Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, nominal heir to the throne, ghost-seer, revenge-plotter, monologue-performer, driver of ex-girlfriends to suicide—that Hamlet, he goes into a psychiatrist’s office. And-
Look, you were supposed to stop me. No, like I said. I said it right there! “Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” it’s pretty bloody clear, I don’t think I could’ve been any more obvious. What do you mean you haven’t heard it. It’s practically a live-action New Yorker cartoon.
After last week’s better-than-I-was-expecting-them-to-be episodes, this week we settle into the drudgery that gives season 4 its less than stellar reputation. The timing is off throughout, mostly with things running longer than they absolutely, truly, utterly, completely, really need to. Admittedly, this is even more of a subjective criticism than usual. If a joke is making you laugh, and it keeps on making you laugh for several minutes, then you are most likely not going to mind if that joke sticks around for a few more iterations. But while I’m sure any Python fan could find one or two moments in these episodes that brought up a smile, there’s an overall, and sadly dispiriting, sense of failure of invention. It looks like Monty Python, it often sounds like Monty Python, but some crucial magic is missing. I don’t think I’d even blame it on Cleese’s absence. (Some of his material gets used this week, although god knows what it is.) Something as inherently turbulent and mercurial as Flying Circus was at its best is not long for this world.
Still, this is painful to watch. Everything seems like it should be in place. Sketches frequently interrupt themselves, the opening credits arrive without any rhyme or reason, there are lines that recur throughout the program (“You’ve got her legs up on the mantlepiece-”), there are jokes about royalty, jokes about television presenters, jokes about sports announcers. Palin wears a policeman’s uniform, Cleveland gets into various states of undress. These are all familiar elements. But it’s just not quite right. Things are considerably worse in “Mr. Neutron,” which may be my least favorite episode of the show to date (and given that there’s only one episode left to review, next week should be terribly suspenseful); “Hamlet” at least has a few good ideas spread through it’s running time, and the efforts at disruption are enough to keep things moving. But it’s impossible to ignore the hollow core at the center of too many of these scenes. Like the “Blood Donor” sketch from the end of season 3, the foundation just isn’t enough to support the structure the Python’s erect on top of it. (Yes, I said “erect.” Go have a lie down if you need it.)
Take the opening sketch about Hamlet (played by Jones). We can argue if you like whether or not “Hamlet visits a psychiatrist” is a stale premise; maybe at the time the show aired it was a fresh, vital concept, although I doubt it. To my modern eyes, there’s something hackneyed, and a little too conventional, about the routine. Hamlet is upset because people keep asking him to do monologues. Ha ha, it’s funny because Hamlet has a lot of monologues! And he doesn’t want to do them anymore. So you, you see where the joke is. Also, psychiatrists are funny because they deal with brains and what-not, and brains are inherently funny things, especially when the brains get fixated on naughty business, which happens very quickly here.
Trying to explain why a joke doesn’t play is about as easy as trying to explain why it does, but here, I think at least part of the issue is that the two characters in the scene have nothing really to do with each other. It starts off alright, with Chapman’s therapist starting to recite some of Hamlet’s more famous speeches—this isn’t hilarious, but a character asking for help, and instead just having his own problem repeated back at him is a pretty classic set-up for a comedy sketch. And then things turn to sexy talk, which will last us the rest of the scene (and several more moments throughout the episode), and through a quick succession of supposed “doctors,” each claiming an authority the previous one lacked.
The rapid-fire exchange of therapists is enough of a distraction to feel like real Python material, and the pay-off (they get a computer in to speak to Hamlet, and the machine just recites the same bit about having sex with a lady) is worth a few chuckles. But there’s a messiness to the piece that doesn’t seem entirely intentional. The initial set-up, classic or not, is just not strong enough to hold the interest, and each time Idle or Palin comes in to try and liven things up, there’s a painful sense of a performer pushing material that can’t hold the strain. The whole thing is predictable even in its eccentricities, and apart from the computer punchline at the end (which, again, wasn’t bad), there’s little effort to subvert the predictability. It’s a surprise when Chapman gets swapped out that first time, but each successive replacement is easy enough to see coming, especially when each one repeats the same gag. And it doesn’t help that poor Hamlet is left stranded on the couch with little more to do than grimace and whine. There’s no clash of characters at the center to sustain the piece; it’s just a flurry of information along a familiar track. But it does end with Cleveland shooting a prop suspended in the air with balloons, so that’s nice.
“Hamlet” (season 4, episode 4; originally aired 11/21/1974)
Then there’s an interminable piece with Palin as a thuggish, larcenous police officer with a fixation on helmets. Again, it starts well enough, with Chapman as a reporter doing a segment on sitting. This is a good bit—it’s absurd, mocks TV news shows in a surrealist kind of way, and offers several different possibilities for what might happen next. Then Palin shows up and accuses him of stealing the chair he’s sitting on, and the whole thing basically goes to hell.
I’m exaggerating, of course, because if the show had actually gone to hell, I’m sure they’re be a lot more books on the subject. Also, it’s more entertaining if I say “this goes to hell” then if I say, “A promising scene with two actors I quite like just falls apart for a while, although it eventually ends, so maybe comparing it to the eternal torments of the damned isn’t a super accurate metaphor.” (Trust me, I work near show-biz, I know these things.) Regardless, this is not a good sketch. And when a sketch dies, it dies hard. You can feel that death in a way that’s arguably harder to watch than when a show with a more conventional narrative struggles. When a sketch is bad, the people involved can’t hide behind story or character—you feel this cringe-inducing embarrassment for them as they force out each successive, clunky line, and wish someone would put an end to things before they get worse.
What’s frustrating about the bridge sketch is that the premise, even past Chapman and his “sitting,” isn’t obviously terrible. Palin’s dickish police officer keeps stealing things from people when he needs them, and he’s very full of himself. There’s plenty to laugh at there. The pacing is terrible, though. The concept of Palin swiping things from other people is fine, but it’s not something that can sustain a sketch in and of itself; it needs to happen rapid-fire, and it needs to be supplementary material for the main action. But there is no main action here (Palin’s speech about helmets is supposed to be dull, and it delivers on that front, but it doesn’t ever rise to the level of being comedically dull), and the whole thing unfolds with a deadly, monotonous regularity. In truth, I doubt it lasts more than a few minutes (if that), but a few minutes is an epoch of time, especially when it’s wasted on undercooked material.
And that’s what this feels like: undercooked, scripts that have been cobbled together out of dodgy ideas, and when those dodgy ideas come out into the light, they shrivel and vanish in a puff of really uninteresting smoke. Really, Flying Circus has always had its mix of good and bad. There are a handful of impeccable episodes, but the show’s previous three seasons are peppered with missteps. But those dull bits were kept alive by the show’s commitment to confusion and disruption, to the point where the occasional unfunny bit feels like it’s done on purpose; and who’s to say it wasn’t? The genius of the show was always its gift for suggesting a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts appeal, like a concept album where you could fall in love with individuals songs, but still need to listen to the whole to really grasp the full meaning of the thing. A blah song on a concept album is more than just a blah song—it’s a personality trait, a quirk, an exception proving some kind of mysterious rule. (Which is why I always listen to “Within You Without You” when I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.)(Before anyone says it, yes, as “concept albums” go, Sgt. Pepper’s is pretty loose. But even if you label the “concept” part of the album a trick, it’s still an effective trick.)
Now, though, that feeling has been lost, and while we can chalk at least part of that loss up to my own over-intellectualization of the show (“Crap, what the hell do I write about now? Well, I guess I can always just impose a narrative, and then draw attention to the fact that I’m imposing the narrative, to seem like I’m being clever and playing fair at the same time.”), I would be surprised if anyone looked to either of these episodes as examples of the Pythons at their best. Where before the show had excelled by the constant tension between structure and deconstruction, that tension has gone soft. Flaccid. And when you’ve got her legs up on the mantlepiece, that’s about the worst time for things to-
Look, it’s not all bad (yet). Yes, Gilliam shows up in blackface during a sketch, and man, that never gets any easier to watch. (Especially not when the character is meant as the butt of the joke, and Idle gets him out of the room by kneeing him in the crotch.) But the sketch around him, which features Palin as an unscrupulous boxing manager running a boxer who is clearly, for want of a better phrase, very very dead, isn’t terrible. Having Hamlet pop up again, seemingly mid-performance, only for Ophelia (Connie Booth!) to start in with the mantlepiece bit again, is a decent running gag. The episode picks up in its second half, with a weird skit about house-wives buying piston engines; it’s more “…huh,” than outright hilarious, and there’s something almost self-consciously weird about the whole thing, but it’s better paced than the sketches that started the half hour. And hey, any episode that ends with a passel of racing Queen Victorias can’t be all bad, right?
Still, this feels dispiritingly close to a rough draft in places, and that’s not a promising sign this late in a show’s run. It makes you wonder if there’s really any more world for them to subvert, undermine, prod mercilessly, or burn for warmth. This isn’t a sketch group with a straightforward mission like putting together some funny bits and maybe selling a few T-shirts. The Pythons, consciously or not, have a mission: to take apart everything in the funniest way possible. And while it’s uncertain if they left any permanent scars on their targets, their style of comedy embodies the better-to-burn-out-than-fade-away approach. Some things are not, by their nature, designed to linger. That we got as much as we did out of the group before it all fell apart (in the sort of half-assed “Let’s do a reunion tour” kind of way that defines modern artistic collapse) remains impressive.
“Mr. Neutron” (season 4, episode 5; originally aired 11/28/1974)
Well, we’re back in the land of the subversive children’s program again, albeit with a little more subversion than most children’s programs would allow. There’s a single story tying everything together, a story that joins several characters in a desperate attempt to track down another character (Mr. Neutron, played by Chapman doing a decent impersonation of an oak tree) who has the power to destroy the world. Things explode, there’s a man in disguise as a dog, love, intrigue, personal body odor, some ethnic jokes, and if you endure the whole thing, you get a brief skit with Palin as a bug-eyed, murdering magician waving a bloody saw and promising to demonstrate how to cut a lady in two. So that’s nice.
The rest of the episode… not so much. This was painful to get through, twenty-five minutes of limp gags and ideas which, already unfunny to begin with, only grow more aggravating over time. Like Michael Palin as a general who sniffs himself. He’s stuck in this huge empty office with a symbol of his position hanging over his desk, and in the middle of all that space, he sits alone, waiting. And then, after a few seconds, he sniffs his armpit.
It’s silly. Maybe it’s worth a giggle, or a chuckle, or a snort. (Look, it’s your face, laugh how you want with it.) But whichever Python came up with the bit decided it was so perfectly hilarious that the episode keeps coming back to it, until a later scene shows Palin completely stripped down, trying to deodorize himself. That’s—that’s not funny. I mean, I can’t do up a chart for you to prove it, but to me, it’s just a bad gag stretched long past its expiration date. Returning to it doesn’t enhance or change our understanding of the original material. It simply extrapolates a one-note joke in the most predictable and unchallenging way possible.
That happens a lot in “Mr. Neutron.” Take another bit, of Palin as a small-town politician announcing the opening of a new postal box. He gives an overwrought, amusingly exhaustive speech (and says the word “box” like he’s being goosed every time) in English, then transitions into French, and then German. Which, okay? Maybe it’s not the quality of the joke itself in this case (it’s somewhat amusing when the character reappears near the end in a desert about to be bombed), but rather that this sort of long, drawn out sequence—in which part of the humor is derived from the long-and-drawn-out-ness, and there’s no real way to do that without actually being long and drawn-out, which carries a certain risk, and I believe I may be getting lost in this sentence so let’s try an em dash to get us back on target—is difficult to use effectively, and, when it isn’t well-placed in the context of the episode as a whole, can serve to sap momentum without offering anything in its place.
Mr. Neutron’s story works best of anything here, as the juxtaposition of the laughably larger-than-life character against a Python portrait of middle-class respectability is pretty hard to muck up. Chapman is the perfect choice for the part as well, as his stiffly polite interpretation of the character underplays against Neutron’s garish yellow costume and Rock-Me-Amadeus hairdo. He manages a sort of simple, direct sincerity, and while that doesn’t make Neutron a particularly well-rounded figure, it does stop the episode from being a complete and utter catastrophe. Chapman’s talent as an actor ensures that Mr. Neutron is more than just a sight gag, which means it’s possible to be moderately interested in what happens to him. The scene where he confesses his love (give or take) to Jones in drag is intended to be funny because of the hilarity of this all-powerful being proposing to a drab housewife (who is, again, a man in drag), but you never feel as though you’re laughing at the characters.
Admittedly, I didn’t laugh much at the other characters either, but that was for far less pleasant reasons. The British government, determined to track Mr. Neutron down, starts indiscriminately bombing various places; meanwhile, Eric Idle’s secret agent goes on a trip into the Yukon to find the mysterious operative known as Teddy Salad, a man who might have the inside scoop on where to find Mr. Neutron. Which sounds potentially exciting, but the narrative is never coherent enough to be actively engaging, and the sketches the troupe tries to hang off that narrative (including an interminable scene in a Yukon dinner with Chapman as a spy who isn’t an Eskimo) aren’t much fun. At one point, Idle talks to a dog like it’s a person, and then the dog turns into a puppet, so that’s not bad. Then, when the dog is about to finally give up the information on Mr. Neutron, the Brits bomb the Yukon, which is devastatingly ironic, maybe, or at least appreciably mean-spirited. (Although none of these characters register enough to feel like their sudden violent deaths would qualify as “mean.”)
There’s just so little inspiration here or insight that after a while, it stops being boring and just becomes sad. And honestly, I don’t have a lot more to say about sad, so I think we should just hit the “Blow Up Earth” button and move on.
Next week: We finish these reviews with the final episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.