In the heavenly hierarchy of humor, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is God. Its four-year run on the BBC resulted in 45 stellar examples of superior sketch comedy. Others have challenged Python’s mantle, and a few have lapped at their beatified boots, but when it comes to wit omnipotence, they’re Valhalla’s vaunted rulers.
Some may think the show a work of genius sprung forth unsullied, but a lot of hard work and many tough roads were hoed to get the state of Python perfection. The six core members — John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam — all had histories in broadcasting (several started as writers for David Frost). Encouraged by British Broadcasting’s head of comedy, Michael Mills (along with a script editor friend, Barry Took), the boys came together to emulate their favorite performers (including the laughter Lord they dethroned, Spike Milligan) and conjure a new form of sketch comedy. Cambridge-based Cleese and Chapman had been experimenting with “formless” bits on At Last, The 1948 Show, while Jones, Palin, and Idle (the Oxford gang) had worked out a kind of stream-of-consciousness conceit for Do Not Adjust Your Set. Along with Gilliam’s absurd animation, the troupe prepared their unpredictable foray into funny.
Their joint effort is the very definition of comedy. And A&E’s epic 16-disc set (a reissue of the entire series, with two new bonus DVDs) provides insight into Python’s approach. For the group, no form of humor was off limits. You could use silent film slapstick (“Fish Slapping Dance”) to highly specialized verbal humor (“Whizzo Chocolate Factory”). Puns lay next to pantomime (either horse, or Queen Victoria), satire sat side by side with the sophomoric (“Dung of the Month Club”). And, of course, there is Gilliam’s dada-esque animation. The only yank of the bunch, Gilliam was, and remains, a true visionary, able to make rip-roaring hilarity out of an old cheesecake photo and a couple of animated eyes. His Victorian vice on crack cartoon capers (who else would turn Rodin’s statue The Kiss into a musical instrument?) are uncompromised and challenging, as well as the glue that holds the rest together.
Flying Circus is television as experimentation. Python pushed boundaries — of taste (the gore drenched dementia of “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days”), of tradition, temperament, and tone. It also paved the way for something that was almost unheard of in the early days of television comedy — writers who performed their own material.
The Pythons challenged the old guard with their hands-on approach. Before, comics and actors hired scribes to script their hilarity, and on rare occasions, an author would step from behind the camera. But the Monty men were different. Protective of their product, they made the decision to apply their own tenuous talents to the material. Their performances made the comedy appear “organic,” emerging from a singular ironic Id. Whether playing military officers, jack-booted dimwits (the Gumbys) or upper-class twits (in a skit where clueless morons compete for buffoon bragging rights), the bond between writer and words was so strong as to seem subversive.
Each personality was so special that the troupe seemed complete unto itself. Idle with the instigator, the clever lad with a snide grin on his face. Jones was jocular, agent with a bowler on his head. Chapman was laidback, hiding his hilarity behind a seeming detachment. Cleese was complete chaos and Palin was his polar opposite, the polite boy with a sunny disposition and an easygoing countrified comportment. They formed the many limbs of a clownish Shiva, deconstructing comedy as surely as they were rebuilding it, one genius joke at a time.
They also took apart British etiquette and propriety. Python openly addressed cannibalism (the entire premise for a Season Two-ending showcase) and sexuality (including “the naughty bits”), the lovemaking practices of mollusks and a mortuary that served your up mother, buffet-style. The Pythons were without match in their use of language and their most famous sketches (“The Argument Clinic,” “The Dead Parrot Skit”) float on a sea of carefully crafted sentences built on complex word combinations. Eric Idle was particularly adept, whether he was playing an irate vacationer complaining about package tours or a lewd, insinuating “nudger.”
Still, one might argue that well written material performed flawlessly is the basis of many successful comedy shows. So the question remains: what exactly made Python so extraordinary? The answer is a bit metaphysical. Viewed now, Flying Circus was both of its time and timeless, representative of its individual members and yet broad in its comic scope. It focused on details (the particulars of Proust, the hypocrisies of the UK legal system), yet never lost sight of the big picture (men in drag — à la the Pepperpots — are funny).
Before Monty mania, comedy was packaged in polite segments that were easy to digest. Even sketch comedy was structured around aesthetic centers, a Sid Caesar, a Rowan and Martin. A skit featured a one-liner or an oddball character, an engine of potential entertainment with a line of writers behind it. But the center always held, making rhythms and jokes predictable.
Python proved none of that was necessary. It turned its back on everything popular, accepted, and expected of an English television comedy series. It was a dense offering of untold treasures. A single sketch (the “Ministry of Silly Walks,” the “Spanish Inquisition”) included obvious as well as in-jokes, casual asides that seemed nonsensical until the entire show concept came into focus. Their material opened up a heretofore unknown vortex in the spoof/time continuum. Their later work is especially exacting, from their films and live shows (the wonderful Live at the Hollywood Bowl is a bonus feature in this set) to their attempts to translate their sensibility into other languages (one of their infamous German shows appears here as well) and lasting impact on other sketch series like SCTV and Kids in the Hall.
And of course, there is the geek factor. In the early ’70s, Python was the Mood Ring of merriment. If you knew Python — and such concepts as cat confusing, or brain cell/loony spotting — you passed the initial test of geek cool. Those old enough to survive the original British invasion were worn out by the time Python made it to America (the show ran in Britain from 1969 until 1974). Like initial Me Decade humor (George Carlin’s Class Clown, Cheech and Chong’s Big Bamboo), Python celebrated strangeness. And it was highly quotable (“Spam, spam, spam, spam,” “I wet ’em,” “My brain hurts!”).
Unlike other youthful “phases,” Python held onto fans through their adulthood, partly because the series reran forever: ABC bought the last six shows and aired them as heavily edited late night comedy packages (which featured the classic “Worst Family in Britain” sketch), and then Monty Python and the Holy Grail arrived in theaters. With an audience primed for what Python did best, the subsequent success of the film meant that the impact of the troupe was now set in stone.
The 45 shows that encompass the entire run of Monty Python’s Flying Circus represent a kind of comic reformation, an attempt to step out of the dark ages of dreary sketch sameness into enlightenment. Too bad all deities aren’t this easy to worship. No reason for faith or foolish rituals; just sit back and watch the wonders of wit unfold. You may not end up speaking in tongues, but you will understand why Conquistador Coffee gives new meaning to the word “vomit.” It’s all part of the Python’s plan. Amen!