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.