The first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was about seeing what the Pythons could get away with. In The Pythons’ Autobiography, John Cleese talks about enjoying “a real sense of discovery. It’s like you want to be a painter; however, the paints haven’t arrived, there’s not much you can do. Then suddenly the paints turn up and you start dabbling around and you’re excited about the possibilities.” Cheese, Mark Patton, Grant Chafing, and Perry Bones had been… had… er.
“Déjà Vu” (season two, episode three; originally aired 9/29/1970)
(Available on Amazon.)
Sometimes, the best way to understand why something works is to see what happens when it doesn’t. This is especially true when it comes to art in all forms; while there are certain basic criteria for deciding why some art is successful, and some isn’t, so much of those decisions come down to intuition and reflexive response. That’s fine if you’re just, y’know, enjoying stuff (who does that, really), but if you want to pick apart a painting or a music composition or a sketch comedy show, it helps to be able to draw some line between the good and the not-so-much. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is so dense, and so ambitious, that it can be difficult to pin down what makes a great episode so great. That’s one of the more practical advantages to the Pythons’ approach to comedy writing; when a joke or even a whole premise falls flat, the lull is camouflaged in a mess of meta-trickery and deconstruction. Sometimes, when I don’t laugh, I assume that’s the point, and then I think about death for a while until a Gumby shows up; that sort of thing.
Still, there are definitely bits that don’t quite kick as hard as they should, and a surprising amount of the first half of “Déjà Vu” falls into that category. Comedy is probably more subjective than drama, and I’m sure there are fans of the show that love the airplane hijacker sketch with all their hearts; I’m not one of them, though. And what’s fascinating and, even more important, revealing about it is the way it doesn’t work. The premise is fine: Michael Palin plays a relentlessly polite hijacker who keeps apologizing and mollifying his demands to a friendly obliging airline crew. It’s a silly idea that plays off our expectations in a fun way, with just a dash of British etiquette thrown in for good measure. Of course the hijacker’s biggest fear is that someone might think he’s being rude: He’s English. That’s practically coded into the DNA. (Or, with less stereotyping and greater clarity: Fear of embarrassment is one of the driving forces behind British comedy. Comedy in general, really, but British culture is just that much more obsessed about the whole “stiffer upper lip” thing.)
But while it’s possible to appreciate all of this in theory, there’s just not a lot to laugh about in the sketch. It’s pleasant, and Palin gives it his all, but there’s no snap to it, and no spiraling madness that keeps the audience off their footing. This is due to a pair of factors: first, an interesting—but not exactly momentum-building—opening sequence, and the lack of urgency within the sketch itself. The episode starts well enough, with Carol Cleveland performing an impromptu strip tease in a high-rise apartment before Cleese’s Announcer can interrupt her with his usual line. (The whole sequence is most notable for the fact that it was filmed on location, as opposed to a set; the camera angle is a bit awkward throughout, and Cleese is standing on what looks like a pretty rickey window-washer ledge.) A shot of stuffed animals in a forest, and one of the animals explodes—this will be a throughline running through the whole half-hour. Back to the Announcer (Cleveland is teasing him with her underwear), and it’s off to the opening credits.
So far so good. And really, nothing in the next ten minutes or so is outright bad. Terry Jones’s trip through the countryside in search of flying lessons is on firm-footing, Flying Circus-wise, offering some clever meta gags (Jones first bumps into Palin in a Bishop’s costume, practicing lines in various voices; when Jones asks him for help, Palin begs off, saying “Nothing to do with me. I’m not in this show”) and a long, strange bit that has Jones following a secretary through rivers, fields, underground, and across a busy street to the next sketch. The build-up, which is fairly funny in its own right, mostly serves the usual business of throwing the audience of its guard. The wait between Jones appearance and the actual start of the first sketch creates a familiar kind of tension, and when Jones finds Graham Chapman floating over his desk with the help of an obvious wire rig, the tension is released into silliness.
That’s the theory, anyway, and the Chapman/Jones argument that follows is fun, with Chapman mocking Jones as a snob for wanting airplane lessons, not hanging-over-a-desk-in-an-obvious-wire-rig lessons. It also transitions smoothly into the next bit, which jumps into the future to put Jones behind the wheel of an actual aeroplane. But there’s not much in the way of momentum, and despite Chapman’s desperate exaggerated sneering, the energy seems to be low, resulting in a lot of material that’s amusing in concept but not all that gut-busting in practice.
Eric Idle’s nitpicking BALPA (British Airline Pilots Association) man is a good example of this. The idea of a friendly, stuffy, hopelessly out of date authority figure trying to impose his will on material he doesn’t understand is one the Pythons have used many times before, generally with terrific results. But while Idle is fine (this role is more Chapman’s bag, but Idle does “clueless” well enough), the monologue goes on for a while without any obvious laugh lines. The pilot’s increasingly ludicrous requests for authenticity are cute, but don’t have much punch, and the brief moment where he goes off script doesn’t last long enough to be unsettling.
Predictability is a problem when that predictability doesn’t generate intensity, and there’s no real build to any of these bits. Back on the plane, Chapman busts into the cockpit thinking its a bathroom, and then awkwardly tries to bluff his way out of the scene as Cleese and Jones stare blankly on. Chapman is convincingly desperate in his attempts at conversation, but Cleese and Jones are so blasé that the whole scene never gets off the ground (so to speak). Then Palin shows up as the hijacker, and it looks like the whole thing is going to pull itself together. There’s a concept here (Chapman’s nervousness feels more like forced improvisation than anything concrete), and a good one. But it doesn’t play. The rhythms leading up to this create a space for something sharp and energized to really land, but instead, we get a lot of laidback discussion that never gets beyond the opening gag.
The Pythons’ use of fractured structure, of breaking into scenes, resisting traditional punchlines, drawing attention to the artifice and occasionally threatening to break it apart entirely, works best when it leads us to believe just about everything might suddenly be a joke—that everything we see onscreen has the potential to be hilarious. By dropping traditional gag signifiers, by refusing to underline what’s the “humor” part and what’s the “setup,” the troupe puts the viewer in the uneasy, thrilling position of having to work it out for themselves. And when that works, which it does so much of the time, the results are remarkable. But if too much time goes by without a good solid belly laugh, the faith that there are laughs to find starts to get shaky.
The other problem is that the hijacking sketch has no real stakes. Palin has a gun, he wants to go to Luton, and the pilots and stewardess are more than willing to accommodate him. Which is the point: the humor of the scene comes from the eager attempts by both sides of the conversation to make the other person/people happy. But that also drains any drama out of the scene, and without some drama, however ridiculous, the humor drains away. By comparison, rewatch the first Spanish Inquisition sketch from last week. In that scene, Chapman and Cleveland are clearly bored/confused, and there’s no concern that Palin and his team are going to do anyone actual harm. But Palin is so determined to do a good job, and Jones is so eager to help him, that it becomes funny to watch them struggle against the unbeatable handicap of their own ineptitude. The hijacking sketch looks to be going in a similar direction (in that Palin’s goals are undermined by his inability to be rude), but Cleese and the others are so helpful that the whole thing seems resolved before it really gets going.
The episode picks up almost immediately, with a strong, high-concept sketch about a Scottish poet whose oeuvre consists entirely of notes begging for money. Really, this is just a goof on a cultural stereotype done in the style of an arts documentary, but it’s a really good goof, and the familiar format helps to pull the whole episode into focus. Jones’ performance as the poet is great, as is Idle’s Ian MacKellan-esque recital of the man’s most famous work, “Can I Have 50 Pounds To Mend The Shed?” But the episode falters soon after; Cleese’s Scottish nitpicker is an okay attempt to create a runner that’s never really funny enough to justify the return, and Palin’s “Actually I’m a gynecologist, but this is my lunch hour,” sounds suspiciously like a punchline. (Thankfully, it’s a pretty good punchline.) There’s a long, heady bit about Idle as a milkman turned psychiatrist that’s amusing, and worth a few chuckles, but also draggy, with the concept only rarely becoming as funny as the writers seem to think it is. (The best bit is Terry Jones practicing psychiatry on a cow.)
Thankfully, the final sketch, about Michael Palin as the host of a science show trapped in gradually widening spiral of repetition, is trippy and striking and terrific; not hilarious, exactly, but the kind of weirdness that helps to justify all the earlier experimentation, whether you thought it worked or not. The sketch is a fine example of how timing is important to humor, and how it takes a certain kind of artistic courage to push something through to its best effect. The first time the opening titles of “It’s The Mind” start in, and we see that the topic of the discussion is “Déjà Vu,” and you just know what’s coming next. Sure enough, Palin starts into his opening speech, gets through a few sentences, then repeats himself. And then again. After a few times, the opening montage comes back; a phone rings; someone hands Palin an (empty) glass; and he keeps going through the motions, becoming increasingly confused as to what’s going on, and clearly frightened about how he can’t seem to stop it.
The fear is what makes it funny, because the fear makes the host character human. Any sort of comment about déjà vu is invariably going to lead to some very obvious jokes, and by taking one of those obvious jokes, and dragging out for as long as possible while making sure that there’s someone recognizably human trapped inside, the Pythons make it new. They’re willingness to experiment leads them to take plenty of risks (at least in terms of “writing comedy”; I don’t think anyone’s playing Russian Roulette between takes), and even when not every risk pays off, it’s still fascinating to watch, even when it’s boring, which sometimes it can be a little.
- The Bishop tells Jones that they’re in episode five, and he’s not on until episode eight. I can’t think of any numbering that would make that correct. (Although “The Bishop” is definitely in the next episode, even if he isn’t played by Palin.)
- My favorite of the various people Jones and Cleveland pass on their walk through the countryside: Palin as a friendly lady with a coffee cart.
- I love the transiting subtitles in the opening of the airplane sketch.
- During the Scottish-poet sketch, Idle plays a young woman fending off the aggressive amorous advances of the soundman. It’s the sort of texture gag (an in-the-margins style joke that serves to fill in the empty space) that’s constantly popping up on the show, but it’s a little weird to see now, what with all the rape-joke debate that’s been going on lately.
- Through the back half of the episode, Jones is wearing a fake mustache in several different ways. For a while, I thought it was some sort of hideous growth.
“The Buzz Aldrin Show” (season two, episode four; originally aired 10/20/1970)
(Available on Amazon.)
If “Déjà Vu” provides a good example of what happens with the Pythons’ approach falters, “The Buzz Aldrin Show” demonstrates just how much the approach can add when it works. The episode itself is stronger than the previous half-hour, although not quite as top-to-bottom perfect as the two episodes that started off the season; the ratio of hits to misses is just that much better that the whole thing feels cohesive, even if that isn’t always the case. But the sketch that benefits the most from the Flying Circus style is one that doesn’t really have a hook at all. The closest “Insurance Sketch” comes to a premise is the idea that Palin’s insurance salesman is a sleazy guy, and he’s taking advantage of two overly trusting rubes, first Chapman’s everyman (who’s looking to insure an Aston Martin, so he’s probably not that “everyman” at all, really), and then Idle’s naïve priest. Fleecing the priest puts Palin on the radar of the Bishop, which leads into the next sketch, but before we get there, it’s worth noting how “Insurance Sketch” works.
First of all, there’s the name. As with “The Architects Sketch” earlier in the episode, “Insurance Sketch” is formally named within the episode itself, by a group of helpful, if thick, Gumbys. Introducing a sketch is the kind of artless, hacky approach the Pythons prefer to avoid, and using it here, with the show’s stupidest recurring characters, is a way to poke fun at the cliché. At the same time, sketches do follow both introductions; and while that may not seem like a big deal, it’s the sort of have cake, eat too situation that the troupe so often resorts to. This becomes more obvious once the meat of the “Insurance Sketch” kicks in. As noted, this is some thin stuff. Palin and Chapman chat for a bit, then Idle shows up and Idle and Palin chat for a bit, and then it’s over. The exchanges never get the speed and fury of a truly great sketch; both Chapman and Idle are too easily defeated by Palin’s skeezy confidence to work up the kind of head of steam we saw in, say, “The Parrot Sketch.”
But that’s hard to notice, given how much of the scene is given over to mocking the concept of the sketch itself. As Chapman talks, a subtitle pops up onscreen labeling him “Straight Man.” (Given Chapman’s sexual orientation, that gag might have layers.) When Idle shows up, he gets the subtitle “Another Straight Man.” And when Palin and Idle start arguing, Chapman asks if he has anymore lines in the sketch, and Palin digs out the script to check. There are plenty of great Python bits that don’t require this much self-awareness, and at its worst, this sort of commentary can feel over-stuffed and empty, cleverness existing primarily for its own sake. Here, though, it makes a mildly funny sequence twice as entertaining to watch. The free-wheeling anarchy of Flying Circus (which is usually a lot more considered and plotted out that it appears) often plays like the parody of the very idea of a sketch comedy show—which, to be honest, is a pretty ridiculous idea. And it also happens to be the greatest sketch comedy show of all time. It’s an audacious approach that could play as overly arch, but hardly ever does.
The commentary runs through much of the rest of the episode as well. The “The Architects Sketch” has a funnier conceit than the “Insurance Sketch”: Two architects present their models for a proposed residential block of flats, and both presentations are disasters in completely different ways. Cleese’s presentation, in which he describes an increasingly terrifying slaughterhouse for proposed tenants, is one of the highlights of the half hour, banking off the performer’s slightly menacing air (of all the Pythons, Cleese comes across as the most threatening; it’s not hard to imagine him hanging out in a horror film, handing sharp objects over to Vincent Price) and his manic need to please. Idle’s presentation is mostly just him playing straight man to an increasingly disastrous model flat, but in case we don’t get the point, the word “SATIRE” flashes across the screen just as the model bursts into flame. The sketch is a such solid mixture of performance, concept, and visual gag that it doesn’t need much in the way of ornamentation, but the few bits it does get add to the appeal rather than distracting from it. It’s like an endlessly restless, constantly inventing mind at work behind the scenes, perpetually unsatisfied by his efforts.
All of this climaxes in “The Bishop” sequence, a goofy riff on the opening credits of action shows; in this case, it’s Terry Jones as a square-jawed, hard-nosed bishop, moving through London with his priest posse, shoving strangers (one of the unexpected pleasures of watching Flying Circus are trying to spot the reactions of unsuspecting passer-bys in the outdoor sketches) and saving clerical lives. Well, trying to save clerical lives, anyway; the sketch’s other joke is that the Bishop always arrives too late to be of much help to anybody, although he always takes the time to grunt out a pun after each death. (Which demonstrates the brilliance of Python, really: They were so innovative they figured out a way to make fun of David Caruso on CSI: Miami before such jokes became passé.) Given how much of these reviews is just me throwing out big words and desperately hoping some of them stick, it’s probably foolish of me to claim that that I don’t really know why I love “The Bishop” so much, but that’s honestly the case. It’s just such a winningly silly piece of work, right down the elaborate, Avengers-style deaths for the priest victims. (The best: At a christening, Cleese holds a baby bomb. “Don’t say the kid’s name, vic!”)
The rest of the half-hour is, in its way, as much of a hodge podge as the first half of “Déjà Vu.” The ideas are stronger, but many of them come across like the starting points of sketches that nobody ever thought of a way to finish. Which, again, plays right into the Pythons’ signature style. The married couple living out on the street, with full furnishings and even a working bath, isn’t bad, and the fact that they have to shoo away a documentary filmmaker desperate for some good material is great, but the bit really just serves as a way to slide into the Poet Installation sketch. It’s a clever idea, but it’s really just an excuse to get into the Poet Reader sketch, which has Palin as a kind of poet mechanic/meter reader stopping by to check in on housewife Jones’ various poets. She’s got Thomas Hardy up in the bedroom, but Palin won’t look at him, because Hardy’s a novelist—the joke being that Hardy always thought of himself as a poet first, and in fact spent the latter portion of his life writing poetry after the harsh critical reaction to Jude The Obscure. And that leads us into some Gilliam animation, which leads us to a chemist’s shop, which leads to a serious of bad sex jokes, which leads to—
Anyway, you get the point. In “Déjà Vu,” the opening segment attempts to use lots of space to create comic tension, with mixed results. Here, the last 10 to 15 minutes keep shifting and transforming into new material; it’s a bit like the second half of the Beatles' Abbey Road, if you want to get really pretentious, with each melody coming in quick enough to be recognizable, but leaving before it develops into a fully articulated song. That means sacrificing the “wring all the laughs out of an idea” style that the troupe has used in the past, but it also makes all the ideas seem that much fresher. Even the ones that don’t quite work, like Chapman’s gruff police officer refusing to believe the testimony of a shopkeeper about Gilliam’s very obvious shoplifter, suggest an impression of some other, deeper joke that’s just not immediately obvious. The changes suggest an underlying plan, and whether or not that plan exists, the mere suggestion of it enhances the material. Which may sound like something of a trick, but that’s the secret, really: While the Pythons are smart, articulate, and well-read, and while they probably have fascinating thoughts on philosophy, politics, and culture, the main point of Flying Circus is to get you to laugh. Any way they can make that happen is worth trying.
- The BBC does a lot of apologizing this week. Also the Gumbys. (And speaking of unsophisticated bits, the way they keep talking when Chapman tries to start “The Architect Sketch”—and then keep saying “Sorry” after he tells them to shut up—makes me crack up just thinking about it.)
- “Are you proposing to slaughter our tenants?” “Does that not fit in with your plans?”
- There’s an Inquisition reference in the Man-In-The-Street Interviews. Also Palin mentions a parrot in the chemist sketch. So many callbacks!
- Lots of nice meta stuff in the chemist sketch, with Idle talking directly to the camera about how television can suggest the illusion of passing time.
“Déjà Vu” (season two, episode three; originally aired 9/29/1970)
(Available on Amazon.)
Sometimes, the best way to understand why something works is to see what happens when it doesn’t. This is especially true when it comes to art in all forms; while there are certain basic criteria for deciding why some art is successful, and some isn’t, so much of those decisions come down to intuition and reflexive response. That’s fine if you’re just… just… ah.
Next week: We come to you “Live From The Grill-O-Mat” and remember “It’s A Living,” and I (hopefully) come up with something interesting to say about Terry Gilliam.