In 1968, a group of young English comedians made a TV special called How to Irritate People. Pitched for the U.S. market, the show was meant to get Americans excited about a new wave of British comedy. It failed in that aim, but one of its sketches retains high interest for the archaeologist of humor. Written by a couple of Cambridge graduates named John Cleese and Graham Chapman, the sketch is set in the workshop of a shady car salesman. A disgruntled customer, played by Chapman, returns his new car and registers a few complaints: The gear lever is loose. The brakes don’t work. Before the sketch is over, the vehicle’s doors have fallen off.
But the dodgy salesman—played by a promising comedian named Michael Palin—has an answer for everything. “You must expect teething troubles in these new models,” he says. In real life, Palin had been sold a defective car himself, and he had entertained Cleese with impersonations of his stonewalling dealer. The resulting sketch, which can be dug up on YouTube, took a few comic liberties with Palin’s real-life experiences—a few, but not enough. Like a lot of apprentice work, it’s too respectful of convention and literal truth to strike a distinctive note. [Read more]