Friday Comedy Post

03.15.13

Why You're Wrong About Monty Python

Last week, I took it upon myself to introduce you benighted savages to one of the great comedies of modern times. It has since come to my attention that some industrious Americans have even tried, from, time to time, to make their own comedy, some examples of which I intend to write about in the coming weeks. But first, let's look for some common ground.

With the possible exception of Shakespeare – who pre-dates the United States by centuries in any case – and the Beatles, no artifact of British culture has been clasped more warmly to the well-padded American bosom than the works of Monty Python. This prolific and prolifically talented troupe were a product of the wholesale cultural and social spring clean that took place – or began, at least - in the UK in the 1960s.

In comedy, this process began with Beyond the Fringe, the legendary stage revue that managed to cause now-incomprehensible outrage simply by treating the Establishment (a recent coinage at the time) with less than total deference. Crucially, its creators – Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore – were themselves partly of said Establishment, being products of the same Oxbridge education as the Tory politicians they skewered. They knew exactly where the bodies were buried.

With Monty Python, which only slithered into view at the end of the decade, this tradition of anarchic irreverence reached full maturity. The “furniture” of Monty Python's Flying Circus, their low-budget sketch show that ran from 1969-74, is very much that of grim, staid postwar Britain: schoolmasters, army uniforms, arcane bureaucracy... But some crucial nut or other had been loosened, somewhere. As Christopher Hitchens put it, not long before his death:

...the essential founding gag of the scheme was the bubbling magma of absurdity that lay beneath the fragile crust of British reserve. At any moment, a man with a bowler hat or an umbrella might become a raging cross-dresser or barking sadist.

The wild success of this formula soon begat a series of feature films, and it was these that would bring Python to a global audience. Since then, Americans have done an admirable job of showering the team (John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and the much-missed Graham Chapman) with the material rewards British success was unable to provide, firstly with a blockbuster live tour, then by endlessly casting Cleese and Idle in mediocre Hollywood bit parts as a kind of pension scheme. We appreciate it, honestly. We know you mean well. Like in Iraq!

But...

There are one or two matters we need to clear up, in the interests of transatlantic comity. I shall list them in ascending order of gravity.

1. It's pronounced “Python”, not “Py-THON”.

Fairly easily dispensed with, this one. I've never heard an American pronounce the word that way when referring to the snake, yet somehow, when it's preceded by “Monty”, it induces people to hit that back syllable like a truck. Just... stop it, OK? We gave you that language, you know. Listening to the results is like letting someone pet your dog, then wincing as they pet his fur against the grain. It's “Pie-Thun”, to rhyme with “fun”. Easy.

2. Watch the damn TV show.

I've had several variations on the following conversation:

Me: Do you know Monty Python at all?

American: Oh, I LOVE Monty Py-THON!

Me: (dies inside) Great. What's your favorite sketch?

American: Sketch?

Me: You know, on the TV show?

American: TV show?

Now, this oversight is excusable, up to a point. Monty Python's Flying Circus was only ever shown erratically on US television and usually late at night, so it never became the cultural staple it did in its homeland. However, we now live in the post-television world, where content can be downloaded at will and consumed at leisure. All 45 episodes are available on iTunes, but I'm sure I can count on industrious, intelligent and, quite frankly, frighteningly sexually attractive readers such as yourselves to find their way to a copy. If you decline to do so, you'll deprive yourselves of the following, to give but a tiny sample:

Video screenshot
Video screenshot
Video screenshot

If you follow my advice, you'll quite quickly notice something else about Monty Python's Flying Circus, other than its non-existent budget and familiar cast: large stretches of it aren't funny. A drawback in a comedy program, you might say, but one that actually attests to the radical departure the series represented. While taking established comedy tropes as a starting point, the Flying Circus is experimental in the truest sense. They threw every mad idea at the screen, which sometimes resulted in new highs for the comedy genre (see the clips above), but just as often fell flat, feeling merely surreal and disjointed. As Not the Nine o'Clock News, a spiritual successor to Python, once put it: “These men died for us – frequently.”

3. You like the wrong movie.

Here's the rub. Everything up to this point has been throat-clearing, for now we reach the central dividing line between British and American lovers of Monty Python: the movies.

In all probability, most readers of this article will have come to Monty Python via the group's first feature film: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Before going any further, I'd like to affirm that Holy Grail is one of the finest comedies in the history of film. It's ceaselessly inventive and fast-moving with barely a moment's filler, every millimeter... sorry, inch of the screen bursting with jokes. As with all Python's best work, the humor ranges effortlessly from high to low, with knowledgeable riffs on real Arthurian myth coexisting amicably with, well...

Video screenshot

The film is, in other words, perfectly representative of what made Monty Python successful in the first place.

But that's ALL it is. Much as I love it, and grew up with its catchphrases, and fell in love with it all over again once I discovered marijuana as a young adult, my worry is that Monty Python and the Holy Grail has given Americans the wrong idea about where Python were really coming from. That's because it triumphantly captures one aspect of their genius – a deep and serious commitment to being as silly as possible – while failing to do justice to the other – subversion.

This effect is amplified by the film's steady degeneration in popular memory to a collection of context-free quotes and references, to be wheeled out at every drunken student gathering for the rest of time. Most Americans, if they know Monty Python at all, identify it with “British eccentricity” - not totally inaccurate, but also faintly patronizing and far from the whole story. To see what they were truly capable of, the film you need to see is their second effort: Monty Python's Life of Brian.

As with Flying Circus, America has some justification for being less familiar with this movie than its predecessor. When it was released in the late '70s, large swathes of the country were still shocked by the idea of mocking religion – there was a significant uproar even in secular Britain – so it simply wasn't shown in many localities. The same went for later TV broadcasts. Only in the age of home video could the balance be redressed, but by that time, Holy Grail had a long-established status among Geek-Americans as the better picture.

In one narrow sense, they were right. In terms of sheer laughter potential, Holy Grail probably inches ahead, due to the sheer density of the material. In every other respect, though, Life of Brian is the pinnacle of Monty Python's achievement. While containing plenty of their signature surreality – most notably a scene where an alien spaceship makes a sudden appearance in 1st-century Judea – this is a film with (a) something to say that (b) knows exactly how to say it and (c) does so without losing pace or becoming preachy. For one film to succeed at all three of these tasks is so rare as to be unprecedented – especially when the subjects at hand are politics and organized religion.

Consider this famous scene, as iconic of this movie as “Knights Who Say 'Ni'” is of Holy Grail:

Video screenshot

I've spent countless hours, on the internet and in real life, arguing the follies of organized religion... But every time I see this clip, I feel I might as well give up. It really renders most other comment superfluous, in a way I can hardly recall any other satire doing. The only thing that comes close is The Simpsons on retail politics: “Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others”. Then there's the following, which deserves to haunt all self-appointed radicals to the end of time:

Video screenshot

Just substitute “capitalism” or “American hegemony” for “the Romans” and you could be eavesdropping at an Occupy camp.

As with Father Ted last week, I could spend the rest of the day highlighting moments of genius from Life of Brian, or gushing over how historically accurate it is for a laugh-out-loud comedy, or how each of the performers – even Terry Gilliam – surpasses themselves. But I've indulged myself enough in this essay as it is. No more clips, no plot summary: I want you to watch it. If you've seen it before, I want you to watch it again.

That, I think, clears up the major issues keeping most American Python-fanciers from a full appreciation of the canon. As it does with everything else, the United States has absorbed British comedy and made it its own – that is your nation's special genius. Like the Empire we wearily bequeathed you half a century ago, the legacy Python belongs to you now, as the biggest English-speaking country on Earth. I don't begrudge it for a second: just take good care of it, won't you?