Asked by Time magazine to name his favorite sketches among all those he has written or performed in, John Cleese deliberately excluded most of his Monty Python work. Instead he turned deeper into his back pages, all the way to At Last the 1948 Show, which originally aired on ITV in 1967. (Its title referenced the long delays inflicted by television’s executive decision-making processes.) The program was conceived at the behest of broadcaster David Frost, who’d previously engaged Cleese and fellow Cambridge Footlights alumnus (and future Python) Graham Chapman to write and perform on The Frost Report, one of the major fruits of the “satire boom” in mid-1960s Britain.
“We would come up with crazy ideas, and all the writers would roar with laughter at the table,” Cleese remembered of his Frost Report experience in a 2014 Q&A at the British Film Institute. But however hilarious, these ideas would inevitably be rejected for the reason that “they won’t get it in Bradford.”
The late-night 1948 Show let Cleese and his collaborators, including comedian Marty Feldman, take a few more chances: “We knew that not everyone in Bradford would get it, so were taking a little bit of a bet that enough people would get it.” This resulted in sketches like “The Bookshop,” in which Feldman’s customer makes a series of impossible demands of Cleese’s shopkeeper, allowing the latter to showcase his already well-honed ability to perform frustration boiling over into derangement.
Cleese, who still gets comedic mileage out of his upright “establishment” appearance, seems to have specialized in playing such absurdly burdened businessmen. His most iconic role must be the clenched, boorish hotelier Basil Fawlty, played in the post-Python series Fawlty Towers, but he was essaying such figures long before. Take the farcical sketch about a hard-of-hearing eyewear dealer, which later evolved into a segment of the German special Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus from 1972. Earlier that year, Monty Python’s Flying Circus put Cleese on the customer’s side of the counter, opposite Michael Palin’s cheese shop owner who evidently refuses to stock all known varieties of cheese. Though it didn’t originate on the 1948 Show, the now-immortal “cheese shop sketch” was written as another Cleese-Chapman collaboration — and one that displays a firm commitment to customer service, or the lack thereof, as comic material.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.