[16 September 2005]
The Monty Python troupe will forever be to comedy what the Beatles are to music. No one can dispute the influence of those six men (who were occasionally women). After 45 episodes of their eponymous TV show, five films (one of them of a live show), and a slew of records, their effects on modern comedy, much like the number of people who can recite bits from “The Spanish Inquisition” and “The Dead Parrot Sketch,” are immeasurable.
But when something (or someone) becomes so far-reaching in its influence and impact that it becomes a worldwide phenomenon, a certain mythology begins to build. As the years pass and the mythology snowballs, the demand for something new, or anything that’s even remotely related to the mythology, grows. For the Fab Four, the mythology is so vast and that demand so high, that fans often resort to illegal measures just to hear home demos, alternate takes, and unreleased songs.
Python is no different. After the surviving five members of the troupe welched on their promise to reassemble at the 1998 US Comedy Arts Festival, fans finally began to admit to themselves that Michael Palin, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam will never collaborate again. Solo projects, such as Eric Idle’s Broadway musical, Spamalot, seem to be the only future of the aging Pythons’ empire.
But like the Beatles, solo material, though merit-worthy in its own right, is no substitute for group outings, and anyone who says they prefer John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band to Revolver is (probably) a dirty liar. To alleviate the demand for unseen Python material, Tango Entertainment has released recently-unearthed episodes of Do Not Adjust Your Set, a precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Originally broadcast from 1967 to 1969 by Associated-Rediffusion (and later by the neophyte company Thames Television), Do Not Adjust Your Set was part of a trio of prehistoric Python shows, including At Last the 1948 Show and the radio comedy I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again. Originally intended as a children’s show that didn’t talk down to its audience, Do Not Adjust Your Set won Munich’s 1968 Prix Jeunesse International, an annual award of excellence in children’s entertainment. As the show’s material matured and grew up over its three-year run, Do Not Adjust Your Set‘s popularity eventually crossed over to adult audiences.
Despite having an all-ages fan base near its end, Do Not Adjust Your Set might have been forgotten like countless other popular shows of its day had it not been written by and starred the pre-Python Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin. The last half of the third season (the final days of the show) also featured strange animations by a then unknown American expatriate named Terry Gilliam. In each episode, the three soon-to-be-Pythons, along with David Jason, Denise Coffey, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (themselves a major influence on the Python’s absurdist sense of humor), would appear in disjointed, surreal (and sometimes dark) sketches that clearly anticipate Flying Circus. Idle previews what would later be his trademark role as an announcer; Palin finds his shtick as a slimy, incompetent shopkeeper; Jones, as an insurance agent, wrecks Palin’s house to make a point about being insured; and Jason stars as Captain Fantastic, a “superhero” segment that owed more to Richard Lester’s short The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film (1959) than the U.K.‘s Superman: The Introduction (1941).
Despite its innovation and popularity, the show’s preservation fared no better than any other British shows of its day. The 1950s and ‘60s were tight times for British TV, and the country’s independent production companies cut costs by eliminating expensive video masters, so that the majority of the episodes of Do Not Adjust Your Set were erased. The only surviving remnants of the shows were telerecordings, or copies of the original video masters captured on film. Tango Entertainment’s release of Do Not Adjust Your Set, like their release of The 1948 Show, features nine telerecordings of the 14-episode first season from Rediffusion—likely the only surviving episodes.
Watching the episodes of DNAYS today is a lot like listening to Beatles bootlegs—much of it is going to be appreciated only by dedicated fans. Telerecordings (called “kinescopes” in America) might have been useful for preservation, rebroadcasts and syndication purposes before high-quality videotape became standard, but to be honest, the image quality may be an endurance test for those who have never had to struggle through bootleg-quality videos and records.
While it’s nowhere near as daring or as cutting edge as Flying Circus turned out to be, it must be remembered that Idle, Palin, and Jones were working under the guise of a kiddie show, and still managed to slip adult-oriented material into their sketches. (Any of you parents fancy a naked Eric Idle talking to your kids?) Don Not Adjust Your Set is truly a transitional piece, as the soon-to-be-Pythons hadn’t yet figured out that punchlines could be a let down, an idea that would make Flying Circus so groundbreaking. That said there is enough for even the casual Python fan to enjoy here, as long as they can approach the show with an appropriate regard for context. The extras are meager (you get new but rather lackluster, unenlightening interviews with Terry Jones and Tim Brooke-Taylor, who was on The 1948 Show), but the performances by the Bonzo Dog Band, which include the numbers “Death Cab for Cutie” and “Hunting For Tigers in Indiah,” are themselves worth the price of the set. (Just don’t expect to see anything by Terry Gilliam; the DVD lists him in the credits, but he didn’t appear on the show until the last season.)
Of course, there’s no substitute for Monty Python as a whole, but that’s no reason to skip the opportunity to see how it all began. After all, what Beatles fan would skip over the chance to listen to the Fab Four’s first-ever 1958 rehearsal tape just because the band hadn’t yet recorded “Love Me Do”? Only a looney or a twit, that’s who.