[18 October 2007]
From Oxbridge, and from shows such as The Frost Report, Do Not Adjust Your Set, and At Last The 1948 Show sprang half a dozen lads who would shock the world and rewrite the book on comedy in the process. Monty Python’s impact on comedy has been compared to the Beatles’ effect on popular music. By controlling their own writing and performing, both groups were able to make decisions about content and style that would revolutionize their respective genres and influence generations of followers. The Pythons also bring to mind Robert Johnson and the way he distilled the music of Son House, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Charley Patton into something wickedly palatable. Python blended Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathon Miller’s Beyond The Fringe, Cook & Moore’s Not Only ... But Also, and Spike Milligan’s Q, before icing the brew down with Terry Gilliam’s animation.
The Pythons were relatively unconcerned with who got the most camera time, as they saw themselves primarily as writers. Cambridge graduates John Cleese and Graham Chapman wrote together; the former scribbled diligently while the latter sat back and occasionally made suggestions (replacing the car/toaster with a dead parrot being one of his most celebrated). Cleese could appear deranged and Chapman masterfully abusive, but usually both men brought straight-faced authority to their roles. Another Cambridge grad, Eric Idle, worked alone, crafting his love of wordplay, his cheeky Jack-Wild-as-Artful-Dodgeresque Cockney persona, and his songs, which he would increasingly turn to with Neil Innes as The Rutles. Oxford scholars Michael Palin and Terry Jones worked “together” (not necessarily in the same room) producing most of the sketches that Cleese has described as “anything that started with a slow pan across countryside and impressive music”. Palin could play characters of decency as well as, and in addition to, insincere smarmy bastards. Terry Jones, apparently, was the most concerned with overturning viewers’ expectations of traditional comedic format and structure. He wanted to design fake beginnings and endings, stop sketches in novel ways, and, at all costs, avoid hackneyed punchlines and (what the Pythons perceived as) the anticlimax resulting from a sketch being so powerful that an equal ending was impossible to attain. Terry Gilliam was given absolutely free rein. His animation, pilfered from classical art and by turns serene and barbaric, was a vital means of avoiding those pitfalls while linking scenes.
The Pythons’ mastery of the sketch format is undeniable, and most observers would agree that they successfully adapted their material to the visual style and narrative pace of movies. Their audio releases are more difficult to draw conclusions about, since they tend to be a mixed bag: some pieces from TV or film, some which playfully deconstruct the (audio) medium, others written with radio in mind, and the necessary linking devices. Three releases on the Legacy label illustrate the uneven success and fluctuating quality of their efforts.
The best of the three releases discussed in this review is 1973’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief; or, to give the album its full title, Free Record Given Away With the Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief. The original release was something of a masterpiece of vinyl engineering by George “Porky” Peckham, as it was the first three-sided record in history. Trickily, both sides were labeled Side Two. The actual Side Two had two grooves etched into the vinyl and, depending on where the needle dropped, played one of two distinct collections of sketches. Several great tracks, such as “Bruces/Philosophers Song” (minus the Philosophers Song), “Cheese Shop”, “Mrs. Niggerbaiter Explodes”, and “Oscar Wilde and Friends” were taken from the TV series. The rest were exclusive to the 1973 release, now supplemented on CD by bonus tracks—namely, the witty “Psychopath”, the fairly dull “TelePrompter Football Results”, the affectionate spoof “Radio Tuning Radio 4”, and the excruciatingly funny “Radio Shop”.
The album works as radio show, has a snappy pace and wit to spare, and not only mocks Australians but also discusses cheese at great length. What more could anyone want? We start with a political phone-in spoof, on which a caller asks “Is Vic There?” (this, incidentally, became the title of a hit record for the band Department S). We then migrate to a screeching wife serving rat-based dishes to her family before the discovery of a dead bishop on the doorstep is investigated by the “church-police”. Next, “Elephantoplasty” recalls the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Rhinocratic Oaths”, as a surgeon discusses his unusual transplants. A highlight is “Novel Writing”, which uses the style and analysis of cricket-commentary to consider the efforts of Thomas Hardy. The “Bruce” section is brilliantly funny—a ludicrous and affectionate hatchet job on the very idea of an Australian philosophy department, similar in tone to “Australian Table Wines” from Monty Python’s Previous Record. Howls of derisory laughter, indeed. Their song about philosophers and drinking is genius. Lines such as “There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya / ‘bout the raisin’ of the wrist” and “Rene Descartes was a drunken fart/ I drink therefore I am” are timelessly silly. The piece sounds like it would have been at home in the Cambridge Footlights theater scene (where Cleese, Chapman and Idle began) at almost any time since its founding in 1883. Incidentally, past presidents of Footlights include Peter Cook, all of The Goodies (Tim Brooke Taylor, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden), Peter Firth, Clive James, Eric Idle, Hugh Laurie, and Clive Anderson of Whose Line Is It Anyway? fame.
Matching Tie and Handkerchief gives some idea of the speed at which the Pythons ripped through ideas. The “Ralph Mellish” sketch pokes fun at the sound effects of radio drama by placing boredom and banality at the center of a thrilling piece of horror before the breakfasting narrator of that piece is told (by his wife) to get going or he’ll be late. Meanwhile, a doctor analyzes the narrator’s problem and comes on forcefully to the wife, sparking the narrator’s return to narration. Following is one of the best things the gang ever did, featuring Cleese as customer and Palin as Mr. Wensleydale, proprietor of (The National) “Cheese Emporium”. The sketch manages to be wonderfully timed and deeply funny, despite featuring bouzouki music and mentioning 43 cheeses. No small feat, that. The skit has spawned countless episodes of homage and reference. “Wasp Club” (the kind of minority-interest show that BBC Radio 4 would cater to), is interrupted by a return to novel-writing where, to huge applause, Hardy has completed his first sentence (“and it’s a real cracker”). By the time that report is finished we are into “Tiger Club”, which is interrupted by the panic caused by a wasp coming into the studio (The Onion magazine recently reprised this gag, replacing a wasp with a bee). “Great Actors”, an interview of Cleese by Idle, features Cleese’s reduction of the challenges of stage-craft to elements such as “number of words”, “getting them in the right order”, and “saying one louder than the other”. The deliberately trite analysis of nuanced emotion took the piss out of The Actors Studio decades before it ran. Idle keeps up the fawning approach of most interviewers almost to the end of the skit.
The mind-boggling juxtapositions continue. In a musical interlude, “The Background to History” matches reggae with medieval oxen-ploughing and glam-pop with 10th-century agriculture. A highlight is “Boxing Tonight”, which pits real life Swadlincote butcher Jack Bodell against real life intellectual/author/broadcaster Sir Kenneth Clarke—for the title of Oxford Professor of Fine Art. “Mrs. Niggerbaiter” is two women treating Cleese (the Minister for Overseas Development) like he’s an infant. For some reason this sketch reminds me of the Stewie Griffin character from Family Guy. “Oscar Wilde and Friends” features Shaw, Wilde, and Whistler competing for the funnybone attention of the Prince of Wales, and blaming each other for insults. “Your majesty is like a stream of bat’s piss” is one of hundreds of quotable lines that barflies the length and breadth of Britain and the U.S. still delight in dropping into casual conversation. The CD reissue ends with “Radio Shop”, wherein Graham Chapman does what he did best: spew delicious, flabbergasted, verbose, almost Shakespearian insults. The album is top-class from front to back and was once free (with purchase of The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief set…).
The second disc in this batch was originally released in 1975: The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or to give the release its full title from this 2006 CD (with three bonus tracks), Special Edition of the Executive Version of the Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There are sketches from the actual movie here (as well as some new additions); along with framing “commentary” of “the 3:10 showing” of the film, at the Classic, Silbury Hill, during which. Michael Palin’s brand of Northern English claptrap is absolutely brilliant. To hear him announce the B Feature, “Bring Me The ‘ead Of Don Revie” is blissful high-jinks—the manager of reviled 1970s soccer team, Leeds United, is cast in a Sam Peckinpah movie.
With the mention of Revie it is worth considering (once again) whether the people of the U.S. “get” all of Monty Python. The show became a cult success here after it was discovered, sitting on a shelf at PBS station KERA in Dallas, by Ron Devillier:
“I was vice president of programming for KERA in Dallas when Winn Nathan, a friend at Time-Life Films, called to say he had some BBC shows that nobody was interested in. He sent two or three boxes of tapes, and I came into the station early one Saturday morning to go through some. The next thing I knew my wife was throwing gravel at the window of the screening room — it was 7 o’clock at night. I came out and told her I had just seen the funniest series I had ever seen in my life, and we were definitely going to buy it.”
Monty Python remains adored in the U.S. Even as we speak, new generations of fans are walking around wearing Spamalot t-shirts. Perhaps there is, arguably, something almost primal about the way that Python’s work resonates with people. To be fair, even sections of the British audience must have been confused by some of the references buried amid swathes of dialogue. Consider John Cleese as “Drama Critic” of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (no less), commenting on “Tim the Enchanter”:
“A fine performance there in the role of Tim the Magician by Harry Krepps, formerly of Fulham now with Millwall, a performance that will live in the memory along with Sir John Gielgud’s Lear at Stratford in 1952, Burt Lancaster’s extraordinary Tinker Bell in Peter Pan at the Globe in ‘65, Norman Hunter’s uncompromising Polonius at the National three years ago and most recently, by Claire Bloom’s breathtaking portrayal as Jackie Charlton in Peter Hall’s Romeo and Juliet, where Miss Bloom’s delicate command of the rococo intricacies of Geordie abuse was matched only by her tight ball control in the balcony scene. But of all these, Sir John Gielgud’s Lear stays longest in the memory. Many people still recall his brilliant performances at Stratford that year, but I prefer to remember him one autumn afternoon in front of a hostile crowd at Molyneux. The play had been getting pretty rough, with Goneril and Kent both booked before the interval, and Albany, Edgar and Regan, sent off on the hour mark. But the trouble really began when Cornwall blatantly blinded Gloucester in the penalty area and referee Ken Parry of Swansea waved “play on”, unleashing a storm of booing from the incensed Gloucester supporters which reached a crescendo as Sir John stepped forward….”
During “Brave Sir Robin”, former Bonzo Dog Band member Neil Innes makes an appearance as the kind of truth-telling wandering minstrel that I wish could accompany King George W. Bush on his travels. Innes is sometimes called the “seventh Python” (with Carol Cleveland coming in at number eight, presumably). To be honest, “The Knights Who Say ‘Ni’” never made me chuckle, but the scene is featured here in all its shrubbery-desiring glory. This version of Monty Python and The Holy Grail contains three bonus tracks—a couple of throwaway sing-alongs, “Arthur’s Song” and “Run Away Song”, both done in a hoedown style, and a longer piece featuring Terry Jones and Michael Palin in a “making-of” documentary interspersed with snippets that include the scene where Cleese rescues Palin from the castle full of horny, enchanted maidens just when their demands for spanking and oral sex are being laid out. The logically-challenged “Witch Burning” is also a delight. This is a welcome reissue, and I particularly enjoy the use of the ordinary cinema screening as a linking device.
Unfortunately, 1980’s Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album is aptly-named and does not fare nearly as well. One of the briefest-ever couplings of a song about sex with an incongruous tune is “Sodomy” from Hair. While Eric Idle’s opening track “Sit On My Face” is as short, it does stick to the task of celebrating oral sex with the wild enthusiasm of a true devotee; its jaunty tune, borrowed from “Sing As We Go” (penned by Harry Parr Davies and famously rendered by Gracie Fields) suggests a public display of the proceedings and keeps a stiff upper lip, as it were, for the benefit of the nation. Even Python’s weakest work is in a league of its own, but as if to highlight that they are past their peak of sharpness, one of the highlights is a reprise of one of John Cleese’s finest moments from Not The 1948 Show: namely, the character Adrian Wapcaplet, who is prepared to market and sell 122,000 miles of string despite the small problem of it having previously been cut into 3-inch lengths. An excerpt: “...destroy 99% of all household pests with pre-sliced, rust-proof, easy to handle, low-calorie, Simpson’s Individual Emperor Stringettes, free from artificial coloring, as used in hospitals, water-proof ... water absorbent, a million household uses…”
There’s a lot of music on Contractual Obligation. “Never Be Rude to an Arab” sends up Noel Coward’s “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans” way beyond the point of good taste (as if that mattered). The better “I like Chinese” is the kind of hammy pastiche that George Formby might emulate while doing Bill Murray’s bad lounge act at the Twenty-Oh-One Club. It’s hard not to think of Harry Potter during the spirited rendition of “All Things Dull and Ugly”, but the Paul Robeson-esque “Muddy Knees” is dull, and hopefully “Henry Kissinger” will mean nothing to future generations. Worst of all might be the dire “Medical Love Song” and the pitiful “I’m So Worried”, both impressively unfunny. “Farewell To John Denver” is omitted on this 2006 release, replaced by Terry Jones’s apology (to Denver?). Another song, “Finland”, is delightfully droll, but hardly hilarious. Eric Idle’s “I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song on the Radio” is also included, saturated with bleeps.
“Martyrdom of St. Victor” is Michael Palin’s vicar giving a sermon on temptation-by-fabulous-maidens which is continually interrupted by a killjoy God. “Bookshop” may well have been a case in point when Cleese announced that he felt he was merely repeating himself and wanted out of the Python team. “Rock Notes” by Eric Idle is a splendidly affectionate poke at pop music trivia and, unfortunately, gave name to the band Toad The Wet Sprocket. This CD release includes several bonus tracks, including a radio ad promo, a rather forced and limited interview with Terry Jones and Graham Chapman, and alternate versions of a couple of songs. In terms of overall quality, Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album is a mixed bag, only slightly more amusing as “Want a Danish” or “Blow in Your Nose/Nose in Your Blow” from the throwaway session Van Morrison did to discharge his contractual obligation to Bang Records.
All three of these recordings deserve to be heard, not least because they illustrate the efforts of the Monty Python team to create a meaningful flow of ideas drawn from disparate subjects. A Greatest Hits compilation will never be true to that flow and runs the risk of reducing the impact of non sequiturs. Perhaps, though, the primal quality of the humor could survive even that; after all, it already did. The Pythons were once horrified to learn that when ABC bought the TV series, the running order of sketches was changed and censored (even the phrase “naughty-bits” was removed). A court case ensued, with the Pythons gaining only a moral victory. Despite butchery that Jack Bodell would have been proud of, love of Monty Python continued to spread. The creative rush and visceral shock of the original series could not be maintained, but like much of their work, these discs have aged well so far. Meanwhile, the word “Pythonesque” has entered the vernacular as a catch-all term for surreal humor. All six Pythons have asteroids named after them, and they share an ice cream flavor and a beer. Computer program designers use Python references to name their work, and we all refer to unwanted crap coming in our email as “spam”. To honor his work highlighting their plight, John Cleese had a new species of lemur named after him: the avahi cleesei. You could not make it up.
The Python revolution’s influence on comedy is too profound and wide-ranging to list in its entirety (and it has not ended yet). To name three examples, the earliest series of Saturday Night Live, Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer, and South Park, all acknowledge a debt. But if anyone deserves the mantle of Heir to Python throne it is probably Eddie Izzard. His loop and flow of running jokes appears to be a stream of consciousness rant, but is obviously precision-crafted. Izzard dresses in women’s’ clothes, describes himself as “an Executive Transvestite”, and has filled in for absent Python members on stage.
It all might have been slightly, if not completely, different: the original series might have been called Owl Stretching Time, Vaseline Review, or any other of a slew of names, had the BBC not informed the cast that printed material had already been made bearing the title Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and that was that; John Cheese might never have changed his name to John Cleese; and the opening music to the TV series, Sousa’s “Liberty Bell”, might not have been in the public domain and, therefore, free for the ever budget-conscious BBC to use.