In 1997, John Cleese and Michael Palin took over a segment of Saturday Night Live to reprise the most famous five minutes of British comedy of all time. First performed on a 1969 episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Dead Parrot Sketch centres on an argument between a disgruntled customer (Cleese) and a shifty pet-shop owner (Palin) over whether or not a parrot is, in fact, dead. The absurd sketch sees Palin steadfastly denying the obvious, even after Cleese points out that the parrot was nailed to its perch, climaxing with Cleese’s verbal aria: “He’s not pinin’, he’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace…”
The sketch has been endlessly reprised in stage shows, albums, and “Best Of” specials, and was quoted by no less than Margaret Thatcher in a 1990 speech (she said of Liberal Democrats, “this is an ex-party”). Describing the SNL rehearsal in his published diaries, Palin wrote, “A small group of people … gather around the set with something uncomfortably close to reverence on their faces as they watch us work it through.”
The next day, Cleese and Palin performed the sketch to SNL’s studio audience. It bombed.
If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from this, I suppose it is a familiar one about how comedy is inseparable from context. Maybe there is also a lesson somewhere here that is specific to Monty Python, a sainted comedy brand that has nevertheless become so plundered and rehashed that the actual reasons for its sainthood can seem a little distant. There are two Monty Pythons: a team of restless innovators who sought to break down the conventions of whichever medium they tackled; and a Rolling Stones of comedy who sell and re-sell a catalog of quotable sketches. One Monty Python eschewed catchphrases and inside-jokes; the other trades on them. Both Monty Pythons are partially responsible for the group’s success, but they work at cross-purposes.
In recent years, the easiest way to see Monty Python has been chopped-up into component parts on YouTube. This month, however, most of the Python catalogue was released on Netflix (April 15 in Canada and the U.K., with the U.S. to follow shortly). The essential works are four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1975), and the films Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) (plus 1983’s Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, already available). The Netflix offerings also include two hourlong specials for German television (the first of which is performed entirely in phonetic German), various documentaries and live performances, and a bevy of compilations: Monty Python’s Personal Best, Monty Python’s Best Bits (Mostly), Parrot Sketch Not Included, and so on. If you watch everything, you’ll see “The Lumberjack Song” at least eight times, including once in German. I’m glad the people will have an opportunity to rediscover the group at its best, but I’m also sorry that they’ll also have to wade through a lot more.
When I remember Monty Python, I tend to boil it down to 20-or-so standout moments: the Spanish Inquisition, “Nudge Nudge,” the Black Knight, the Argument Clinic, the Ministry of Silly Walks, and so forth. The more Python becomes a series of catchphrases, the more it seems like a dusty relic from your Boomer dad’s youth, or something to be stuffed and mounted in some Museum of Comedy. But whenever I sit down and watch a whole episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I see something different: a stream-of-consciousness comic laboratory where sketches dissolve into each other, and where highbrow satire and dense, complicated wordplay coexist with absurdism and sheer crudity. In advance of the Netflix dump, I’ve been pulling a lot of my old Python DVDs off the shelf, and have been happy to rediscover a show that is living, breathing, and constantly surprising.