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The Bookshop Sketch (or How to Infuriate the Staff at a Bookshop)

Way back in 1967 John Cleese and Marty Feldman produced a hilarious sketch called The Bookshop. (It was not subtitled “How to Infuriate the Staff at a Bookshop”, but that is what it is about.) It was a hoot then and it is still very funny, and it is one of my favourites that I watch again every so often. It’s a treat to read the script of the sketch, and it’s worth taking a closer look at it to appreciate the witty wording and the thinking behind it.

Looking at this bit of fun more closely reveals that there is much more to it than meets the eye. It has lasted so long because is multi-layered and very well thought out. Its popularity and classic form have made it part of many TV Tropes, specifically the Tropes called Covers Always Lie and The Unsatisfiable Customer.

There are many versions of the sketch by different artists. In each version the mangled book titles and authors used in it are slightly different. The two most well-known versions are the original one from 1967 with Cleese and Feldman, and the version with Marty Feldman and John Junkin, which aired in 1970.

The original

The script, below, is of the original version and is written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. In it, Marty Feldman plays a dithering, purposefully maddening customer, and John Cleese plays a snooty but increasingly panicked and overwrought salesman at the bookshop, a precursor of his “Basil Fawlty” character. It was originally performed in At Last The 1948 Show (1967 – 1968), and can now be seen on BritBoxTV.

A reworked version of the sketch was released on Side 2 of the LP Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album in 1980, though the sketch has nothing to do with Monty Python, other than that Cleese co-wrote it and performed in the original version. On this recording in particular, there is a Shout-Out Trope, in literary terms, an allusion; the script mentions “The Gospel According To Charley Drake”; Charles “Charlie” Edward Springall (19 June 1925 – 23 December 2006) was a well-known British comedian.

You can listen to the audio of the LP on YouTube, including The Bookshop. The scribble in the bottom left-hand corner of the “undesigned” LP sleeve cover is a conversation between Eric Idle and Terry Jones of Monty Python:
Eric Idle: Can T.G. do a nice eye-catching cover to help it sell?
Terry Jones: Not really worth it.

The second version, called Marty Amok!, was an Easter special episode of the Marty Feldman sketch show, It’s Marty, which was originally aired on 30 March 1970 on BBC 1 TV. (The video is below.) Marty Feldman portrays the same character, and John Junkin plays the bookshop salesman, more courteous initially, but no less frantic later.

Reason for the funny?

This piece uses a slew of comedic devices to create humour, from double entendres and puns, to understatement, incongruity, mistaken identity, irony and sarcasm.

Key amongst the reasons for it being so funny is that Feldman’s character uses the most common ways of mixing up words, in this case the names of authors and books; homonyms, spoonerisms, misspellings, puns, malapropisms, etc. That is a comedy staple, and it’s cleverly done.

The misspelled names mentally challenge the audience to respond with corrections, in particular a British audience: In order to find “Coperfield” and “Dikkens” amusing, you have to in the first place know the correct spelling of Charles Dickens and the titles of his books, and the same for the other familiar books to which the sketch refers.

It illustrates one way of provoking a response from anyone who thinks they know better – which is most people. A bookshop staff member would be unable to resist correcting the customer. After all, literature is their area of expertise.

This device ties in with the main idea of the sketch, that of the Unsatisfiable Customer, a universally recognizable scenario. But being recognizable does not make it any less funny.

The repartee between the two, and their opposing character types (suited, formal and business-like, versus shabby, strange and intent on wasting time) also create amusement.

And now for the (very famous) Bookshop Sketch

No gannets were harmed in the making of this sketch. However, no bookshop stocks the Expurgated Version of Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds, which excludes Gimlet-Eyed Gannets.
Date: 5 Apr 1994 04:34:26 GMT
Organization: The University of Western Australia
Source: Greg O'Beirne
Source:     "No More Curried Eggs For Me"
Compiled by:      Roger Wilmut
Published by:      Metheun, London, 1983
        The predecessor to Monty Python's Flying Circus was
        "At Last The 1948 Show". It consisted of two series
        of programmes broadcast by ITV in 1967.  The sketch
        included here was written by John Cleese and Graham
        Chapman, and was first broadcast on 1st March 1967.
        The performers were Cleese and Marty Feldman, then
        at the beginning of his career as a television and
        film performer."
Here is the script as they performed it:
BookSeller = John Cleese (C)
Customer = Marty Feldman (F)
*---* = Said with emphasis
----- = Spelled out
C:      Good morning, sir.
F:      Good morning, can you help me?  Do you have a copy of "Thirty
        Days in the Samarkand Desert With A Spoon" by A.J.Elliot?
C:      No, we haven't got it in stock, sir.
F:      How about "A Hundred-and-One Ways to Start a Monsoon"?
C:      By...?
F:      An Indian gentleman whose name eludes me for the moment.
C:      Well, I don't know the book, sir.
F:      Not to worry, not to worry.  Can you help me with "David
C:      Ah, yes, Dickens.
F:      No.
C:      I beg your pardon?
F:      No, Edmund Wells.
C:      I think you'll find Charles Dickens wrote "David Copperfield".
F:      No, Charles Dickens wrote "David Copperfield" with two p's
        - this is "David Coperfield" with one p by Edmund Wells.
C:      Well in that case we don't have it.
F:      Um - funny, you've got a lot of books here.
C:      Yes, we do have quite a lot of books here, but we don't have
        "David Coperfield" with one p by Edmund Wells.  We only
        have "David Copperfield" with two p's by Charles Dickens.
F:      Pity - it's more thorough than Dickens.
C:      More *thorough*??
F:      Yes - I wonder if it's worth having a look at all the "David
C:      No, no, I'm quite sure that all our "David Copperfields" have
        two p's.
F:      Probably, but the original by Edmund Wells also had two p's
        - it was after that that they ran into copyright difficulties.
C:      No, I'm quite sure that all our "David Copperfields" with two
        p's are by Charles Dickens.
F:      How about "Great Expectations"?
C:      Ah yes, we have that...
F:      That's "G-r-a-t-e Expectations", also by Edmund Wells.
C:      *G-R-A-T-E*...Well, in that case we don't have it - we don't have         
        anything by Edmund Wells, actually - he's not very popular.
F:      Not "Nicholas Nickleby?  That's K-n-i-c-k-e-r-b-y...Knickerless?
C:      No.
F:      Or "A Qristmas Qarol" with a q?
C:      No, definitely not.
F:      Sorry to trouble you.{Almost heads out the door.}
C:      Not at all.
F:      I wonder if you have "Rarnaby Budge"?
C:      No, as I say, we're right out of Edmund Wells.
F:      No, not Edmund Wells - Charles Dickens.
C:      Charles Dickens?
F:      Yes.
C:      You mean "Barnaby Rudge".
F:      No, "Rarnaby Budge" by Charles Dikkens - that's Dikkens with
        two k's, the well-known Dutch author.
C:      No, no - we don't have "Rarnaby Budge" by Charles Dikkens with
        two k's, the well-known Dutch author, and perhaps to save time
        I should add right away that we don't have "Carnaby Fudge" by
        Darles Tikkens, nor "Stickwick Stapers" by Miles Pikkens with
        four m's and a silent q.  Why don't you try the chemist?
F:      I have - they sent me here.
C:      Did they.
F:      I wonder if you have "The Amazing Adventures of Captain Gladys
        Stoat-Pamphlet and Her Intrepid Spaniel Stig Among the Giant
        Pygmies of Corsica", Volume Two?
C:      No, no, we don't have that one - funny, we've got quite a lot
        of books here.
F:      Yes, haven't you.
C:      Well, I mustn't keep you standing around all day...
F:      I wonder...
C:      No, no, we haven't. - I'm closing for lunch now...
F:      But I thought I saw it over *there*. 
C:      Where?
F:      Over there...
C:      What?
F:      Olsen's "Standard Book of British Birds".
C:      Olsen's "Standard Book of British Birds"?
F:      Yes.
C:      *O-l-s-e-n*?
F:      Yes.
C:      *B-i-r-d-s*?
F:      Yes.
C:      Yes, well we do have that one.
F:      The expurgated version, of course.
C:      I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that.
F:      The expurgated version.
C:      The *expurgated* version of Olsen's "Standard Book Of British
F:      Yes.  It's the one without the gannet.
C:      The one without the gannet?  They've all got the gannet -
        it's a standard bird, the gannet - it's in all the books.
F:      Well I don't like them, long nasty beaks they've got.
C:      Well you can't expect them to produce a special edition for
F:      Well, I'm sorry, I specially want the one without the gannet.
C:      All right! {tears out illustration} Anything else?
F:      Well, I'm not too keen on robins.
C:      Right!  Robins - robins... {tears them out}  No gannets, no
        robins -  there's your book!
F:      I can't buy that - it's torn!
C:      It's torn!  So it is!  {Throws it away}
F:      I wonder if you've got...
C:      Go on, ask me another - we've got lots of books here - this
        is a bookshop you know!
F:      How about "Biggles Combs His Hair"?
C:      No, no, no, we don't have that one, no, no, funny - try me
F:      Have you got "Ethel The Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying"?
C:      No, no, we haven't got - which one?
F:      "Ethel The Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying"
C:      *"Ethel The Aardvark"*?  I've seen it!  We've got it! Here!
        Here!  Here! "Ethel The Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying".
        There!  Now - *buy* it!
F:      I haven't got enough money on me.
C:      I'll take a deposit!
F:      I haven't got *any* money on me.
C:      I'll take a cheque!
F:      I haven't got a cheque-book.
C:      It's all right, I've got a blank one!
F:      I don't have a bank account.
C:      Right!  I'll buy it for you! {rings it up}  There we are,
        there's your change - that's for the taxi on the way home -
F:      Wait, wait, wait...
C:      WHAT? WHAT?
F:      I can't read!
C:      Right- SIT!... {customer plops down on the salesman's lap;
        Salesman starts to read from the book}
        "Ethel The Aardvark was trotting down the lane
        one lively Summer day, trottety-trottety-trot, when she saw a
        Quantity Surveyor...."
The End.

Bookshops are funny (ha-ha) places

Bookstores are the perfect place to screw up names and titles. The possibilities are endless. This causes many strange and funny comments that have circulated on social media. And of course the things customers come up with (or fail to come up with) can infuriate bookshop staffers. Writer and blogger Jen Campbell, inspired by the strange conversations she overheard at the bookstore she worked at, started a blog chronicling the funniest ones and compiled them in her book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores.

“Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops”, by Jen Campbell (first edition: 1st Edition, April 1, 2012)
That should be either “Fiddler on the Roof”, the screenplay, or “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, the novel by Tennessee Williams. From: “Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops”, by Jen Campbell (first edition: 1st Edition, April 1, 2012).
That should be either “Tequila Sunrise” (the movie) or “To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee. From “Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops”, by Jen Campbell.
The book “Tequila Mockingbird”, by Tim Federle, actually exists! It was published a year after Campbell’s book, in April 2013, and is one in the series, “The Tequila Mockingbird Books: Cocktails with a Literary Twist”. It includes the original “Tequila Mockingbird” book, “Gone with the Gin”, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margarita”, and the cocktail recipes included in each.

(Above: Two comments from Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, by Jen Campbell (first edition: 1st Edition, April 1, 2012)

From Twitter thread
From Twitter thread
From Twitter thread

Alas, online bookshops are simply not that funny. I have yet to laugh at anything on Amazon.

1 comment on “The Bookshop Sketch (or How to Infuriate the Staff at a Bookshop)

  1. Ag heerlik! (Ek sou ook nie daai gannet in ‘n boek wou sien nie.)

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