“Argument Clinic” is a perfect sketch.
No it isn’t.
Yes it is.
No it isn’t.
Yes it is.
No it isn’t.
Yes it—ohhhh, I see the confusion. You think this is Discussion. It is not. If you would like to rant pointlessly against this review, you’ll want Comments. It’s under “Stray Observations” and all those big pictures links and what not that I guess lead you somewhere and presumably help pay my salary. No, you don’t have to read the rest of the review to comment. It’s fine. Nobody does. I actually spend the next few paragraphs talking about my childhood, for no other reason than I can’t afford therapy this week.
(Actually, I’m not going to talk about my childhood. I was raised by pantomime horses, and spent most of my formative years trying to learn Morse code.)
So: “Argument Clinic” is a perfect sketch. Admittedly, that depends on your definition of “perfect,” because if you were expecting rich character work or a subtle indictment of the way the military-industrial complex has slowly eroded our idea of war as anything but a natural and regularly occurring result of the existence of “intelligent” life, well, you’d be fuck out of luck. If you wanted to dig really deep, you could maybe do a riff on the eerie way the sketch seems to have become even more relevant with the passing of time; the way the debate over what really constitutes an “argument” could be seen as representative of a certain kind of online discourse, the kind that values dominance at any cost over a legitimate debate of philosophical principles. That would be dumb, though. Really dumb. Seriously, let’s not do that.
Instead, let us talk about perfection as achieving the primary aim of the writers (to make you laugh) via the medium of a pristine and deeply satisfying premise. It’s bit like “Who’s On First” from Abbott & Costello, although that sketch requires some set-up, and also slightly strains credibility as it goes on—it’s still a perfect sketch, but it leans on the skill of the performers and the audience’s appreciation of the verbal trickery in order to sustain itself. (A poorly performed version of the sketch leaves the audience wondering why the guy answering the questions doesn’t just say, “No, the name of the player is ‘Who.’” Like so.) “Argument Clinic” doesn’t. There is set-up, but since part of the humor derives from the strangeness of the idea, the set-up takes pains not to over explain anything. “Who’s On First” has a straight man (ie, the guy who doesn’t know team names) and a trickster (ie, the guy who does, and may or may not be fucking with straight man). “Argument” has Palin as the nominal straight man, but it’s not as though Cleese is introducing a wild card element into an otherwise normal scenario. They’re both working in the parameters of an absurd reality, albeit a reality with very strict rules.
The driving force behind that reality is the closest the sketch comes to outright parody; Palin’s determination to buy an argument means negotiating his way through a number of other Pythons providing equally absurd services—Chapman who offers Abuse, Idle who handles Complaints, and Jones who teaches lessons in how to react to being hit on the head. (You need to clutch your temples and say “Wah!”) So this is a world where just about anything can be purchased, and the first gag is the idea that you’d want to purchase such unpleasant things. I’m sure there are people who enjoy arguments, but it’s not as though human interaction was hurting for opportunities. So we spend the first minute or two of the sketch adjusting to this concept (which keeps expanding over the course of the scene), and that eases us into the meat of things: the Argument itself.
As ever, the Pythons know how to cast themselves. Palin is playing a variation on his nebbishy accountant/Arthur Pewty character, and Cleese is doing another in a long line of bureaucratic bastards. But both the character types have been slightly tweaked for the bit. Palin’s customer is dweeby, but he’s not a pushover, and manages to stand up for himself quite nicely throughout; Cleese isn’t malevolent so much as impersonal, a man doing a job—there’s an edge of self-interest (as he does con Palin out of a fiver), but the edge never goes over into actual cruelty or dominance. Which is deep-reading, to be sure, but the point is that the two characters are roughly equal in terms of power. It’s not a sketch about power running roughshod over dopey innocence (for one of those, we can look to the next episode). Cleese has the upper-hand, but only because Palin wants something from him. Which is part of why it’s all so funny. We root for Palin to “win” the argument, while at the same time never forgetting that he brought this on himself, and that his fundamental desire is ridiculous.
Another reason it’s so funny is that once you get the premise established, the sketch pretty much writes itself. This isn’t to take anything away from Cleese and Chapman, the men responsible for the script; I doubt many people could’ve captured the idea as well, and as efficiently, as they do here. But a really great premise is often one that suggests its own course. Like, again, “Who’s On First.” The pleasure in watching it unfold is knowing roughly what’s coming, anticipating it, and either having that anticipation rewarded or subverted—and either way works. Once you catch on that Cleese has started arguing with Palin, even though Palin doesn’t realize it, there’s tension in both waiting to see when Palin will catch on. Once he does, the conflict is built in; hell, it’s in the title of the piece.
I’m going to go out on a limb for a moment (yes, even further than I am already), and suggest that what makes this sketch really brilliant, and what shows you how strong Cleese and Chapman were as writers, is when Palin starts to critique the quality of the “argument” itself. Until this point, the majority of Cleese’s lines have been “No, it isn’t,” and the repetition is funny in and of itself. But by acknowledging that this isn’t actually an argument, the sketch self-critiques, pointing out the limitations of a consumer culture that pretends to offer a solution to any problem (but really just offers the easiest fix it can get away with), while also offering a variation on the “Yes it is”/”No it isn’t” exchange which drives most of the conversation. Saying it makes the scene “realistic” is a stretch, but it’s a moment of connection, of self-awareness, that is a Python hallmark.
“The Money Programme” (season 3, episode 3; originally aired 11/2/1972)
While I firmly believe that “Argument Clinic” would be compelling in any context (even a Holocaust documentary; it wouldn’t be good, mind you, but compelling? Oh yes), it gets a a boost from the fact that the episode around it isn’t nearly as sharp. “The Money Programme” has plenty of good bits, but again we see the danger of the troupe leaning on too much unfocused absurdism. Breaking up traditional sketch material with unexpected, surreal riffs is something that’s been an essential part of the series from the start, but those sequences of formless foolishness need to be balanced against strong premises. Otherwise you get something that’s intermittently funny and still enjoyable enough to watch, but sluggish and easy to forget. A literary novel can get by on character alone, but a sketch comedy needs really, really good characters to make that work, and I don’t think “The Money Programme” manages that consistently.
At least it opens well, with Idle singing a very Eric Idle-y song about how much he loves money. (I’m just going to leave that sentence right there.) And the next sketch opens promisingly enough, a period drama about Queen Elizabeth I in which the cast members keep swapping their “l”s and “r”s. It’s a sort of goofy wordplay that has no real point to it, but gets funnier as it goes (which I guess is the point) and also forces the audience to try and translate in their heads, which makes us more engaged. Then Jones reveals himself as a pretentious director and the source of the speech-impediment, and Cleese shows up as Inspector Leopard to arrest him for impersonating Luchino Visconti, and it all seems like it should go over like gangbusters. It doesn’t, though. (At least I don’t think it does. Remember: Comments.) The individual pieces make conceptual sense, including Cleese’s big lecture about Viconsti which allows Jones to escape—as ever, the Pythons love both showing off their knowledge and puncturing the ego that knowledge brings. But the messiness here seems more to distract than enhance the humor. (I think this paragraph had an awful lot of parentheticals, I hope you don’t mind.)
It’s far from dire, and there are funny concepts throughout, but the clarity is missing. Too much of the episode fails to really build on what came before it in a satisfying way. There are long-form sketches, most notably the Brits Explore Africa bit (a riff on explorer movies complete with pith helmets, forbidden mountains, and white actors in blackface), but a certain sharpness is missing. Or maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Seeing Palin and Jones in blackface is as distracting as you’d expect, but more than that, the genre being parodied doesn’t lead to the same flights of fancy as the sci-fi film parody of the Blancmange sketch. It’s all surface, and the best bits, like Palin as a hotel clerk unable to remember his lines, or Cleese suddenly realizing they’re being filmed, could really be applied to anything.
But that realization of being filmed really is excellent, as it once again finds humor by drawing attention to our situational assumptions. Call it a refusal to accept the given reality, but Python sketches often work best when they pretend to offer us a straightforward scenario, and then twist that scenario in a way that undermines its conventions. Like the speech impediment actors who turn out to be under the direction of a con-man; or the BBC announcer interrupting a sketch at the moment of greatest suspense because the outcome was deemed too violent, and switching us over to Ken Russell’s Gardening Club; or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag when Cleese says “expedition,” but someone in the editing mistakes it for “exhibition” and we get a shot of the Great Crystal Palace of 1851; or, as mentioned, Cleese realizing they’re being filmed, the cast then shaking hands with the crew, and Cleese realizing they’re being filmed again; or the way the end credits roll, and then the BBC Announcer comes back to announce “another six minutes of Monty Python”; or the fact that this is a long list that it is entirely possible I’m using because I want to fill out column inches with regurgitation instead of legitimate insight; or Palin’s delineation of what a real argument is after a series of contradictions. Everything’s a rock that’s waiting to be turned over. Everything’s a balloon about to be popped.
And then there’s…
“Blood, Devastation, Death, War And Horror” (season 3, episode 4; originally aired 11/9/1972)
Now this is more like it. I mean, the previous episode was very close to it, and at times resembled it almost on a molecular level, but this episode, this one right here, has it, has it in spades in fact. Which is interesting, because looking at the episode on a sketch-by-sketch basis, I’m not sure any one bit really measures up to “The Argument Sketch.” That sketch was chock full of it, and none of the sketches from “Blood, Devastation, Death, War And Horror” can match its it levels. But they come close, and the episode does a better job of matching strong ideas to digressive flights of fancy than “The Money Programme.” It abounds here, in all its primal glory. Everywhere you look, there it is.
Again, we open on a talk show, this one given a title that matches the title of the episode in one of those amazing coincidences that you simply can’t make up. The title is a misnomer, though, as the real focus of the sketch is Idle as a man who talks entirely in anagrams. It’s a gag that demonstrates quite clearly the amount of faith Python had in its audience. I have the subtitles on when I re-watch these episodes as it makes it easier to misspell character names in my reviews, but in this case, I almost regret it; being able to see Idle’s anagrams on the screen made them easier to decipher. That didn’t kill the joke, but it did change the nature of it. At the time, if people wanted to understand what was going on, they had to listen very carefully and maybe take notes. The anagrams themselves are nonsense words, which makes them easier to recognize (if the anagrams actually made coherent sentences distinct from their original meaning, it would be cleverer, but almost impossible to follow)—but it’s still an admirably tricky piece of business.
One of the pleasures of reviewing this series after having watched it through a couple times on my own is that I still stumble over sketches I don’t remember, but love: and the next full sketch, with Cleese as a polite, utterly amoral merchant banker, is one of those sketches. (The nameplate on his desk reads “Chamran Knebter”—the rest of the episode is peppered with nag a rams.) It’s not just that Cleese is evil. It’s that he’s the perfect embodiment of oblivious cruelty, a man so evil that it takes him several tries to understand the basic concept of charity, and even then, he doesn’t entirely grasp the idea. None of the Pythons can do this sort of thing better than Cleese—he manages arrogant malevolence in a way that still manages to be funny and oddly charming. Chapman does stiff, humorless authority figures quite brilliantly, but Cleese manages to be wicked about it. As he questions an utterly hapless Jones, it’s like watching Scrooge assault the charity seekers, only this time, we’re encouraged to enjoy that the bully wins. And it somehow doesn’t play as mean-spirited; it’s like after decades of watching treacly do-gooders get coddled by narrative fiction, we can finally see one of those kind, decent, noble bastards get what’s coming to them.
What sets “Blood” apart as a whole, and what makes it a stronger episode than the previous one, is that so many of the sketches are driven by well-defined, strongly motivated characters. Cleese’s banker is a greedy bastard, and he’s a specifically Cleese-ian greedy bastard; he can be put into various situations, and our interest will be piqued because on a basic level, we just want to see what this guy does. That’s really the key to making an effective character in a sketch show—creating someone who creates automatic curiosity. Throwing in a pair of pantomime horses after Jones exists is terrific in and of itself, but then we get the excitement of seeing how Cleese deals with those horses—and if his reaction is both not something we would’ve predicted, and also something that is entirely consistent with the character that’s been previously established, oh, then you’re golden. (Spoiler: that is what happens in this sketch.)
- As ever, I missed several sketches. To the Commenters Who Take Pride In Pointing Out These Lapses, As Every Lapse Suggests They Are Better Equipped For This Job Than I Am: you’re welcome. (I kid because I love, folks.) (I had cruel parents.)
- Thing I did not know until just now, so I can’t say much about them: The Money Programme was an actual show.
- Inspector Leopard: “The same, only more violent!”
- “I would like to ask the team what they would do if they were Hitler!” -from the radio
- I know Python typically eschews punchlines, but “I could be arguing in my spare time” is a pretty fucking good one.
- “Yes, I do… I do own the most startling quantities of cash.” Between this and Idle’s money rant, the show found a lot of pleasingly tangible ways to describe currency. (I wonder if that’s something I should touch on in a future review: the way Python uses language is frequently gorgeous.)
- “We interrupt this program to annoy you and make things generally irritating for you.”
- And now, five more paragraphs of this review.
The best parts of “Blood” all revolve around well-built characters with strong objectives. There’s Eric Idle as a man applying for a job in a sketch at a “Mary Recruitment Office.” The sketch starts normally enough, with Idle explaining to Chapman’s officer character that he’s looking to join a more “effeminate” branch of the army, one that will give him a chance to do some serious work with “fabric and interior design.” This give Chapman a chance to do the second subversion of expectations (the first was Idle’s initial request) and monologue about the various divisions which are doing the best artistic work. (“It really makes you want to shout out ‘This is good! This is real!”) All well and good, but also a little on the predictable side, which is why things get really excellent when Idle threatens to quit the sketch because Chapman is getting all the funny lines.
That is quite meta and lovely, and serves to establish the objectives of both characters for the remainder of their time on the episode. Idle wants to get funnier jokes; Chapman wants to keep tricking him into staying around, so Chapman can use him as the butt of all the gags. These aren’t characters in the same way that Cleese’s banker was a character—they’re defined entirely by their objectives. But those objectives are directly at odds with one another, which is one of the primary sources of great drama and great comedy.
It’s a concept so recognizable that the episode doesn’t need to spend much time on it. First we see Idle and Chapman in front of a bus backdrop, as Chapman plays a wacky driver to Idle’s silent passenger. We cut away to another sketch, and the next time we see the two characters, they’re engaged in a shticky vaudeville routine, Idle suffering stoically as Chapman abuses him. (“You get the laughs, you get all the laughs!”) There could be dozens of iterations of this basic concept, but we only get a few, and that’s all that’s necessary.
If you want a difference between a premise driven sketch and a character driven one, you need look no further than the sketch about the man who makes everyone laugh, and Bols Story. The former has Jones as a dour businessman who loses his job because everyone laughs uproariously at everything he says; the latter has Palin as a daffy show host who invents a special gesture to indicate to the audience when he is merely pausing, and not finished speaking. Jones has a definite character in his sketch, and that character does make the premise funnier—it’s simple, but if you want to make a joke out of someone making everyone laugh, you need to make that someone absolutely desperate for people not to laugh. But the premise comes first. With Palin as the show host, all there is is him. Both are sketches quite funny, but I suspect the latter is easier to write and harder to pull off effectively. (Palin makes it work. The deliberate way he makes the pausing gesture just gets funnier the longer the sketch runs.)
Anyway, I’ve reached the portion of the review where I begin to repeat myself without realizing it. (No I haven’t.) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the voice-over announcer sketch that concludes the half hour, another conceptually brilliant scene that utilizes both character and premise in effective, funny ways. So there, I mentioned it. I guess I should also say that it builds off the show’s repeated use of the BBC announcer interruptions; those interruptions are typically short jokes that serve to punctuate or break the show’s rhythm, but here, it’s a longer piece, and the unexpected length creates tension (how long can this go on?) that makes it funnier. Also, that Cleese’s announcer problems aren’t, in and of themselves, funny, but the context (announcers are supposed to be impersonal and anonymously confident, not quivering wrecks) makes it hilarious. Also, Richard Baker, the newsman we see at the end, was an actual newsman. Also also, I think we’re done.