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…?

Great Sketches #5: “7 Times 13” by Abbot and Costello

Since I’ve covered sketches that were firmly conceived for television thus far, I thought I’d go a little bit further back for something a little more classic. To many people, the names “Abbot and Costello” are synonymous with “Who’s On First?”, perhaps the most famous bit of American comedy ever produced. It’s justly influential, and as such I’ve decided there’s really no reason to cover it or analyze it further. So instead, let’s look at a different bit from the same duo, one that also showcases their strengths. (Technically, there’s a difference between a skit, a bit, and a sketch, but for my purposes I’m going to count this as a “sketch”. My blog series, my rules.).

In his sci-fi comedy novel The Road to Mars, Eric Idle expounded on the theory of the White Face/Red Nose approach to comedy duos: in circuses, the clown with the white face was the one throwing the pie, and the clown with the red nose was the one getting hit in the face with it. What’s fascinating is how this essential duo shows up all over the world in different comedy settings, from Italian commedia dell’arte to Chinese crosstalk routines. Whether it’s a stern parent and an unruly child, a mean teacher and a motormouthed student, an army colonel and a goofy cadet or whatever other calculus you wish, the roots are often the same.

And speaking of calculus, our sketch today centers around crooked math and the way a shifty trickster character tries to beat the system. You don’t need to know Abbot and Costello’s stage personas to enjoy this  bit, since they’re instantly recognizable, but it helps. Abbott is the raspy-voiced crank, Costello is the whining loudmouth with the New York accent, and the crux of the sketch hinges on a challenge from one to the other.

Like many vaudeville bits, this one has many iterations. I’m using this particular version from YouTube because it has a live audience and does, in fact, feature both Bud and Lou, unlike some of the other variations you can find. Nevermind the stuff at the beginning about the passport and the angry landlord: the meat of this sketch comes from nimble delivery and the chemistry between its performers. Abbott and Costello are justly famous for both.

Costello, in his shabby suit and puffed-up hat, has to prove that he paid seven weeks’ worth of rent with just $28 (the actual rent amount he owes is only $91, which in 2018 wouldn’t even pay my January electric bill for a two-bedroom apartment). First he tries division, in a sequence that gets the biggest laughs from me, where he makes a big deal out of the physical size of the numbers on the chalkboard (“That’s a cute little two! I’m not gonna push that big seven into that little two!”). I love the way he seems to revel in pissing off Abbott, who just wants him to get on with it, already. This is actually a genius move because it stokes the Tall Scowly One’s impatience so much that it increases what Costello can get away with. Using the tried and true techniques of asking his mark for permission and varying the pace of his patter, Costello magically gets the right numbers to appear on the board, and that’s all that matters to him. The audience roars with applause (“Don’t encourage him, please!”).

Not to be outdone, Abbott asks him to do it again with multiplication this time. This is a perfect escalation, because the straight man is now so confident that he’s calling the shots that he doesn’t notice Costello switching the game up until it’s too late, adding two of the numbers at the last minute to get 28. Finally, Abbott demands addition and counts the threes himself: there’s no possible way he can screw this up. Just as he’s about to triumphantly prove Costello wrong, Lou swoops in with the punchline, again beating his foil and producing 28. By the time we’ve processed what he’s done he’s streaked across the finish line, leaving chaos in his wake.

American comedy and vaudeville in particular is infatuated with the idea of fast-talking con-men, including Mark Twain’s hustler characters, Bugs Bunny, and even someone like Tony Stark. The Founding Fathers themselves are often portrayed as scrappy heroes pit against the establishment. There’s an undeniable dark side to these kinds of performances,  from their links to minstrel shows to the parallels in Trumpism and demogogues, but something about the joy of this specific routine is downright infectious. I believe that everyone who strives to write comedy secretly wants to create something as well-constructed as an old-time back and forth like this.