Revisiting Monty Python

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.

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The six Pythons—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin—were born between 1939 and 1943, and were beneficiaries of the postwar boom in university education. This new intellectual climate fostered the emergence of a new kind of comedy. In America, gag-dispensing monologists like Bob Hope gave way to comedians who tackled political and taboo subjects: Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, Dick Gregory, and Woody Allen. In the U.K., The Goon Show and Beyond the Fringe brought a new satiric edge to the English music hall tradition. “Up to that time, England was such a deferential society that people did not impersonate the Prime Minister because it would have been disrespectful—I’m not kidding,” said Cleese in 2014. “Alan Bennett did a Church of England sermon. I’ve never heard laughter like it, because it was the laughter of liberation. We’d heard these cloth-eared, flat-brained sermons all our lives—what a lot of crap—and finally somebody was saying it’s not good enough.”

Of course, the British TV comedy landscape of the ‘60s also included Dad’s Army and Steptoe and Son. The Pythons would eventually continue the spirit of Beyond the Fringe, but they started their careers as journeyman. At Oxford (Palin and Jones) and Cambridge (Cleese, Chapman and Idle), the young Pythons cut their teeth writing and performing in comic revues, setting them on paths away from the respectable middle-class obscurity that was their birthright. From there, they logged many unglamorous hours writing for the likes of Doctor at Large and David Frost until the Cambridge and Oxford factions earned their own shows: At Last the 1948 Show with Cleese and Chapman, and Do Not Adjust Your Set with Palin, Jones, Idle, and animation by Gilliam. Eventually, the Cambridge group had the bright idea to call up the Oxford group, and the rest was history.

The Python story has been exhaustively documented in two book-length oral histories (The Pythons Autobiography and Monty Python Speaks!), a 360-minute documentary series (Monty Python: Almost the Truth), three volumes of Michael Palin’s published diaries, and numerous other books, memoirs, and made-for-TV/DVD documentaries. Consume all of this and you’ll start to feel like an honorary Python. So, based on a lifetime spent with this material, here are my findings.

Like the Beatles, the Pythons are a super-group whose soul is conjured from conflicting personalities of its members; whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts; and whose parts were too different to stay together forever. Flying Circus is built on the tension between the traditional, rigorously logical sketches of Graham Chapman and John Cleese and the shaggy, absurdist sensibility of Terry Jones and Michael Palin. These two partnerships had tensions of their own: Cleese maintains that he did most of the heavy-lifting, with Chapman serving as a sounding-board who contributed occasional off-the-wall ideas (though Chapman’s defiantly open homosexuality clearly informed the group’s preoccupation with that subject). Cleese’s cold rationality found its antithesis in Terry Jones’s zeal and imagination—it is Jones who came up with Flying Circus’s stream-of-consciousness style, and some of his most successful ideas (i.e. the “Spam” sketch) confounded Cleese. Of Palin, the so-called “nicest” member of the group, Terry Gilliam has said, “His writing always benefits when he’s working with either Terry or myself, because we have more edge. We’re more difficult, angry … but what he does is make it just dance.”

The two other members wrote alone. Eric Idle specialized in wordplay (“The Man Who Speaks in Anagrams”) and comic monologues; is said to have been skillful at shaping the shows; was largely responsible for the group’s musical output; and had the most flair for showbiz. Terry Gilliam’s cut-out animations gave Python a visual identity that has no parallel in any other comedy troupe. Miraculously, they all (save for Gilliam) also happened to be brilliant and versatile comic actors.

And like the Beatles, each member’s contribution can be gleaned from their solo work. Cleese’s two major post-Python achievements, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda, are extraordinary pieces of comic architecture, scripted with airtight precision. Terry Gilliam’s films are rich in visual imagination while sometimes shambolic as narratives. Idle’s defining traits coalesced profitably for his Tony-winning Spamalot. Palin is an invaluable comic actor (most recently in The Death of Stalin) whose own projects (The Missionary, American Friends, those BBC travel shows) are… the work of the nicest Python. Terry Jones’ career is difficult to get a handle on: several films of varying quality, plus a mountain of documentaries, Medieval scholarship, political op-eds, and children’s books. Chapman’s career, cut short by his death from cancer in 1989, is a tragic waste: two failed films (The Odd Job, Yellowbeard), an unsold TV pilot (Jake’s Journey), and scraps of unpublished writing.

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Monty Python’s Flying Circus had plenty of fathers: not just Beyond the Fringe and The Goon Show, but also Spike Milligan’s Q5, which debuted a few months earlier and was so innovative that it compelled the Pythons to commit to their stream-of-consciousness structure. As with most innovators, their greatest innovation synthesizing the innovations of the past 15 years, and pushing them a little further. It’s a truism that comedy withers when you try to explain it, but at the risk of destroying one of my favourite half-hours of comedy, I think running through Season 2, Episode 13 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (“Royal Episode 13”) might be productive.

The show begins with Cleese, as the announcer, standing solemnly next to his desk. He informs the audience that he would not be saying the traditional opening line, “And now for something completely different,” because he doesn’t think it proper: “This has been a particularly auspicious occasion for us this evening, as we have been told that Her Majesty The Queen will be watching part of this show tonight.” Though he doesn’t know exactly when Her Majesty will be tuning in, updates will follow. “Her equerry has asked me to request all of you to stand when the great moment arrive—though we here in the studio will be carrying on with our humorous vignettes and spoofs in the ordinary way.” (Throughout the run of the show, the Pythons seem to have never stopped thinking of themselves as underdogs. Palin’s diaries are full of awestruck accounts of run-ins with superfans like George Harrison and Johnny Cash, and discomfort in corridors-of-power like The Tonight Show and Studio 54.)

The first sketch after the opening titles is the weakest of the episode: a piece about Welsh coal miners who furiously argue over the dates of historical battles. It’s a typical Python premise to have dense scholarship emerge from the mouths of lower-class characters, but it’s given a thin, one-note treatment here. But never mind: the episode picks up as it transitions to a chat-show parody (gratuitously titled “The Toad Elevating Moment”) in which an interviewer introduces A Man Who Says Things in a Very Roundabout Way, A Man Who Speaks Only the Ends of Words, A Man Who Speaks Only the Beginning of Words, and A Man Who Speaks Only the Middle of Words. There are some bumps: the Roundabout man mostly speaks in monosyllables, and is hurt to learn that he was not invited for his personality. The Man Who Speaks Only the Beginning of Words starts speaking articulately, but then clarifies, “Oh no, I can speak the third and fourth sentences perfectly normally.” This absurd premise requires a rigorous internal logic to stay afloat, and for the Pythons, the pleasure is testing the limits of that logic.

After a piece of Terry Gilliam animation, two short sketches: “Fish Talk,” with Palin as a bespectacled, bowtied nerd who clutches a fishbowl obsessively. “Now contrary to what most people think, the goldfish has a ravenous appetite,” he tells the audience in an adenoidal voice. “If it doesn’t get enough protein, its bones begin to stick out, and its fins start to fall off.” He begins dumping fistfuls of sausages into the bowl until his is forcible dragged from the screen. Then: Terry Jones as “Herbert Mental,” an eccentric outdoorsman who collects birdwatchers’ eggs. “At his home in Surrey,” a narrator tells us, “he has a collection of over 400 of them.” Herbert begins showing us some of his collection (“This is a very interesting one… this is from a Mister P.F. Bradshaw…”). These are one-joke ideas, and the Pythons let them last exactly as long as they should before moving on to something else.

The show concludes with a few longer, sturdier sketches (including two on the topic of cannibalism), but what makes Python special is how these sketches are linked. One sketch begins with an elaborate animated introduction announcing “Monty Python proudly presents… The… INSURANCE SKETCH.” Two sketches linked by a surreal passage where the camera lurks around an English countryside—spotting, among odd sights, a butler (standing alone in a field, holding a bottle of wine on a tray) who says, “I hope you’re enjoying the show.” One sketch stops dead when the Queen finally tunes in (the performers and audience all stand for a few seconds, until it is announced that the Queen has abruptly switched channels).

I’ve probably seen every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus at least five times each, but moments like these always surprise me. One episode beings with the complete opening credits of a (nonexistent) pirate movie called The Black Eagle. Other episodes run the closing credits at arbitrary points, as if encouraging viewers to turn away early. One episode ends with a long shot of waves crashing against a beach, with Cleese appearing (in a Viking costume) to explain that the show has simply run short this week. Certain sketches will cut to a Chapman in a toga saying, “Lemon curry?” One show ends with the exchange: “This is the silliest sketch I’ve ever been in.” “Shall we stop it?” “Yeah, alright.” More than just 15 or 20 iconic sketches, these nonsequiturs and experiments are the soul of Python—and they aren’t easily disseminated on YouTube. During the early years of Flying Circus, the Pythons continued do unglamorous freelance work (Chapman and Cleese wrote episodes of Doctor at Large; Jones and Palin did script-doctoring on a film called Percy), but as Palin in his diary on February 16, 1970, “Somehow, since Monty Python, it has become difficult to write comedy material for more conventional shows. Monty Python spoilt us in so far as mad flights of fancy, ludicrous changes of direction, absurd premises and the complete illogicality of writing were the rule rather than the exception. Now we jealously guard this freedom, and writing for anyone else becomes quite oppressive.”

The Pythons unanimously cite Life of Brian (1979) as their best film, both for its relatively solid three-act story, and for the fact that it “says something” (specifically, about the importance of thinking for yourself, in both religion and politics). I don’t dispute its greatness, but I think the Pythons’ real strength is destabilizing forms, not conforming to them—and Flying Circus “says” plenty, in less didactic ways. As much as I love Brian, I prefer Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)—a pungently atmospheric depiction of the Middle Ages that opens with a pointless argument about the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, and ends with the police abruptly shutting the film down. I possibly even prefer their spiky final film, The Meaning of Life (1983)—basically an extended, uncensored Flying Circus episode that almost becomes a junior version of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

The Pythons’ experimental side even infects the best of their ancillary projects. Side two of The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief Album is double-grooved, with two different sets of tracks depending on where the needle hits. The DVD of Monty Python and the Holy Grail includes “subtitles for people who don’t like the film” taken from Henry IV Part II.

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The Pythons may have been great comic minds, but a career as a BBC comedy writer was only so lucrative, especially when split six ways. Almost as soon as Flying Circus gained an audience, the Pythons quickly began recycling their best material in stage shows, albums, books, and a feature film (1971’s And Now for Something Completely Different). Eric Idle used his “Nudge Nudge” character to sell Breakaway chocolate biscuits on TV. In 1973 diary entry, Palin lamented the prospect of another tour: “What has become of Python the innovator? Are we at the end of our creative careers, at the tender ages of 30-32?”monty-python-front

The Python albums arrived in the United States before the show, and had a lot to do with creating the archetype of the geek who can recite every line from every sketch. And no wonder: given the almost-musical rhythm of the Pythons’ dialogue—their attention to meter, and to the sheer beauty of certain words and sounds—I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to compare them to Beckett and Pinter.

  • “Is your wife a goer, eh? Knowhatimean, knowhatimean, nudge nudge, knowhatimean, say n’more?”
  • “No you did not.” “Yes I did.” “No you didn’t.” “Yes I did.” “No you didn’t.” “Yes I did”…
  • “Gouda?” “No.” “Edam?” “No.” “Case Ness?” “No.” “Smoked Austrian?” “No.” “Japanese Sage Darby?” “No, sir.”
  • “And I believe you’re working on an anagram version of Shakespeare?” “Sey, sey—taht si crreoct—ta the mnemot I’m working on ‘The Mating of the Wersh.’”
  • “Tonight’s the night I shall be talking about of flu the subject of word association football. This is a technique out a living much used in the practice makes perfect of psychoanalysister and brother and one that has occupied piper the majority rule of my attention squad by the right number one two three four the last five years to the memory.”

Most comedy wears itself out, but Python sketches are so often about more than just the laugh. They invite repetition and memorization.

There are other reasons why Python invites obsessive fandom. Its many highbrow cultural/historical references flatter the viewer’s intelligence, but are always fundamentally accessible: a football match where famous Greek and German philosophers pace the field competing for who can achieve the greatest insight; a talk show where Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevera, and Karl Marx answer inane questions about sports and music; a game show where contestants attempt to quickly summarize Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. If you’re a kid, the Pythons give you silly voices, cross-dressing tomfoolery, and vulgar cartoons, while also seeming irresistibly adult (I memorized “The Bruces’ Philosophers Song” long before I knew who any of the philosophers were). For North American fans, Flying Circus’s many references to then-current British public figures—Edward Heath, Reginald Maudling, David Hamilton, Alan Whicker—add to its exotic foreign texture. Deep fandom can end up relating to the object as simply a canon of knowledge to be mastered—and thus, Python fandom, like Star Wars or Star Trek fandom, can be incredibly obnoxious.

The other important pillar of Python fandom has been the Pythons themselves—their image (cultivated over all those books and documentaries) as boundary-pushing iconoclasts, pressing back against BBC censorship and British stodginess. Their live shows (culminating with a four-night stint at the Hollywood Bowl in 1980) were rock concerts as much as revues. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and George Harrison financed their movies. Idle and Palin hosted Saturday Night Live four times each during the show’s cocaine era. Life of Brian thumbed its nose at conservative fuddy-duddies. Python fandom may be nerdy, but the Pythons are cool.

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At its best, the energy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is still so palpable that I can find myself describing the show as “timeless.” But Python is of its time, and there is plenty of it that is awkward in this sensitive era. The heavy use of swishy gay stereotypes, while not mean-spirited, definitely feels like 1969. A handful of episodes use blackface (ironically, perhaps, but not quite ironically enough), and one character is gratuitously named “Mrs. Niggerbaiter” (a provocation that is not funny enough to justify how sour it is). The Pythons also have a pronounced laddish side: in their universe, women tend to be either screeching middle-aged hags (when played by the Pythons in drag) or sexpots (when played by Carol Cleveland). And while nothing can destroy the fun of Terry Gilliam’s animations, their depiction of women as sexual playthings looks a little different after his ignorant remarks about the #MeToo movement.

I don’t want to overstate Python’s #problematic side—after all, sex and gender have been the stuff of comedy for centuries. But it became a little more apparent to me after Monty Python Live (Mostly), their 10-night reunion show at London’s 02 arena from 2014. The final night (almost certainly the group’s last major collaboration) was beamed into cinemas worldwide, and the recording is now part of the Netflix package. Some sketches, like “Camp Judges” and “Camp Navy,” look antiquated a full 25 years after the death of the group’s only gay member. On the one hand, Idle altered some lyrics to “I Like Chinese” in a nod to political correctness (to cite one example: after he sings, “I like their tiny little trees,” the chorus now corrects him: “That’s Japanese”). On the other, a chorus of dancers in Agent Provocateur lingerie is indistinguishable from the kind of gaudy Las Vegas sexism satirized in The Meaning of Life’s “Christmas in Heaven” number.  When a 72-year-old Carol Cleveland does her final bow in a skimpy showgirl’s outfit, I wonder what exactly we’re applauding.

Monty Python Live (Mostly) was prompted when the group quickly needed funds after lawsuit over Spamalot royalties. The show certainly replenished the group’s coffers (tickets to the first performance sold out in 45 seconds), but I doubt that even Pythons would say that it captured them at their best. In combines the bombast of a Broadway musical with the indulgence of a retirement facility’s Christmas pageant. In the middle of a giant Gilliamesque set, five septuagenarian comedians cheerfully flub lines and crack each other up, and then take long nice, long costume changes while a chorus of young dancers sweat their asses off to “Sit On My Face” and “I Like Chinese.” The size of the venue does no favours to the comedy: Idle’s “The Penis Song,” an amusing throwaway moment in The Meaning of Life, has become a lavish production number with new verses about vaginas and asses. Though the audience reaction is much warmer, the show suffers some of the same problems as Cleese and Palin’s SNL appearance.

It is a melancholy truth that the life-cycle of iconoclasts ends with becoming icons. In 1979, Life of Brian was protested by religious groups; in 2012, Eric Idle sang its signature song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. A team that once consciously eschewed catchphrases now sells “Keep Calm and Buy a Shrubbery” t-shirts. In Monty Python: Live at Aspen (1998), Terry Jones says, “One of the things we were trying to do with the show was do something so unpredictable it had no shape, and you could never say what the kind of humor was. And I think the fact that ‘Pythonesque’ is now a word in the Oxford English Dictionary shows the extent to which we failed.”

That said: even if it’s a little sad that the Pythons are now part of the establishment that they once mocked, seeing them perform in front of 16,000 people suggests that the culture has moved towards them. Also: for reasons I can’t fully comprehend, I’ve probably watched Monty Python Live (Mostly) a half-dozen times since 2014. I might even go so far as to say that I’m happy it exists. I’m as guilty of Deep Python Fandom as anybody, and have been following the Pythons for so long that they almost feel like friends of the family. If Cleese and Palin no longer deliver “Argument Clinic” or “Dead Parrot” with the timing they used to, the warmth they generate together is enough. Loving Python means loving the Pythons, and it’s not-unpleasant to join them on an indulgent walk down memory lane.

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