Watching the short chunks of animation sprinkled throughout every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, it’s hard to spot anything particularly visionary about them. Each is short, rough, and thoroughly unlovely; the jokes are childish, the art a perfunctory combination of cartoonish backgrounds and Victorian photographs, the actual animation itself just a lot of jerky, simplistic motions. It’s schoolboy pranks, the effort of a snot-nosed brat thumbing his nose at the teacher, the government, propriety—not out of any specific desire for change (that would come later), but for the sheer joy of rudeness. The segments border on the nonsensical, following a kind of free association logic that stops just short of complete absurdity. As manic as the live-action sequences that dominate the show so often are, they’re rarely this free-form, rarely this aggressively surreal. Maybe it’s the difference between seeing actors performing material, and seeing that material thrown out in cheap, jerky art. But probably, it’s the difference between the writing of Cleese, Chapman, Palin, Idle, and Jones, and the maddening genius of Terry Gilliam.
Gilliam is unique among the Pythons in a few ways. For one, he’s responsible for the animated segments that hold together each episode of Flying Circus, providing a kind of thematic glue that both adds to the shows weird cohesion, and reminds the audience that anything is possible: even the images on screen can be clipped, crushed, broken, and humiliated. Everything you see has a mind of its own. Gilliam is also the only American in the group, which further cements his position as an outsider; born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1940, Gilliam become frustrated and outraged during the social upheaval of the 1960s, leaving the country out of fear of what his frustration might eventually lead to. A chance professional encounter with John Cleese brought him into the Python’s orbit, and his knack for quick, cheap animation got him a job on the show. A perpetual outsider, he served as a sounding board for sketch material, and as the series went on, occasionally filled roles in front of the camera—a naked organist here, a rubber chicken wielding knight in full armor there.
The other way Gilliam differs from the rest of the troupe is that arguably his best work all happened after the Pythons went their separate ways. Gilliam’s contributions to Flying Circus were invaluable, but they were overshadowed by the work of those around him; plenty of people remember the Spanish Inquisition, but it’s a bit trickier to recite “little guys jump on a large naked lady and the word SATIRE is on the screen.” Not all of the animated segments are forgettable (the story of the prince with the face cancer sticks in the mind), but most of them are designed to be disposable, doodles that help maintain flow rather than build or release tension. Gilliam had some striking on-screen appearances, and his work co-directing Monty Python And The Holy Grail with Terry Jones helped to prove that the troupe could translate its appeal to the big screen. But if that had been all he’d done, he’d be known, but not idolized, a cult figure in a cult group, pushed aside in favor of more familiar faces.
But directing Holy Grail put Gilliam on the road towards what he does best, as movies like Time Bandits, Brazil, and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (among many others) so ably demonstrate. Looking back, it’s possible to see small seeds of Gilliam’s genius buried in all those furious squiggles and looping figures. His directorial work crosses genre lines, gets stuck on philosophy, misery, buries itself in the muck and reaches for the heavens, and throughout, the connecting thread is a relentless curiosity, and a desire to unmake and remake the world. Which is probably a bit much for a comedy troupe (and even for Gilliam himself, as his refusal to compromise and increasingly esoteric filmography demonstrate), but there are worse places to start from then British anarchy.
“Live from the Grill-o-mat” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 10/27/70)
(Available on Amazon.)
Remember all that stuff about the second season trying for more continuity? (Continuity in this sense being the most basic suggestion of connection, not “character arcs” and “mythology”) (Although I guess the Spanish Inquisition is a kind of mythology…) Here’s a great example of that: “Live From The Grill-O-Mat” is made up of the usual melange of long and short sketches, but the episode is held together by two central conceits. The first has film of John Cleese in his Announcer outfit sitting in a diner, playing an increasingly nervous and flailing emcee to guide us through the show; and the second, which dovetails with the first, has a handful of members from the Royal Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things fleeing through the world of the show looking to escape the horrible, horrible cameras. This latter “story” is something that would’ve fit in easily into the first season, as it’s mostly just Chapman and the others running through animation, turning into animation, and shouting in exaggerated, stuffy accents. But Cleese’s announcer—who is considerably more awkward and insecure than the Announcer normally is—gives the half hour a certain amount of pathos. Nothing that’s going to move anyone to tears, but his eagerness, which leads to his nervousness, that leads to his growing despair, until the final humiliation of having to announce his own likely firing from the roof of a bus, is a consistent through-line. It gives us a narrative, and with that narrative, a strange kind of suspense.
Not that the sketches need much help. After the Announcer’s introduction, the episode exits the gate strong with “Blackmail,” a show about, well, look at the title. In full smarm mode, Michael Palin runs through a series of “games” in which he offers the viewers at home a chance to play: the show has acquired photos, records, and even film footage of unaware civilians engaging in unsavory activities that they’d most likely want to keep secret. Palin then (charmingly) threatens to reveal these items unless the person in question calls in and agrees to pay the show off. It’s the sort of concept that takes too long to explain in print, and yet makes perfect sense as soon as you see it on screen. Like many of the best jokes, there’s something inevitable about the idea, so logical and crisp that with just a slight twist it could work as a short story: something Philip K. Dick or Kafka might’ve written, especially in the modern era of the surveillance state. Instead, we get Palin at his most threateningly charming, a sleazy bastard who somehow remains likable even as he threatens to destroy lives. Also, Gilliam is naked at an organ, which is fun for everyone.
Up next, there’s a brief presentation from the aforementioned RSFPTOTOOT, a sketch which demonstrates the value of not letting material overstay its welcome. Chapman gets up, does his great stuffy upper crust gentleman routine, describing the good fortune of the society’s efforts to put things on top of other things. It’s a good joke, but it’s got a limited run built in; the humor comes from contrast between the silliness of the concept, and the group of pompous middle-aged men going about it, and there’s only so far you can go with that. Which the troupe recognizes, because as soon as Chapman finishes his speech, and he demands Cleese (as representative of the Staffordshire branch) explain why his group has failed to successfully live up to their charter. Cleese says, in a voice so small and embarrassed it’s almost non-existent, that it all feels a bit silly. Chapman gasps, and then immediately agrees, and thus endeth the short life of the RSFPTOTOOT. When Chapman tries to leave the building, he sees the cameraman filming him, and even notes how the sketch changes from video (inside) to film (outside), and things go crazy; the society organizes an escape plan, Nazis show up, it’s all very strange.
The next great sketch (after an amusing, but inconsequential bit with Cleese and Idle as flatmates with a talk show; it’s the sort of character-based bit that other shows would spend considerable time on, but here is just tossed off, although Cleese is arguably playing the same character as the one he played in the Parrot Sketch) has Idle visiting a fancy manor home and watching in horror as first the furniture, then the help, and then house itself collapses around him. Another simple, direct idea, and one that works on a couple of levels: there’s the slapstick humor of seeing what horrible thing will happen next, combined with a premise so blatantly contrived that it becomes funny in part because of its contrivance. A lot of Python sketches seem to follow this approach—jokes that work for what they are, and also work because everyone involved comes off as aware of the silliness of what they’re trying to do without undercutting that silliness. It makes the audience feel more like we’re in on the gag. We enjoy the sketch, and we feel clever enough to also enjoy the goofiness of the whole idea of sketch comedy.
Out of the rest of the material (a horrible school production of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers with four brothers and two bridges; Idle as a butcher who alternates between insults and politeness, a kind of logician’s gag), the one that makes the most impression is the troupe’s return to a parody of the profile piece, a bit like the “Dinsdale” sketch in the second season premiere. Here, the subject is a ferociously stupid boxer, played by Cleese, who fights against girls in little girl dresses. The jokes are either over-the-top riffs on the usual macho bullshit that fills up sports documentaries (Cleese’s manager runs in each morning from a continent away), or gags that mix the those riffs with Cleese’s incredible idiocy. It’s a delightful sketch, and what really sells it is Cleese, putting his imposing size to good use. While there’s more to the writing of the boxer sketch than there was in, say, the Silly Walks, Cleese makes both bits work by committing to the idea with his entire body, smooshing his face into an expression of cartoon thuggery, hunching his shoulders, punching at the air. If Cleese wasn’t so obviously foolish, and if Connie Booth (as his opponent) wasn’t so utterly prim, then the bout between them at the end, the final beat of the gag might come across as vicious, mean-spirited in an unfunny way. Instead, it is so, so, so silly.
- Palin’s running commentary in “Blackmail” sounds like sports commentary with just a slight twist: “He’s very brave here.”
- Also great: “No, it’s all right sir, we don’t morally censure, we just want the money.”
- There’s a nice reference to “If I could walk that way…” at the end of the Putting Things On Top Of Other Things sketch. The refusal to go in for common punchlines becomes a punchline in and of itself.
- Chapman and Idle play employees at the Grill-O-Mat, hitting just the right note of irritation and utter apathy. (Chapman gets the funnier stuff, arguing with Cleese about a misunderstood order, but Idle’s complete “I don’t give a shit” look at the end is priceless.)
- Carol Cleveland is very cute in a maid’s outfit.
- That’s another great Idle sketch, actually; he underplays the confusion and mounting horror in a way that works very well against the essential campiness of the material. (And the effects are very impressive.)
- Another appearance by Palin’s out of place Bishop.
- “Ah, they seemed to have linked themselves, so there’s no need for me to interrupt at all.” -Cleese’s announcer, failing.
- “I can see nothing wrong with one healthy man beating the living daylights out of a little schoolgirl.”
“It’s A Living” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 11/3/70)
(Available on Amazon.)
Now here’s an episode that doesn’t have much in the way of connective tissue at all; just a bunch of good to great sketches bundled together loosely for our enjoyment. It’s still a great episode, as the material is strong enough to carry it, but it’s interesting how quickly the half hour as a whole slips from memory after you watch it. One of the reasons Flying Circus is such a gratifying show to re-watch (in addition to the number of jokes that are inevitably missed on first viewing) is the way the fractured structure helps the series retain its immediacy and freshness. I’ve watched through all four seasons at least twice, and the first two seasons even more than that (I usually stall out somewhere in season three for whatever reason), but while I recognize individual bits from some episodes, I rarely know exactly what I’m in for just from the title alone. Which is fun. The downside is, the more randomly put together a half hour is, the less it feels like the sum of its parts. Some of the sketches in “It’s A Living” (in which, to the best of my recollection, no one actually says “It’s a living”) segue to others, and there’s some nifty Gilliam animation, including a great bit that shows the familiar short man from the opening titles wandering into the credits by accident, but there’s no overall bridge pulling them together. The result is a collection of material that stands fine on its own, but doesn’t gain much by context.
Which, honestly, doesn’t matter that much. Besides, the opening segment, which initially forgoes the It’s man and the opening credits for “It’s A Living,” a game show that apparently exists only to make money for everyone involved. (As opposed to all those game shows designed purely for altruistic purposes.) “It’s A Living” is the first of the episode’s vaguely connected sketched based around British culture—a topic so large, and such a frequent target of the troupe, that it seems foolhardy even to pretend those the connections are intentional. Still, between the phony game show, the prep school awards ceremony, the Book Of The Month Club (with dung delivery), the show about current events that mostly just features a pair of phony sheiks throwing potential commenters in a river, a sketch about a filmmaker who copies other people’s movies right down to the titles, a rip on an unctuous media personality, and the concluding sequence about political elections featuring a showdown between the Sensible Party and the Silly Party, there’s a definite sense of noses being thumbed at a lot of accepted English customs. Some of these bits feel more specifically British than others, but by and large, the material is strong enough to withstand some moderate culture shock.
One example of how a specific reference can often make the audience’s recognition of that reference can be found in the Timmy Williams sketch. As Williams, Idle is the ultimate in shallow, camera-ready friendliness, and his performance, in combination with his costume and hairpiece, is clearly supposed to suggest a popular cultural figure. The studio audience is immediately in on the joke, almost before Idle even opens his mouth, but most modern viewers can be forgiven for not being quite so up on the draw. According to the annotated Flying Circus scripts, the character is a play on David Frost, a popular journalist and talk show host who hosted, among other things, That Was The Week That Was and The Frost Report, both shows serving as key pieces in pre-Python comedic history. Frost might be best known to modern audiences for his interviews with Richard Nixon in 1977, and is still working today; but the specific persona Idle is parodying isn’t something that’s really existed in decades.
Yet the sketch still works, for a couple of reasons. The show-biz phony never really goes out of style, and while modern audiences (I should stress that by “modern audiences,” I mostly mean “me”; I’ve heard of Frost, but haven’t seen much of his work. Maybe all of you caught the reference immediately, you brilliant bastards.) might not catch each individual note, we can recognize the tune easily enough. Idle’s relentless, bulldozing avuncularity is the kind of joke that never really goes out of style, especially when set against Terry Jones’ poor sad-sack, whimpering for help from someone who barely seems to recognize he’s there. And that’s the other reason the sketch is effective: it has a definite story to tell, and that story creates investment that makes the jokes funnier, because it makes them that much easier. This isn’t just Idle going all phony and chipper to a random stranger. This is a consistent character whose main trait—overwhelming self-absorption masquerading as goodwill—keeps butting up against, and then steamrolling, the efforts of a man so pathetic he ends up killing himself when Idle won’t give him what he needs. He’s a loser who loses, and it’s cruel to see him suffer, and that’s why it’s funny. The final gag, that Idle was expecting the suicide and the whole thing is part of a documentary about how great he is (“I think it shows I’m human, don’t you?”) just confirms the hilariously inevitable: some people can’t win. And some people always seem to.
The specificity of the impersonation, even when the target isn’t a familiar one, helps to create the sense of reality that most jokes need to be funny. In drama, specificity helps create character and hold our interest; it makes material distinct. In comedy, specificity works in much the same way, sharpening the humor by giving it personality, uniqueness. Which is what all that stuff about British culture is really about—the Pythons use what they know to go off on flights of fancy. Like the way Chapman’s show about current events is just recognizable enough that the absurdity of people being tossed into rivers isn’t just a sight gag. (Although it is a really great sight gag, especially the part when the guys doing the tossing realize they’re on the wrong side of the river to grab Michael Palin’s old lady poet.) Or the fact that the Book Of the Month Club sketch, which is just a series of bizarre add-ons to popular delivery services (with every third book, you get a load of dung; with a new cooker, you get a dead Indian), throws out a reference to the popular novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which sounds like something an actual book club might send out, and is also just posh enough to be really, utterly unconnected to dung.
There’s the kind of free-floating silliness Flying Circus episodes always toss out, like the introduction of Raymond Luxury Yacht (it’s pronounced “Throatwarbler Mangrove”), or the “Who’s On First” style wordplay sketch (although not nearly involved as the Abbott & Costello routine) which has Terry Jones struggling to get married, and Eric Idle accepting all comers. It all culminates in the longest sequence of the episode, the Elections sketch, featuring an increasingly frantic news-team covering the results of a terribly silly political campaign. The specificity is there, from the charts and graphs behind the newsdesk, to the the stiff seriousness of the election results announcements, to the newsmen’s passionate delivery of absolutely nothing. The whole thing borders on (gasp) actual satire, of a sort that feels just as relevant in today’s era of the 24-hour news cycle. And you could say the satire is codified by “Sensible Party vs. Silly Party,” but really, it’s just an excuse to put Pythons in ridiculous outfits and force John Cleese to read out what must be the longest character name in the show’s history. In some shows, the rebuke is the point of the joke; here, the reverse is true. Just look at Palin as the Silly Party candidate, and try not to die.
- Terry Jones’s plagiaristic filmmaker also feels pretty relevant to today; he’s not that far off from Asylum films. (Or, if you want to be more generous, you could say he was the first swede-er.)
- If there’s a sketch in the episode that doesn’t entirely work, it’s the awards ceremony early in the half hour. The sequence isn’t awful, and it gets funnier as it goes, but the pacing is a little sluggish. (Although “I am the Bishop of East Anglia” makes for a good obscure Python quote.)
- The actress playing Palin’s wife is a good reminder of the excellence of Carol Cleveland.
- This episode has some of my favorite Gilliam animations—the prince with the face spot is one of the few I always remember. (I think it’s also featured in And Now For Something Completely Different.)
- The Elections sketch is a treasure trove of great quotes. In addition to the tremendously silly Silly Party names, there’s Cleese’s “I’m just getting—I’m just getting a loud buzzing noise in my left ear,” and Palin’s “Well, this is largely as I predicted, except that the Silly Party won.”
Next week: We savor the “The Attila The Hun Show” and engage in some “Archaeology Today.”