Is there something in the water in England that promotes great sketch-comedy duos? Maybe a buddy system in their preschools that fosters fractious yet productive partnerships? There’s Fry and Laurie, Mitchell and Webb, the Mighty Boosh, Chip and Pin — I’m only scratching the surface. One that has gotten less play in America is Smith and Jones. Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones spun out of Not the Nine O’Clock News and into ten seasons and two Christmas specials. The duo also founded Talkback, a production company that shaped British comedy for decades. Talkback produced so many things, among them Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Big Train, Brass Eye, Jam, Da Ali G Show, Green Wing, Smack the Pony, Nathan Barley, Look Around You, The Armando Iannucci Shows, and the Alan Partridge entertainment-industrial complex of shows. Without Talkback, it’s arguable we wouldn’t have Borat or Veep or Shaun of the Dead.
Seth Meyers, whose Netflix special debuts today, first encountered Smith and Jones on Dutch television in the late ’90s. The sketch that stuck with him, “Nazi Generals,” came from series five, which first aired a full decade before he saw it rerun on a Dutch BBC affiliate. He spoke with Vulture about how Smith and Jones changed the way he thinks about World War II movies forever, the rule of fours, and the eternal appeal of accents in sketch comedy.
Why did you want to talk about this particular Smith and Jones sketch?
Oh, just because I think it’s a perfect piece of sketch comedy. I lived in Amsterdam for a couple years, working for a comedy theater called Boom Chicago. My roommates were Allison Silverman and Pete Grosz, who are still very successful comedy writers. And we were basically limited to watching BBC because we didn’t enjoy watching Dutch television, not speaking Dutch. Every now and then, we would find a British show we had no knowledge of. And Smith and Jones is one of those. I don’t really remember us watching it with any regularity, but I do remember watching this sketch and the consensus being that it was a perfect comedy sketch.
What about it is perfect to you?
That I’ve never seen a movie with a Nazi in it since and not thought of this sketch. It laid out a mental infrastructure for me that I have not been able to shake loose of my brain.
It is perfect, but it’s almost shocking that it works. Because in some ways, it’s just a list.
But it still manages to escalate and ratchet up the tension. You don’t think there can be another Nazi stereotype, and then they find one.
Especially the fourth guy. It’s that thing of calling your shot and doing it. It’s basically a game of Horse: The Nazi general who says he doesn’t have to give the same enthusiastic “Heil Hitler,” and then he does it, and it’s kind of perfect. So even though he told you he was going to do it, until he does it, you don’t realize how perfect it is. The three actors other than Smith and Jones are fantastic.
I took this very seriously. I wanted to find something that you Vulture people weren’t going to tell me you already knew.
You nailed it. I recognized Mel Smith from The Princess Bride, but I hadn’t seen this show at all.
Every time I try to remember the name of this sketch, I go “What was the name of that show?” Because I watched [Smith and Jones during] an era of television when you couldn’t hit a button to see the title of the show you were watching. I always had to go to the Princess Bride IMDB page and work backward to find Mel Smith.
But in my research, I realized they created Talkback, a production company that’s done about half of all British comedy for the past 30 years.
Well there you go. That’s a detail I didn’t know. That’s great to hear.
You could argue that this sketch is making fun of Nazis, but it’s really more about clichés in movies.
Yes. But I will say, I also found in my few years living in Europe — living in Holland and watching a lot of English television — I think they do a lot more Nazi humor there than we do here. And they started kind of right after World War II. There was never even an issue of whether it was too soon or not. But, yes, it certainly nails the movie tropes any time there is a Nazi general in cinema.
Do other wars have those same codified roles in movies? Vietnam uses the same songs over and over again, but are there those stock characters?
I think there’s that thing, in American war movies, there’s always that new guy who joins the … I’m realizing my lack of military vocabulary. The troupe? When he joins the cast, there’s always a guy named Tex, a guy named Preacher, a guy from Brooklyn who talks with a cartoony Italian accent about how much he misses pizza pie.
But what’s so nice about this sketch is what a thin slice it was. It wasn’t even just Germans in war movies; it’s specifically generals. And also, the very impressive rule of fours before the closer. Because you would think you would do three and then get out. But as I pointed out, the fourth one is actually the best, and then they actually have a pretty good out. I’ve worked on some sketch shows, and it’s hard to find a good out.
When I first watched the sketch, I thought it ended on a punchline. But really, they’re just fulfilling the brief. You’re so relieved for the fifth guy to find his thing that it releases the tension in the same way.
I really like the move that [the fifth general] comes in doing things that have already been taken, but that would only be satisfying if there was then a fifth one they hadn’t done yet. To some degree, you are trying to think about what it is before it happens, because you know the game so well now. It’s such an easy-to-follow game, and yet it still surprised me. One of the highest pieces of praise I can give this piece is that it’s a tight three and a half minutes.
Is that brevity important to you?
It’s just impressive. There are so many great details in it. When it’s over, you’re actually kind of surprised to see it’s only been three and a half minutes. It doesn’t feel short. It’s just incredibly efficient; there’s no fat on that sketch at all.
There are a lot of amazing accents in this sketch, too.
I sent this sketch to Seth Reiss, who’s a writer on our show, who wrote “Boston Accent.” Which, of course, having watched this, [I thought], Oh this is a very similar game.
But I feel very strongly about accents. I think they are great all the time. And I would say that Boston and German are probably my top two. Very different kinds of people that use those accents, but both very deep comic goldmines.
You selected a sketch about Nazis, and we are in a time that maybe necessitates a lot of sketches about Nazis.
It should be noted that when I first saw this sketch, in the late ’90s, I had zero fear about Nazis making a comeback. I hadn’t put that much thought into it.
It is more a sketch about World War II movies than about the Nazis themselves.
It is. And I’ve got to be honest, I feel like our current Nazis are not going to be as cinema-friendly, in general. That wouldn’t be my biggest criticism of them, but it’s one of them.
Your new Netflix special gives people the option to “Skip Politics” if they want with the press of a button. Why go full Bandersnatch?
It was the idea of seeing Bandersnatch and realizing Oh, that’s a thing you can do on a platform like this.
You also close with a chunk from your wife’s perspective. Why end with that?
It tied it together, and put it together in a way that essentially called back earlier material. I’m very lucky to have a wife who is incredibly supportive and gives a lot of feedback. There were times when she would point out her point of view over material in my show. I didn’t have any interest in changing my original joke about something that happened, [but] it seemed as though it would be really fun and funny to turn it around and allow her to have her say, so to speak.
That’s something I love about Late Night: You see the utility of lifting up other voices.
I’ve had a very lucky career in that I’ve gotten to say a lot of stuff that other people have written for me, but I’ve also gotten to write a lot of things that other people have been able to say. You work at SNL and you find yourself, at times, getting to write for people not yourself, and you realize that means you get to say different things. You share the same core value to the message, but it’s fun to be able to say it in a different way that is truer to that voice.
Is it difficult to write a whole hour from one perspective, after having so much time writing from a plurality of perspectives?
No, not really. However, finding that move of closing the special from my wife’s perspective was the moment I thought, This is an hour now. As opposed to just 60 minutes of jokes, it felt like an hour. If there is a protagonist in this special, it’s my wife. Over the last three and a half years of my life, since we’ve started having kids, she’s kind of the hero.
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