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!

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