You see, the thing is, I never set out to be a “reviewer of comedy.” That’s a label, and as a general rule I don’t really believe in labels. Labels are a tool of the bourgeois to hold us in place, and I rebel against such constrictions, I absolutely do. I’m a reviewer of life you see, in all its many-colored flavors, and that—yes,yes, I wrote about Star Trek a good deal, but I wasn’t simply writing about Star Trek, you see, but an essentially Brechtian paradigm in which I, to wit, the Reviewer Person, is both and at once commenting on the system while at the same time being a part of that very system which I, in and all parts of myself, have become complicit to. With. It’s all terribly complicated, but when I was invited to “review” Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I felt I would be in a unique position to examine the underpinnings of a particular, as it were, zeitgeist, and from there, perhaps, to extrapolate from the human condition a larger and generous perspective, in Marxist terms which are then viewed through a Fellini-esque lens, as to-
Eh? Ah! Er.
The hijacker sketch seems familiar, doesn’t it? So familiar that I initially wondered if I’d put the wrong disc in. But while Flying Circus has seen the inside of a cockpit before (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), this one finds a new spin: Idle as a Scottish hijacker who is really, not very much good at his job at all. Idle is pretty adorable as a man who first attempts to negotiate his ransom, then forgets where he put his bomb, then remembers and gives up the information without realizing he’s giving it up, and then spends the rest of the episode popping in to try and weasel a few more pounds out of the production.
It’s a bit that gets funnier as the episode goes on; Idle underplays the character perfectly, with a sort of flat, idiot’s cunning, and the character isn’t that far removed from a certain kind of fixated social misfit who insists on pushing himself into every situation without any regard for context. In real life, that’s annoying and off-putting, but in fiction, it makes for great comedy—it’s an obstacle that’s constantly adapting itself in the fact of failure, generating material for as long as the writers are able to keep lowering the bar. Just as importantly, at least for Python, is the fact that Idle’s nuisance repeatedly breaks into sketches and reminds us that we’re watching television. As ever, disruption is the name of the game, and the game is disruption, and the Scotsman’s on-going efforts to blackmail the show’s producers into giving him some cash manage to keep things off kilter whilst simultaneously telling a short, abstract, but surprisingly satisfying story in their own right. He has an arc, and it even has a happy ending.
“The Nude Organist” (season 3, episode 9; originally aired 12/14/1972)
Remember last week, when I was so keen on how the show delved briefly into the life and career of the Nude Organist? This first episode does the same, albeit with a slightly different tack; here, instead of adding a few more minutes to the usual sight gag, we see a behind-the-scenes interview with the inevitably pompous Organist, building a framework of ridiculous intellectual posturing around a sight gag whose main point of reference is that it has no reason for existing.
By now, the Organist, announcer, and It’s Man have passed beyond the stage of familiar jokes, and into the realm of something almost like music; not particularly beautiful music, and there’s nothing in the way of a melody, but the triple rhythm of chord, “And now-,” “It’s-” (followed by the opening credits and Sousa march) are like the call and response of the “Shave And A Haircut” gag from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The bits aren’t funny in and of themselves, but they have become such an integral part of the show that as soon as an episode begins, there’s immediate suspense as to when Jone’s pasty naked flesh is going to pop up on screen. But his appearance varies from episode to episode, and it’s nearly impossible to predict when the triptych will finally begin—and while the individual bits themselves aren’t precisely comedic, the suspense over their entrance, sometimes lasting so long that it’s possible to forget you haven’t already seen them, creates a blunt, but tone-setting punchline. In other sketch shows, recurring characters or catchphrases are supposed to inspire guffaws like a kind of benevolent Pavlovian response. The introductory trio strips this approach down to its barest essence, and in that mechanic, finds an unexpected purity.
I mean, that’s not really what happens this week, because both the Naked Organist and the announcer get quick riffs on the “behind the scenes pompous interview” gag. (The It’s Man remains a cipher: beautiful, brilliant, and lost.) But you get my point, because it wasn’t that complicated a point, and I explained it very well.
Spending time on puncturing pomposity is, in addition to being one of Python’s most beloved fetishes (right up there with “complicated word lists” and “gay porn”), a smart way to introduce this week’s first episode, as it is has several sketches centered around bringing to together high culture and low culture and seeing which one can beat the other up. To be honest, that was a complete lie, but I will say that “The Nude Organist” has some terrific sketch premises, all well-executed and without any of the somewhat dodgy haphazardness that has been dogging the rest of the season. To be honest again, I may be over critiquing the third season by inventing a narrative and then adjusting my comments to match, but hey, I need to fill out these reviews with something more than just horrible puns.
(A certain level of illusory haphazardness is a critical part of Monty Python’s effectiveness. But, as I’ve mentioned, there needs to be just enough of a traditional sort of comedy so that the whole thing doesn’t just devolve into chaos. Both of this week’s episodes nail the balance quite nicely, but there have been times before, and will be again, when that balance is off, and the group almost always errs on the side of pure surrealism. While that may mean that some individual episodes are less memorable than others, it’s also why Python remains so fresh even today; they so rarely fell back on convention.)
We start with a news film parody about a housing project employing characters from 19th century British Literature as construction crews. There’s no explanation for how this is possible, and no clear satire apart from a general poke at the housing authority and the arrogance of upper management. (This poke becomes more obvious later on, when the sketch shifts from fictional characters to Terry Jones’ mesmerizing magician, who uses hypnotism to “build” block flats. They’re fine so long as you believe in them, eh?) Historical context provides details for the material, and those details allow for a clear, unflinching confidence. Here is a bizarre concept, the sketch seems to say, and we are just going with it, so you better well laugh. It’s the least obvious joke imaginable, because at first glance, it appears to be the simple juxtaposition of two unrelated concepts. Like, say, “Here is a Bingo hall full of various minor Star Wars X-wing pilots.”
That isn’t funny for a variety of reasons (I’m sorry, my grandma was killed by a star war). The 19th century British Literature sketch is effective because of its specificity, and thoroughness, and also because of some strange alchemy which just mixing two random elements won’t automatically provide. Anyone can juxtapose two unrelated concepts without ever getting much out of it. It takes tremendously clever people to recognize which juxtapositions have the most potential for comedy in them, and also to see how best to realize that potential. There’s a bit later about the characters from Paradise Lost fighting and slowing down construction on a highway bypass, and there the joke is a bit more obvious; seeing mythical figures like God, Adam, Eve, and Terry Jones in such a mundane setting is clearly good for a chuckle. But while Little Nell installing a light fixture is clearly silly, it’s not as straightforward a gag—there’s a higher level of difficulty in pulling it off, to the extent that the Paradise Lost joke plays almost like a victory lap.
Contrast that with one of the episode’s other major sketches: the Olympic Hide And Seek. This one is clearly a great concept right from the start, and while it’s possible that the troupe could’ve mucked up the execution (maybe by having the whole thing set on a playground, with child contestants; in that case, the laugh would be that such a simple game was given Olympic standing, but that’s as far as the humor would go), a good part of the work was done just in coming up with the premise. The fact that the sketch itself finds the best way to exploit that premise is icing on the hilarious, hilarious cake.
There are levels here, and I shall do my best to unwrap all of them, like a scientist approaching an onion which becomes increasingly less interesting with each turn of the knife. At the first, most immediate level, there’s the contrast of having such a lofty sporting event, one featuring men and women at the absolute peak of their field, fixated on a fun but silly and (normally) not particularly demanding children’s game. On this level, there’s the usual strength of presentation, as everything is filmed almost entirely straight, with breathless announcers anticipating each new twist.
There’s also Chapman and Jones in athletic outfits, pumping themselves up for the big game, and given that they’re standing in the middle of London, one begins to wonder just what the boundaries for this game of hide and seek really are. That’s the next level: the realization that this isn’t just the twenty minute “Hey, going indoors is cheating!” version. This is one where the whole world is open as a potential hiding place, a mind-boggling concept that allows in another favorite Python idea: taking the impossible and treating it as a matter of course. As Chapman hails a cab and drives away to destinations unknown, and Jones slowly begins to track him down, the basic absurdity of Jones ever catching his prey is almost overwhelming. It’s captured perfectly in a shot of Jones opening random shop doors in London and poking his head inside. The idea of one man catching a needle in such an enormous haystack is outlandish—but not so outlandish that there’s no chance at all. Which means the sketch also has suspense in it, and that makes it funnier.
As for the third layer, well, the Pythons didn’t always resort to stingers in their sketches, which meant that when they did find a good ending, it was pretty damn good indeed. This one is terrific. After the chase ends with Jones seemingly triumphant, he and Chapman stand side-by-side (this is six years and change after the game began, a concept which is funny in and of itself, and also crucial to the punchline) waiting for the results. It turns out it’s an exact tie, down to the minute, which means they’ll have to go another round.
In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine the sketch ending any other way. (I mean, it certainly could have; on Flying Circus, sketches can end just about any damn way they please.) It’s a well-crafted mini-narrative, and one with a minimum of digressions and distractions. But that isn’t to say that the rest of the episode unfolds conventionally. There’s a strong spine of premise throughout, but several of those premises take unexpected detours.
Like, say, the evening with the Cheap-Laughs. Cleveland and Cleese play a comfortably well-to-do couple, the sort of ultra-polite British sophisticates who seem to exist on comedy shows primarily to have awful things happen to them. In this case, it’s their tacky, shticky, and utterly foolish neighbors the Cheap-Laughs, who arrive at the door with pratfalls, shrieking voices, and fright-wigs.
All of which would seem to suggest an obvious outcome. Even though we’ve seen a variation on this idea before, what comes next should be inevitable: the Cheap-Laughs come inside, tear up the place as Cleese and Cleveland maintain an increasingly surprisingly level of civility throughout. Maybe Mr. Cheap-Laughs gets one-overed in the end; maybe not. But clearly, the bulk of the gag is going to be the comic calamity that befalls the house as the neighbors wreck up the place.
Instead, the sketch immediately cuts outside, and then cuts back into the house to see Cleese saying goodbye to the Cheap-Laughs as they make their way home. The joke, then, is in the aftermath, and in Cleveland’s accusation that Cleese is always trying to “keep up with the Cheap-Laughs.” It could be a buried bit of self-satire about the need for comedy to find some kind of harmony between sophisticated high-concept and fart jokes. Or it could just be a way to take our reflexive expectations of what’s to come, deny us those expectations, and leave us off our guard for the rest of the episode.
- The only time the episode really dives headfirst into surrealism is the Mortuary sketch, in which Palin, playing an extremely dimwitted mayor who visits the morgue and tries (largely unsuccessfully) to say something coherent about the place. It could be that I’m missing the target of the joke, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear idea holding the piece together, apart from the expected contempt for authority and Palin’s aforementioned mental difficulties. But it provides variation during a run of largely coherent material, and the weirdness of it is pretty spectacular. Also, Cleveland gets a good laugh line out of it (describing the smallness of Palin’s brain), so that’s nice.
- The episode’s last big sketch is a sci-fi-ish piece about television presenters and scientists enthusing over the discovery of a new planet, with very high prices, a scarcity of split-crotch panties, and what looks like a stewardess. It’s funny, but it never quite comes together.
- The Scotsman reads the end credits, which may be a nod to Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, or might just be it’s own thing. It’s nifty, regardless, and serves as a good button for the character’s journey through the episode. Yes, that’s right, I said “journey.” Would you like to see my literary degree.
It’s fourteen minutes before the opening credits pop in on the next episode. (Yes, I checked. It’s all part of the service.) Most of this time is taken up by a long sketch that moves, in a surprisingly logical (well, comedy-logical) fashion, serving up a series of reverses which grow somewhat predictable as time goes on, but in a way that makes them all the more fun to watch. Intentionally or not, Python is once again working in a longer form of narrative, and while this isn’t a new approach, there is an unexpected degree of cohesion to the start of this episode which suggests writers growing more comfortable with using a central character to unify a piece.
Take the “Science Fiction Sketch” from season 1; that was longer, but there was no real “protagonist” to the story, and even those characters who were important to the plot weren’t anything more than cliches. Compare that with Palin’s turn as Sgt. Gaskell, aka Sir Philip Sidney. Gaskell isn’t a full-blooded individual. He’s essentially another variation on one of Palin’s gruff, “What’s all this then?” police officers, a type that every Python has had to play at some point or another. But Gaskell is just nuanced enough that he becomes more than an archetype, and the plot that happens to him is actually compelling above and beyond the jokes. It could be that I’m a sucker for time travel stories, since calling this a “story” is something of a stretch; yet whether it’s intentional or not, Gaskell’s brief adventures function as a coherent short film, one with a beginning, middle, and legitimate ending. It’s pieces like this which make it clear that the troupe was capable of a longer form, even if it would take a new medium for that capability to be fully realized.
That’s a lot of heady talk for what’s basically a goof on dirty book shops. These days, while it’s somewhat transgressive to see pictures of naked ladies posted up on set walls, it’s amusing just how often the Pythons returned to the well of “Man goes into the store, has coded, seemingly innocuous conversation with clerk, and after a series of misunderstandings, makes it clear that he’s looking for porn.” It’s a staple bit that just doesn’t come up in sketch comedy these days, as history has moved on. (And culture with it.) But here we are, with Chapman going into a shop called “Tudor Jobs,” and getting a long lecture from Terry Jones about period-specific employment, before finally breaking down and admitting he’s just there for the dirty books.
This sequence is a clever series of escalations, as first it takes some pains to convince us that “Tudor Jobs” is an actual thing, and that the concept will serve as the premise of the sketch. Once that’s accomplished, the premise pivots and it turns into a sketch about men buying dirty books—only they’re buying dirty books from Idle, who maintains the Tudor period dress that Jones introduced. It gets more complicated (though never confusing; this is only complex in explanation, as in actual practice, it all flows quite smoothly) when Gaskell arrives to arrest the bunch. Idle immediately hails him as Sir Philip Sidney, renowned poet, courtier, and soldier. Which sounds like a dodge, except Idle seems utterly sincere, and no one in the porn shop is at all worried about the presence of a police officer. Gaskell hollers for another officer, Maxwell, but Maxwell never shows up (this will be important later); eventually, all the patrons of the shop leave, and Gaskell follows them, only to end up in Elizabethan times, where he is immediately thrust into Sir Sidney’s role.
Honestly, that could be the plot of a movie, right? Make Gaskell a bit more sympathetic, come up with a slightly better excuse for the whole thing, and you have the hook right there. As is, it works well as a comedy sketch, especially for one that lasts a bit longer than such sketches normally do. While Palin’s Gaskell isn’t someone you’d necessarily want to follow around for a full hour and a half, he’s just self-aware enough, and just likable enough, that you want to see what happens next. What’s more, the situation he’s caught in is legitimately interesting, and while the sketch doesn’t play up the suspense aspect, it does find ways to reward both the story-loving and the humor-loving parts of the brain. There’s a bit about Gaskell facing down the Spaniards (who just happen to be smuggling porn), and a bit about “Sidney’s” wife reading “Shakespeare’s Gay Boys In Bondage,” which is great. And it ends with the arrival of the long-missing Maxwell, who arrests Gaskell and his wife on the spot. A proper twist and everything.
Some Gilliam animation theorizes what Shakespeare’s Gay Boys In Bondage might look like, and then it’s over to Cleese and Cleveland, seemingly reprising their roles in the previous episode as an utterly conventional (and upper-crust) married couple. Here, instead of welcoming the Cheap-Laughs, their revery is disturbed by Palin as a thoroughly disturbing (though sincerely apologetic) chaplain. Palin is very funny as a polite but deeply odd man, and the sight of him smashing plates on a table without any apparent malice is very funny. But that sort of “watch the squares get shocked by the weirdo” bit can only go on so long. Much as with the Cheap-Laughs sketch, a few minutes in, just before Palin’s strangeness wears out its welcome, we fade out and fade back in to find Cleese and Cleveland at home, repeating Palin’s actions, having become happy converts to his strange behavior.
Call it a happy ending, if you will. There’s something curiously liberating about watching characters trapped in a seemingly ironclad situation free themselves from the roles they’ve been playing for generations. The straitlaced people and the lunatics aren’t ever supposed to trade places, and if they do, it’s always supposed to be the stuff of tragedy. But here, smashing place and making “AWOOOO” noises seems like a perfectly delightful way to spend the afternoon, and after exploiting Cleveland and Cleese’s social discomfort at Palin’s strangeness, the sketch seems to shrug and say, “Oh why the hell not?” and we’re all the better for it.
“Henry Thripshaw’s Disease” (season 3, episode 10; originally aired 12/21/72)
The rest of the episode post-credits is considerably more hit or miss. The “The Free Repititon Of Doubtful Words Sketch” sketch is an esoteric piece of foolishness that stands a few steps back from itself and hopes the distance will be enough to invoke laughter; I’m not sure it does, but the framing (which is literal) is so odd that the whole thing mostly carries itself off on curiosity alone. Stilted bad humor which strives to be terrible and strange enough to somehow become good humor is tricky to pull off, and this works largely on the fact that one keeps waiting for the various elements to coalesce into something recognizable. They never do, but the sketch has one joke, and the joke isn’t bad, and then it ends, so no harm done.
More effective, albeit with less room to explore, is the talk show about life after death which features Cleese as the host, alongside four dead guests. There’s really only one joke here: Cleese is investigating if there is life after death, and none of the dead people answer his questions. Because they’re dead. Once you see the slumped corpses the gag is pretty much done, and the sketch lasts just long enough to wring every possible laugh out of the situation, and then moves on.
Then there is words spun banana singing on a bad start of aspic.
Excuse me: then there is “Thripshaw’s Disease,” a sketch that starts off with Palin as a man who has trouble with word order and choice in his sentences, before spinning off into a bit about an ambitious doctor (Thripshaw, played by Cleese) using that disease as a ticket to fame. This has many of the Python staples—wordplay (although for the life of me, I can’t tell if Palin’s disease is actually consistent, or just an excuse to write sentences that sound almost normal, but then marble tongue humidifier bat), footage from an old movie, a self-aggrandizing turn from Cleese, a joke about the arrogance of the ambitious (Cleese complains about the film adaptation of his disease and promises that they’re working on a new disease that will be much truer to his vision), and the standard “people getting interviewed in a television studio by a pompous host.
I wonder if in the show’s latter days, sketches didn’t start to look more like this, being not so much one central concept as a series of small ideas banded together to make them look like a single piece. It’s how the troupe’s movies would work, but this is on the smaller scale, with four or five minutes sketches being actually a series of one to two minute bits. It could be evidence of the group once again resisting the conventional expectations of the genre and pushing at the boundaries to keep themselves interested. Or it could just be that I’m very tired and need a way to end this review.
- The last sketch is a very silly thing about a vicar who drinks a lot of sherry. I wasn’t huge on it.