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.