That’s right: Monty Python. A television show? And why not? Is television not a part of the medium? And did not the madness of this troupe of six perhaps over-educated actors, writing their own material, change the face of television… and movies? Show me an unconventional comedy–perhaps like this last weekend’s Zombieland–and I will show you Monty Python.
Forty years ago today, the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus sent Brits into a rhapsodic fit–it was only a matter of time before their particular brand of comedy found its foothold in the States. Since then, the actors involved–Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin–have gone on to fortunes both moderate and great. Chapman died young, at age 48, of cancer.
Cleese and Palin have had successful careers in television and movies, especially Cleese’s Fawlty Towers and the wonderful A Fish Called Wanda. Terry Jones flew under the radar, writing children’s literature, becoming a scholar on the Middle Ages, lecturing on the same, and becoming a well-renowned scholar on war, culminating in the book, Terry Jones’ War on the War on Terror. Eric Idle was the driving force behind “Spamalot” (which, though I haven’t seen it, seems to me a travesty–who wants to watch anyone other than the Pythons performing the skits?)
And, of course, there’s Terry Gilliam. I imagine that most folks out there think of Gilliam as having the most distinguished career, a notion I can only disagree with. Brazil remains a great movie, but Time Bandits, which I used to love and watched recently, has not dated well. The rest of his movies, outside of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which I have yet to see), are nearly abominations–especially 12 Monkeys, a pointless expansion of Chris Markers’ beautiful La Jetee. Like Tim Burton, Gilliam is a man whose imagination seems limited to creating arresting visual motifs, but he is incapable of writing interesting characters or narratives that reflect anything resembling life. I challenge anyone to rent one of the Python DVDs that showcase the individual members–the “Best of” Terry Jones, Gilliam, etc. Gilliam’s is nearly unwatchable. Those animations are good in very, very small doses.
But I digress. Lately I sat down and watched every episode of the Flying Circus, in order, start to finish. What is so striking is how the Pythons hit the ground running. I try to imagine a staid Brit at home, watching the Beeb, and seeing, for the first time, a tattered Michael Palin fighting the shallows of the English Channel, with only the gentle sound of the waves. He struggles toward the camera, which does not move. He crunches over the stone beach, until finally his face, a mask of desperation, is right up to the camera, and he says: “It’s…” And then comes the crash of John Philip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March” and the very tight voice of John Cleese announcing, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.
And so on, with the characters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Genghis Kahn, Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, and a news story on the Joke That Killed People (it helped the Allies win WWII, don’t you know.) Madness. Viewers were treated to some of the most mind-bending comedy imaginable. The Pythons slithered through the BBC like the eponymous snake in a heating duct. Skits would fold over into other skits like a moebus strip, and when you weren’t laughing, you were utterly baffled. What can you say about the sleazy game show host of the “All England Summarize Proust Competition”? Buzz Aldrin as the Big Bad Wolf? Gilliam shouting “Beans!” as he lays prone on a filthy couch shoveling baked beans into his gaping jaw? It was not uncommon for a Python to be covered spit and goo by the time a skit had ended… and maybe we see that the Nickolodeon channel has been influenced by the troupe as well.
Probably my favorite skit is one featuring Oscar Wilde, James McNeil Whistler, George Bernard Shaw and a baffled Prince of Wales. Here we have the most amazing hybrid of intellectual humor matched perfectly with puerile toilet jokes. After Wilde’s latest play, he and Whistler engage in a duel of wits, and then rope poor Shaw into the fray, culminating in this amazing exchange:
Whistler: Your majesty is like a stream of bat’s piss…
Whistler: It was one of Wilde’s, one of Wilde’s.
Wilde: It sodding was not… it was one of Shaw’s!
Shaw (stunned momentarily): I… I… I merely meant, uh, your majesty, that you shine out like a shaft of gold when all around is darkness…
In my mind, the culmination of the Python’s wonderful humor was in Episode #34, “The Cycling Tour”. Here, the collective skill of the Pythons is in full display, as Michael Palin’s Mr. Pither, a silly bicyclist riding around the British countryside finds all manner of troubles. One skit–the clumsy bicyclist–frames the whole show. Pither falls and breaks his sandwiches. He buys new ones, falls again. He manages to wreck the affair of an angry businessman (Cleese, of course–no one was better at anger than the giant), irritate the townsfolk, and then, lo and behold, come upon a man named Gulliver whose life’s goal is to create different foodstuffs that withstand impact from an accident.
There’s a car accident, and the food-impact scientist is knocked on the head, believes he’s Clodagh Rogers (an Irish girl singer), and then Trostsky. Both he and Pither are brought to Russia, brought to the Red Chinese, and finally a firing squad. Loop de loop.
The show ran from 1969-1974 and each epidsode, even the ones without Cleese, are incredible. Often they’re not funny, really, but so unbelievably bizarre you can’t help but continue watching. Their inventiveness is addictive, and even having watched every show at least a dozen times I find myself continually surprised.
No other skit show is as intelligent, insane, surprising, and utterly chaotic (and anarchic) as Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Laugh-In seems terribly dated now, a relic. The old Saturday Night Live had some wonderful skits, stuff we repeat today, but none baffle like the Pythons–and the best SNL so clearly shows the Pythons’ influence as to be utterly derivative (and I won’t even go into the new SNL, which is so safe it’s barely edgy enough for prime time–it offends no one.) Kids in the Hall, In Living Color, the films of Jim Carrey, the Farrellys, the Zuckers–all sons of Python, swimming in the wake of their “filth and unreason”, as David Thomson put it.
There will never be another show like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in theatres or on the telly. Which is probably for the better. Too much genuine madness might not be so healthy.