Today in Tedium: Americans have a really hard time talking about so many topics. Given the ubiquity of social media, you might think I’m being deliberately obtuse. I don’t think I am; race, gender, LGTBQ+, politics, among others are widely discussed but anyone that’s spent any time online knows that almost all those conversations happen in echo chambers or they quickly fall into chaos. Admittedly, trying to have a “reasonable” conversation with someone who believes you have fewer rights over your body (whether reproductive or simply the right not to have your teeth kicked in by law enforcement) is all but impossible. However, one topic that almost all Americans, regardless of political persuasion, are loath to discuss is the subject of class. Today’s Tedium is looking at one of the most iconic sketches in the history of British comedy to understand the lack of discussion around class in America and what it says about even the most “cynical” of Americans. — Andrew @ Tedium
The current score for Killing It, a new show starring Craig Robinson (of The Office and “you can’t out pizza the hut” fame), on Metacritic. Airing on NBC’s totally necessary addition to the streaming world, Peacock, the network announced the show has been renewed for a second season. Killing It was also the centerpiece of a fantastic article that appeared recently in Vulture.
Killing It, the hit Peacock comedy starring Craig Robinson, offers a solid discussion on economic class.
Comedy is a great way to examine how societies understand social and economic class
Last week, Roxana Hadidi, a TV critic at Vulture, penned an excellent overview of the wave of new blue-collar sitcoms swarming new streaming services titled “Working Class Sitcoms Strike Back.” (Almost universally, this new wave has been relegated to streaming services rather than actual TV.) At the center of the piece is the above-mentioned Killing It, which makes clear that the “villain” of the show is actually not any one person but “the fantasy of upward mobility”.
To say working class sitcoms are new to America would obviously be untrue as the genre goes back to the early days of the form with The Honeymooners and continued with All in the Family, The Simpsons, and Married With Children, among many others. But Hadidi notes in this new wave, which also includes Bust Down, Reservation Dogs, South Side, and Flatbush Misdemeanors, “These comedies poke at the grind-set mind-set and treat the increasingly distant goals of homeownership (currently experiencing a wider gap between Black and white communities than in 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed) and retirement with both cheeky mockery and bittersweet longing.” If you rewatch Married With Children or Roseanne, those families have homes millennials and Gen Z wouldn’t dare dream of. Contrasted with sitcoms with characters in better economic circumstances, like Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory or How I Met Your Mother, and the theme of two Americas is readily apparent. One is upwardly mobile; the other is left to laugh at the idea of bettering their circumstances because there is no good alternative.
And this brings me to one of my favorite movies, The Big Short. In one of Ryan Gosling’s many rants to Steve Carrell’s hedge fund, he accuses the group of being faux cynics with an underlying belief in the system.
”Yes, there’s some shady s*** going down. But trust me, it’s fueled by stupidity. Look at yourselves, you know you pass yourselves off as cynical people but you still have some faith in the system, don’t you?“ (For the record, Vinnie doesn’t.)
This inherent faith in the system, especially the American way of life, is rife throughout the country’s pop culture and especially apparent in working class sitcoms. This was pretty obvious with earlier iterations like All in the Family, Married With Children, and The Simpsons. Archie Bunker was notoriously conservative and a proud American in the 1970s vein, i.e. bristling against any criticism of The Vietnam War. Homer Simpson regularly shouts “U.S.A.!” But the new wave is also guilty of faith in the system, even if it’s just a starting point for the evolution of their characters. Robinson’s character in Killing It pleads with an investor to “Please reward my faith.” Spoiler, he doesn’t get the investment.
To a certain extent, these depictions of faith in the American way make sense. The second half of the 20th century was fantastically lucrative to large swaths of the country, though largely concentrated in the hands of white males that were often the focus of many working class sitcoms. Contrast with how British comedians joke about their class system and the differences are quite stark. Amazingly, we only need to look at one sketch to see it.
The year “The Class Sketch” debuted on The Frost Report. Hosted by legendary interviewer David Frost, who would come to international prominence for his interview with former President Richard Nixon, the BBC show was a satirical take on British politics and society. The Frost Report can also be seen as a forerunner to similar American shows like The Daily Show or SNL’s Weekend Update. But its most enduring legacy is likely a single sketch featuring now iconic British comedians, and one face familiar to American audiences.
What Americans can learn from a 60-year-old British comedy sketch
Before diving into an analysis of “The Class Sketch”, it’s worth discussing the three actors involved: Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker, and John Cleese. That last name would go on to become one of the founding members of “Monty Python”, arguably one of the most famous comedy troupes of all time. But it’s the first two names, who themselves would go on to become an iconic British comedy duo known as “The Two Ronnies”, that are especially fascinating within the context of the time the sketch was created.
Like the US, the British entertainment industry has long been dominated by graduates of a few elite institutions. In the UK, these are known by the portmanteau “Oxbridge”, a combination of Oxford and Cambridge. The amount of British celebrities that are alumni of these schools is staggering. David Mitchell, Stephen Fry, Mel Giedroyc, Jimmy Carr, John Oliver, and Richard Ayoade all went to Cambridge. Kate Beckinsale, Emma Watson, Hugh Grant, and Rowan Atkinson went to Oxford. Historically, Oxbridge graduates are heavily associated with Britain’s upper class. This association runs so deep that having a certain accent marks some as Oxbridge. Here’s British comedian Lee Mack making this erroneous assumption to hilarious effect in an episode of Would I Lie to You?:
The joke really starts at 1:05 but it’s worth watching the lot.
What’s interesting about “The Two Ronnies”, especially in that era of British entertainment, is that neither had Oxbridge backgrounds. Ronnie Corbett was the son of a baker who managed to earn the distinction of the shortest commissioned officer in the entire British military. Ronnie Barker had a more middle class upbringing as the son of clerk. Still, neither had attended university, let alone institutions as prestigious as Oxford or Cambridge. But they managed to crack the business, landing acting roles while also working the occasional side job. When they got hired on The Frost Report, they were again surrounded by Oxbridge grads. With the help of one of the show’s writers from a similar background, they turned their common backgrounds into comedy gold.
Co-written with Marty Feldman, who you might know as Igor from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, “The Class Sketch” featured Cleese, Barker, and Corbett representing the upper class, the middle class, and the working class respectively. The dialog and jokes are pretty straightforward with the characters announcing their class and how it makes them feel. The height of the actors works to highlight their respective “positions” while being visually funny. Each actor gets at least one joke in the approximate minute and thirty second sketch, though much of the heavy lifting is done by Corbett’s working class, an ingenious reflection of actual society.
One of the biggest divergences in class depiction in this sketch relative to American comedy comes from the upper class’s admission they do not have any money but that he feels superior due to their “innate breeding”. The middle class agrees this is also why they look up to the upper class despite actually having money. In America, wealth and class are usually seen as one in the same. But breeding has a great many connotations.
Take this wonderfully well-timed July 12th tweet as an example:
Funny; speaks to the entrenched powers in the US; meant in jest and all seriousness. All in all, a top notch tweet. However, getting into an Ivy before 1906 implied a certain type of breeding, namely white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant men. And even then, admission was still largely restricted to those with well to do parents, i.e. the kind of people who could afford to educate their children at a time when child labor laws were just being introduced. Over time, this “breeding” standard weakened as Ivy League schools began to admit Catholic and Jewish men. Black men were not widely admitted until WW2. Women struggled to gain admission well into the 1970s. And the 1980s. And the 1990s. These are probably the clearest reasons why class and wealth are perceived to be highly correlated. It’s also one of the major reasons why discussions of class in America are almost always tied to discussions on race. When privilege is open to a select few, they gather wealth and power, solidifying their position until external forces push for change.
One could argue the forces of change have been much slower to act in Britain as their class system is still very much alive and well. When British academic and sociologist Richard Hoggart passed away in 2014, many of his eulogies noted his somewhat ironic writing on class, “Class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves. Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.”
This sentiment has been readily apparent among Britain’s intellectual elite, the BBC notes, since the early 20th century. Yet British comedy has been reliably mining the class system for comedy gold for nearly as long. Take the classic Blackadder, as an example, the anthology comedy that changed time periods every series. Across its four series, the show placed its star, Rowan Atkinson, as Edmund Blackadder, the head of an aristocratic dynasty. In the first season, he is a bumbling buffoon with extreme dignity and a high opinion of himself. He changes for the latter series, but a less than intelligent aristocrat is usually among the cast of characters. Here’s Hugh Laurie playing that role to perfection in the third series:
(As a quick aside, the slow British member of the upper class does pop up in American sitcoms. The Jeffersons take is especially interesting as the couple moves into a luxury apartment building only to find one of their neighbors is a good-natured UN translator. The Jefferson’s only found “their piece of the pie” after founding a successful dry cleaning chain.)
A common thread across British comedy, as seen in the presence of class across centuries in Blackadder or the direct confrontation of class in “The Class Sketch”, is a resignation to the system. It’s not there to lift anyone up; the best an average person can hope for is middle class stability. The only thing the upper class has to fear is downward movement, which is unlikely no matter how stupid or financially inept. What’s left for the British working class is the punchline to “The Class Sketch” … a pain in the neck.
British comedy might bemoan the class system, but they find humor in being resigned to it. That resignation isn’t a good thing but it’s understandable as their system is derived from an aristocratic system that still wields considerable power. I mean, they still have a monarch and actual aristocrats. You’re born into those positions. Rising to them is the stuff of literal legend.
I admit, I’m skipping over large chunks of America’s sitcom and comedy history. And I’ve only briefly acknowledged the American relationship between race and class. These issues are not divorced, they are intimately intertwined. I’m not entirely sure Americans possess the shared emotional language to discuss class, or race, or any of the larger topics that plague our country. Just looking at our comedy, there isn’t a shared perspective. I might as well be shouting, “Look at our history!” Still, there’s more to it.
The American class system is different for so many reasons, but a big one is that Americans often don’t think there is one. This is a clear feature of American sitcoms featuring working class families. The examples are many and, considering the whole, there’s a mosaic of the American working class to be found. But almost all of these shows, from The Jeffersons to The Simpsons, accept and participate in an American society that believes, on an innate level, that anyone can better their circumstances. The new wave of American working class sitcoms are tossing a British scoff at the idea. Any understanding of the American working class to be found in comedic representation is scatter shot, at best. There is no one representation of the American class system in any form. The British show theirs in a single sketch.
Thanks again to Andrew for a thoughtful piece on comedy and the nature of class. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!
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