[20 September 2005]
Consider the “greatest hits” package. Once the signal of impending liquidation of a musical dynasty, now it’s a vessel for comeback buzz. A year prior to his Pet Sounds tour, Capitol Records released the best of the Beach Boys’ catalog as picked by Brian Wilson. DVD companies have found similar success with creator-selected compilation DVDs of cult TV shows released in the wake of complete seasons, including The Monkees: Our Favorite Episodes and, most recently, Futurama: Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection.
The debut of the Broadway musical, Monty Python’s Spamalot (based on the 1971 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail), has reignited interest in the legendary sketch comedy troupe. To serve these new fans, A&E Television, the American rights owner of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, now offers The Personal Best Collection. Each disc features about an hour of sketches from Flying Circus, selected by the five surviving Pythons (Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam), plus a bit of new footage. (A compilation celebrating the late Graham Chapman is scheduled to be a collaborative effort among the others.)
Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuted on BBC television in 1969 to massive critical indifference. Slowly but surely, the group’s brand of surreal, absurdist punchline-less skits drew a huge following (including the Beatles and Pink Floyd) and produced 45 TV episodes by 1974, as well as five feature films and six albums by the mid-1980s. Today, the group is widely considered as influential on comedy as the Beatles were on pop music.
So far, only two Personal Best compilations have been released, by Palin and Idle, and the results are mixed. On its face, the concept is encouraging. The Pythons’ different creative inclinations melded quite nicely when it came time to write a TV show. But when quizzed about what they considered their masterworks, the Pythons usually stuck to their films. So, any hints as to what they actually liked about their tv work are wholly welcome, especially for two such extreme members.
The DVD series, however, may reveal more about the Pythons’ egos than the series. Palin’s compilation, excluding a few sketches that feature him, like “Cheese Shop” and “The Fish-Slapping Dance,” is a broad cross-section of the troupe’s ensemble pieces. Idle’s disc, for the most part, is simply “Eric Idle’s Flying Circus,” a collection of sketches he either wrote or starred in.
To their credit, the Pythons have selected a sizable number of sketches relatively unknown to newbie Flying Circus fans (witness Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto played by a man escaping from a tied-up sack) and have kept the chaff (such as “The Man Who Speaks in Anagrams”) to a minimum. But Flying Circus pioneered the stream-of-consciousness comedy style, which meant every show was like a conversation that flowed from a start to an end. These collections of haphazardly edited sketches are more like a tape of multiple conversations edited into one.
And then there’s the new footage. Since the discs contain nothing that hasn’t been previously released, the new scenes that wrap around each compilation are designed to entice hardcore fans who already own the 16-disc box set of all 45 episodes. Sadly, neither Python’s new material is worth the price if you already own the complete box set.
Palin’s intro features him as his character from the “Fish-Slapping Dance” sketch revisiting Teddington Lock (which he fell into after being slapped with a jumbo bass by John Cleese) and giving a tutorial in the art of, well, the “dance.” Idle revisits the Hollywood Bowl (the site of a series of live Python shows that became a 1982 feature film), as the bumbling journalist from his Beatles parody TV special, The Rutles. Palin’s tutorial has its moments, but gets old rather quickly; Idle’s intro, on the other hand, is tedious. Palin’s disc also includes “Personal Second-Best,” 11 more minutes of favorite sketches, plus a brief biography and a well-done trivia game by Kim “Howard” Johnson, uber-fan and author of The First 280 Years of Monty Python.
It is worth pointing out that in 1975, the Pythons sued ABC television over the rights to their shows. ABC had bought the rights to use Flying Circus on Wide World of Entertainment, and reedited the shows, (allegedly) losing their stream-of-consciousness flow. The Pythons won… and then did it themselves. Then again, who else should have the right to reedit their material than themselves? There are plenty of people out there whose only contact with the troupe has been Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and unless one is lucky enough to have BBC America on cable to see episodes of Flying Circus, newcomers probably won’t want to drop $200 on a DVD box set for a TV show they haven’t seen. This is the reason why the Personal Best series, like the Beatles 1 compilation, is best suited for newcomers.
Python fans, however, might want to wait for the Chapman entry. The new footage on DVDs (and their relatively lackluster careers of the last decade) have only reinforced suspicions that the Pythons do their best work together. In the meanwhile, it’s likely that Python fans will see a flare of Flying Circus rehashes. As Idle says in the introduction to his DVD, “In this new world of many types of television DVDs, [Monty Python‘s] particular brand of cheap sketches will always be available for recycling.”