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Classy comedy

Steptoe and Son 1970
Conflict and class - the ingredients for Steptoe and Son
British comedy is still all about class, according to Zadie Smith.

"I think it's the thing the British are most able to laugh at and least able to deal with in their real lives," the novelist says.

"Comedy is the place to put all those anxieties."

The fascination is one she shares with her friend Russell Kane - who she asked to investigate the link between the British class system and what makes us laugh.

Jokes run through Zadie Smith's family: her brother is a comedian and her father was fascinated by British humour. "My father had few enthusiasm, but he loved comedy," she writes in the New Yorker.

He found Britain hard, she writes. "It was still a nation divided by postcodes and accents, schools and last names.

"The humour of its people was what made it bearable. You don't have to be funny to live here, but it helps. Harvey, Hancock, Fawlty, Partridge, Brent: in my mind, they're all trying to cling on to the middle rungs of England's class ladder.

"That, in large part, is the comedy of their situations."

Her father's favourite was Tony Hancock, that quintessentially English comic, poorly educated, working class - but with pretensions.

Kane himself has long recognised that class and comedy is a fascinating combination to the British.

Basil and Sybil Fawlty
You snobs! You stupid... stuck-up... half-witted... upper-class piles of... pus!
Basil Fawlty
"Ten years ago when I was still at college (just to see what it'd feel like) I became a Lord," he explains.

"I walked into a solicitors and legally changed my title. Not only was I shocked and disappointed to see the staff of ASDA bob deferentially when presented with my credit card for some value beans, I was also amused.

"It was, in short, very funny, toying with how the average Brit perceived social rank. I was obsessed then, I'm obsessed now, and British comedy has been shaped by class from the start."

What are those comedy classics? As well as Tony Hancock, there is the appalling snob Basil Fawlty, the equally appalling Alan Partridge.

Each one is mired in class-consciousness and each one suffers indignities brought about as a result of their snobbishness.

But while sit com seems to be mired in the nuances of middle class angst, comedian Jeff Innocent asserts that stand up is a working class art form.

"Comedy as expressed through the stand up comedian has been fuelled by the working class experience and has been central to the working class experience for nearly a century," he says.

But as Al Murray says: "I have been asked, don't you think you're being terribly patronising to the working classes by playing this guy as an idiot? No. There are fools everywhere.

"Who cares what class the fool is? The thing that interests me about him is that he is in authority because he runs a pub but he has no actual power - he's writing intellectual cheques that are bigger than he can cash.

"That's the British class system all over - we all want to be his nibs, don't we?"

Classy quotes

Harold Steptoe: "You are a dyed-in-the-wool, fascist, reactionary, squalid little, 'know your place', 'don't rise above yourself', 'don't get out of your hole' - complacent little turd."

Blackadder: "I've no desire to hang around with a bunch of upper-class delinquents, do twenty minutes' work and then spend the rest of the day loafing about in Paris drinking gallons of champagne and having dozens of moist, pink, highly experienced French peasant girls galloping up and down my - hang on... "

Basil Fawlty: You don't have a first name?
Lord Melbury: No, I am Lord Melbury, so I simply sign myself Melbury.
Basil Fawlty: [to phone] Go away.
[Puts phone down]
Basil Fawlty: ... I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting, your lordship... I do apologize, please forgive me. Now, was there something, is there something, anything, I can do for you? Anything at all?

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