IFC documentary series spotlights the subversive, hugely influential comedy of Monty Python

[16 October 2009]

By Diane Werts

Newsday (MCT)

It’s certainly fitting that “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” hit the American consciousness at the same time as the computer age.

Random-access memory powers them both.

In the same way computers connect scattered bits of information, this celebrated sketchfest assembled arbitrary targets and comic styles right from its October 1969 debut on BBC telly.

Into a Victorian sitting room rush robed 15th century torturers, shouting, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” The doorbell rings with a man from the BBC requesting they move to another sketch, at a home where a salesman pitches novelties like “plastic flesh wounds — keep your friends in stitches!” With the statement “We’d like to borrow your head for a piece of animation,” the video switches to paper cutouts of decapitation.

Well, they weren’t doing that on “The Carol Burnett Show.” No Spanish Inquisition there. No dead parrot sketch, fish-slapping dance, cross-dressing lumberjacks or SPAM salutes, either.

No, it took an unruly troupe of high-spirited lads out of prestigious universities to turn TV sketch comedy into indiscriminate anarchy.

Forty years later, we’re enjoying the fruits of their lunacy in everything from “South Park” to “Family Guy” to cult-coms like IFC’s “The Whitest Kids U Know” and Adult Swim’s “The Mighty Boosh.” Giddy scattershot irreverence has established itself as a sort of comic inquisition, now expected to pop up unexpectedly.

It’s a paradox. That’s the point.

Surreal absurdity even fuels the six-part docuseries “Monty Python: Almost the Truth — The Lawyer’s Cut” (Sunday-Friday at 9 p.m. on IFC), a 40th-anniversary Python tribute, explanation and insurrection in its own right. Watch a bomb drop on the barrister in the opening credits. Savor the James Bond-ian theme song, lyrics changing nightly as the singer gets progressively fed up. The individual hours have titles like “The Not So Interesting Beginnings” and “The Much Funnier Second Episode.”

“Monty Python” blasted into prominence by exploding its origin era’s “deferential culture,” as explained in a “Truth” interview with troupe member John Cleese (the long-legged testy one). Those uptight post-World War II years, the same ones currently seen through an American lens in “Mad Men,” certainly shaped the Pythons — Cleese and his five fellow writer-actor-animators. But that constricted social temper also had them champing at the bit. After bourgeois educations in law and medicine at Oxford and Cambridge (or physics at Occidental College), they understood cultural conventions so precisely as to subvert them all the more effectively.

But cultural commentary wasn’t necessarily the goal. The Pythons liked to amuse themselves silly. Their breadth of knowledge and experience simply meant their giggle targets ranged all over the map, the media and the epochs of history.

A job applicant enters the Ministry of Silly Walks. The game show “Blackmail” confronts unsuspecting citizens with their misdeeds. Eager readers compete in the All-England Summarize Proust Competition. A penguin atop a TV explodes before two mystified middle-aged housewives.

Who were played by male Python writer-troupers Cleese, Graham Chapman (the dignified everyman), Terry Jones (the stubborn terrier), Eric Idle (the focused businessman) or Michael Palin (the amiable one), who portrayed nearly every person and thing they wrote. If a sketch didn’t suggest a suitable ending, they might jump-cut to bizarre animations from Terry Gilliam (their cracked American colleague). That helped “plaster over a lot of cracks,” Palin confesses in “Almost the Truth.”

No matter what the Pythons tackled, their absurdity resonated with a growing fandom of unorthodox amusement seekers. “It became a sort of currency in which you connected with other people,” notes Sanjeev Bhaskar, the British-born Indian comic — just one of the famous devotees whose comments are intercut on IFC with fresh recollections from the five surviving Pythons. (Chapman died of cancer in 1989.) “They didn’t shut anyone out,” Bhaskar marvels. “It’s very inclusive.”

That’s one reason why IFC — the Independent Film Channel — wanted to revisit the Python legacy, at a time the channel is rebranding to showcase “the voices of independent culture.”

“Nothing screams that more than the history of the Pythons,” says IFC general manager Jennifer Caserta. (IFC is owned by Cablevision, which owns Newsday.) “What they did for comedy, the sensibility they brought to the comedic world and pop culture, that’s what the IFC sensibility is all about.”

And the Pythons “transcend the generations,” Caserta says. “We have guys around this office who are IFC’s target demo — 18-49 male — who weren’t even born when the Pythons hit, and they walk around doing all their movie quotes. They had that much of an influence.”

Testifying in “Almost the Truth” are “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Izzard, Russell Brand, Seth Green and IFC’s own Whitest Boys. Their view from the outside complements the Pythons’ internal memory — their youths and inspirations, their BBC success and censorship battles, their mid-‘70s American crossover and global fame, their ambitious film satires “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Life of Brian,” their live shows and reunions.

Although “Almost the Truth” could be called an inside job — co-director Bill Jones is the son of Python Terry Jones — the Pythons don’t mince words or feelings. They exhume their dissensions, their breakup/reunion/breakups, and Chapman’s problematic alcoholism, about which Chapman also speaks frankly in archive interviews.

It’s the kind of clarity that permeates their comedy — intelligent, unflinching, open-hearted. Although “Monty Python” premiered at a time of counterculture vs. establishment conflict — Vietnam, civil rights, etc. — the Pythons somehow rose above the malice while still reflecting seismic cultural shifts.

They also immutably fused the funny to music (“The Lumberjack Song,” “Every Sperm Is Sacred”) for new generations living to their own cultural soundtrack. And Monty Python firmly integrated animation, a form then throwing off its cartoon straitjacket to bloom into vibrant artistry.

Python comedy delivered a whole ball of wax in a way that continues to reverberate in next-generation permutations. Yet the original remains definitively unique. “I’m very proud that it’s still offensive,” declares Idle in “Almost the Truth.”

And ain’t it the truth.

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THE HOLY GRAIL OF FUNNY STUFF

IFC spotlights “Monty Python” material all week following each “Almost the Truth” hour.

“Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl” (Sunday at 10 p.m.)

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (Monday at 10 p.m.)

“Life of Brian” (Tuesday at 10 p.m.)

All three are repeated in order, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” episodes air nightly at 11:30.

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THESE GUYS ARE THE SURREAL THING

Yes, there was life after/outside Monty Python:

JOHN CLEESE

Age: 69

Python bits: Silly walks, dead parrot

Post-Python: Wrote and starred in classic ‘70s hotel farce “Fawlty Towers” (remastered DVD out Tuesday). Again did double duty in 1988 movie hit “A Fish Called Wanda.” Guest arcs on “3rd Rock,” “Will & Grace.” Voices the king in “Shrek” films. Creates videos for corporate training, “Wine for the Confused.”

TERRY GILLIAM

Age: 68

Python Bits: Animator, nude organist

Post-Python: Thriving career as feature director-writer: “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Brothers Grimm.”

ERIC IDLE

Age: 66

Python bits: Nudge-nudge, talk show hosts

Post-Python: Created Beatles send-up group the Rutles for TV specials, albums. Devised Broadway musical smash “Spamalot,” based on “Holy Grail.”

TERRY JONES

Age: 67

Python bits: Spanish Inquisition, killer joke

Post-Python: Writer-presenter of historical documentary series: “Barbarians,” “Medieval Lives,” “The Crusades.” Joined longtime writing partner Palin for the British tales of “Ripping Yarns.”

MICHAEL PALIN

Age: 66

Python bits: Lumberjack song, cheese shop

Post-Python: Co-star of “A Fish Called Wanda.” Leads TV travel odysseys: “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Pole to Pole,” “New Europe,” “Himalaya,” “Sahara.”

GRAHAM CHAPMAN

Died 1989 at 48

Python Bits: Brian, the Colonel

Post-Python: Wrote and starred in 1983 movie “Yellowbeard.”

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FOR MORE PYTHON

Click on IFC.com/monty-python for IFC docuseries info and video. Also see pbs.org/montypython for public TV run of “Monty Python’s Personal Best.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/114763-ifc-documentary-series-spotlights-the-subversive-hugely-influential-/