appears to be the Army, not the Navy. Don’t think about it too hard). The clear favorite among everyone I’ve ever shown this to is Sergeant Eyes Are Watching You, Watching You, Watching You, who must have had a hell of a time until he was promoted to Private.

Why is this a great sketch, you might ask? Well, it’s all in the presentation. Moore compensates for the lack of action in the scene by doing all sorts of tricks with his voice and inflection. There’s a notable difference between his promotions, which he shouts with patriotic pride, and his demotions, which are delivered with wide eyes and the kind of tone you would use for the scary part of a bedtime story. Some of the titles are delivered with Moore in wide shot, but others show us his facial expressions, which remain hilariously stiff no matter what he’s saying, such as the way he pronounces “MAJOR BABE!”. Good acting, man. It can elevate anything from Shakespeare to a goofy comedy sketch about ridiculous names.

It’s a cliche, but this is the kind of thing that’s almost always way harder than it looks. I can say from experience that writing a bunch of tiny self-contained jokes can be excruciatingly difficult. It’s not what many of us instinctively do when constructing a sketch anymore, which is why there’s a kind of audacity in even trying something this groan-worthy. As a great man once said, you have to dare to be stupid.

However, pun sketches can be even harder than traditional scene-based sketches to end, and that’s evidenced with the lazy joke that caps things off here. Yes, I’m docking some points for the use of the word “retarded”. Peg me as a thin-skinned liberal all you want. It’s my blog and I say that’s a hurtful word no matter how they meant it. I understand that it was “of the times (those times being a mere eight years ago) the sketch needed a bit of a bite after so much corniness, but they could have gone with many other options before this was on the table. I call it like I see it. I’d argue that a better ending wouldn’t have even mentioned the final officer’s name, simply leaving us to do the work mentally.

That aside, this sketch has become one of those guilty pleasures that transcends its guilt factor to become legitimately kind of amazing in its own right. Whether or not it was a direct rip off, it owes a lot to Graham Chapman’s many turns as the General of Monty Python, a similarly stern figure who made everything funnier through his insistence on being proper and his failure to keep the show from being “too silly“. There’s something incongruous about a man in full military garb that just lends itself to absurdity. Anyone who takes themselves that seriously is destined to sit on a few whoopie cushions in their time, and they’ll be much less prepared to handle it than the rest of us.

I’ll always think of this sketch and others like it as a kind of tribute to the comedy that, must have, at one point, been mainstream. Puns have never really gone away, but they’re worth re-examining every once and awhile. There’s so many of them, after all.

Are you disappointed that I made it through this entire post without making any puns myself? Guess I dis-ARMed you. Get it? Like the army? Uh…well, I guess there’s a reason we should leave this to professionals.

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).

Great Sketches #7: “5 Neat Guys Neatest Hits” by SCTV

Sometimes you want to analyze a comedy sketch that deconstructs racist power structures in media or points out the insidious nature of sexism, and other times you just want to watch a bunch of hilarious people goof around. We’re going to look at a different type of sketch today, a commercial parody from the character comedy powerhouse that was SCTV that reduces me to giggles every time.

There’s a lot of backstory to SCTV, the Canadian show that went through multiple incarnations and was at one point an entire fictional TV channel filled with quirky behind the scenes antics, recurring bits, and admirably obscure pop culture references. They’re most famous for spawning the empire of laid back Canadian toque-heads Bob and Doug McKenzie, but it was also a feast of weird, wacky, and often quite sophisticated takedowns of visual culture. I’ll save an overview of the show for another day and instead focus on this sketch specifically.

Just as my generation is still in the midst of 80’s and 90’s nostalgia, the 80’s themselves were crammed with media harkening back to the glistening 50’s and 60’s, laying the groundwork for anyone who wanted to tee off against the squeaky clean white bread stereotypes of the Baby Boom. And I’m almost certain there were actual ads very similar to this sketch, milking rosy memories of tight harmony groups for every bit they were worth.

It’s hard to really describe this sketch in words because it’s so fleeting. The entire thing is basically just a faux commercial for a compilation of the hits of the “5 Neat Guys,” a bunch of cheesy-looking dudes in sweater vests who apparently used to sing about mundanities like clip-on ties and penny loafers. There’s a few wrinkles that add serious rewatch value to this bit, though, and I’m impressed that the sketch is far more layered than it seems.

The most obvious joke is that all of the songs sound the same, which makes the inane song titles like “Who Made The Egg Salad Sandwiches? and “Let’s Have A Party in My Rec Room” all the funnier (the Guys would return in a future sketch with more songs like “Put A Little Extra Relish on My Hot Dog” and “Mom Pressed the Crease in My Chinos”). That’s Level One, and it would have been enough to sustain the whole sketch, but then you get a few songs that subvert expectations by being surprisingly raunchy (the line that follows “I won’t date just any girl around” was quite the shock the first time I heard it). The more you watch this sketch, too, the more you’ll notice little lines crammed into the nooks and crannies, or how some of the tunes cut off right when things start getting suspect (“and when she wears tight sweaters/my hands begin to sweat…”).

And then there’s the acting going on here. The SCTV players took their character work seriously, even when those characters were joyously goofy or one dimensional. In addition to the songs, there’s the added joke of the gang being clearly over the hill and still trying to do their old schtick with graying hair and paunchy bellies. As Stephen Fry once said, “a young person playing an old person is always funny”. Probably not literally true, but hard to refute in many cases.

Here, each of the group’s members has a trait that they keep up throughout the commercial, so much so that it’s almost worth watching this five separate times just to focus on what each of them is doing: Rick Moranis is a deer in the headlights, Dave Thomas is over-emoting out the wazoo, Eugene Levy is a skeezy dork, Joe Flaherty is apparently a recovering alcoholic and John Candy nearly steals the entire sketch with a walrus mustache and a ridiculous smile. I remember listening to a DVD commentary for this where Flaherty lamented that his specific acting choices, looking drunk and being off-beat, were never noticed because of Candy’s fake facial hair. To me, that’s actually a bonus, since it gives you more reason to watch this sketch in the first place.

Not a lot more to say about this, I think. Commercial parodies can be formulaic, so it’s nice to see one that actually works and doesn’t rely on too many of the trope’s cliches (celebrity impressions, “if you order now, you’ll also get a free…”). The boys got a lot of mileage out of these characters, and it all started from this dumb, beautiful little bit. Keep an eye out for whatever version of this the Millennials get, probably coming soon, and almost certainly featuring Jimmy Fallon.

Great Sketches #6: “Dessert Face” by Smack The Pony

Gendering is weird. The more we learn about how artificial gender is as a construct, the more we will hopefully realize how arbitrary assigning certain characteristics is. It’s bad enough in people but plenty of inanimate objects are given “male” or “female” designations for no real reason (other than to reinforce norms and sell shit, of course). This ranges from the dreaded pink aisle to body wash in containers shaped like liquor bottles to an infamous British candy bar that literally marketed itself as being “not for girls”, all contributing to associations that are at worst toxic and at best just plain baffling.

Why am I talking about all this? Because today’s sketch is a wonderfully acerbic morsel that gives a middle finger to the nexus of feminity, sexuality, and sugary sweets. It’s from Smack The Pony, a British show from the early 2000’s I chiefly know through individual bits. The troupe consisted of a trio of British comedians (Doon Mackichian, Fiona Allen, and Sally Phillips) and while it doesn’t seem to have crossed over the pond the way other imports have, it’s at least been influential in its home country and has a bit of a cult following. A lot of StP’s work focuses on blackouts, sight gags, and broad characters, but they can also pack dense amounts of social commentary into a quick bit, as they do in this little exchange.

The setting is a blue-tinged restaurant (much of the show was set in a mysterious washed out world of harsh lighting so maybe it’s just the aesthetic of the times), and waitress Bernie (Doon Mackichan) is getting chewed out for not selling enough dessert. The problem, it seems, is that she doesn’t know how to work the customers, which requires something the manager (Fiona Allen) calls “the dessert face”. What is the dessert face? It’s a variation on what many working women and Hamilton fans will likely be familiar with: talk less, smile more. Or rather, say what we want you to say and how we want you to say it. Otherwise, the manager frets, “they’ll go straight to coffee”.

This is all in the familiar format of a teacher/student sketch, where a stooge in authority tries to teach another character something only to have their efforts go wrong, except here the subject being taught is femininity itself, conflated with the pudding trolley as something both sexualized and trivial. The restaurant wants the waitress to use her femininity to sell something based on established norms and doesn’t have time for any other interpretations. No dessert face, no job.

If it sounds heady in theory, this is all plenty funny in practice, as Doon tries out increasingly ridiculous ways to say “would you like a little dessert” over and over until her voice sounds like some sort of drunken waterfowl having a stroke.

Not to be outdone, Bernie’s boss tries three tactics to get her to improve. First, she brings in Matilda (Sally Phillips), another waitress who can do the face perfectly and has sold three whole desserts this way but is overwhelmed by existential despair (“see, the thing is, like, dessert is a fun course, you’ve got to have fun with it, otherwise where are we all? It’s all meaningless…”). When that doesn’t work, the manager tries to get Bernie in the right mindset by prompting her to say “I’m wearing pink pants” (meaning underwear) in a sexy voice. Eventually the boss decides to just outright threaten to fire her for insubordination (“are you some kind of anarchist?”). It all leads to disaster as the doomed waitress decides to shamble out with the cakes and pies and make a complete mockery of everything her manager has tried to teach her.

The first time I watched this sketch I wasn’t sure if the joke was that Doon’s character literally couldn’t do the dessert face or if she was deliberately sabotaging it as a way to buck the system. I now think it starts as the former and pretty clearly becomes the latter, which almost makes this a kind of punk statement about the need to upend sexist stereotypes, long before “fuck the patriarchy” was a social media rallying cry.

What’s also interesting is how this avoids the concerns that the 30 Rock “sexy baby” discussion or Lake Bell’s In a World… brought up, namely the idea that women shouldn’t ever categorically be allowed to be stereotypically girly if they want to be. From what I understand, the issue isn’t the behavior so much as the control. A waitress in Bernie’s position doesn’t get a chance to choose how she presents herself, unless she decides to burn it all to the ground. Which might be cathartic but could come at the cost of your job, your reputation, and your livelihood.

That’s probably enough mansplaining for me. As a straight white cis man from a very privileged background, I’m not going to pretend like I’ve gone through an ounce of what Bernie goes through here. All I’ll say is if you believe that comedy can help encourage empathy then maybe this is one way to help draw awareness to a real problem.

One last confession: the irony of it all is that this sketch actually does make me want a little dessert. Or should that be deshurrrrrrrt…?