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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Whither Canada?”

Illustration for article titled Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Whither Canada?”
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“Whither Canada” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 10/5/1969)

What gets me every time I watch this episode—the Flying Circus pilot, Monty Python’s introduction to the world—is how unapologetic it is. How weird and manic and punk the show is from the very first frame, like it’s not so much a television program that was planned and scripted and rehearsed, as it is the end result of a group of lunatics seizing control of some cameras and costumes and holding the studio hostage until the police arrive. You break it down to its component parts, it all seems fairly straightforward: this is a sketch show, which means that each half hour (well, most of them) is broken up into shorter pieces. In “Whither Canada?,” there are a number of scenes with clear beginnings and middles. Some of them have endings. I can give you the premises for each of those scenes, and I can talk about how those premises fit into the basic Python worldview—and yeah, I’ll be doing that quite a lot in the weeks to come, because part of what makes this show so great is how smart it is at being stupid. But for right now, right at this moment, it’s worth nothing that the pilot does not try and hold our hands. A strange man swims in from the sea, his clothes torn, his hair wild. He crawls up to the camera, eyes wide, and gasps out, “It’s…” Opening credits, and off we go.

There have been many sketch shows in the wake of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and nearly all of them owe something to this one. The troupe didn’t invent the form; in fact, most of the members met while working on various radio and British TV programs, most notably the short-lived Frost Report, which had John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones on its writing staff. (Cleese also performed on the show.) When the BBC offered Cleese and Chapman their own series, Cleese invited Palin along, and he suggested Idle and Jones, who in turn proposed asking Gilliam to do the animation for a title sequence and palate cleanser between scenes. In creating Flying Circus, Python synthesized a number of influences, from the cartoon chaos of Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show (a radio program that featured a young Peter Sellers, among others), to the prep-school snottiness of Beyond The Fringe, a theatrical revue with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and others, to the character-centric humor of Cook and Moore’s show Not Only… But Also. The result is something that still feels fresh even now. Some of the references are dated (who the hell is Robin Day, anyway?), and not every experiment works, but if you could somehow air this tonight on Adult Swim to an audience with no knowledge of dead parrots, silly walks, or fish-slapping, it wouldn’t look out of place.

Why is that? We don’t want to get too serious here, and hopefully we’ll find time for some silliness, because artichokes rain manfully on the plains of Ottawa. But it’s worth getting into right here at the one of the big reasons why Flying Circus plays so differently from everything that came before it. There are a number of signifiers already in play that will run through most of the series. The “It’s…” man, always played by Palin (soon to be joined by Cleese’s announcer). John Philip Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell” serves for jaunty theme music. Troupe members dress up as women, Idle narrates, Cleese rants. And Gilliam does animation; the images are rarely as funny as the live-action material, but they aren’t really there to be funny. They’re there to set a tone. Gilliam uses old photos and air-brushing to create surreal, intentionally crude tableau of Victorian women losing their clothes and stuffy generals losing their heads, and it’s the sort of thing a clever teenager might dream up in study hall. It’s silly (that word again), but silly with just enough wit to make it interesting, and to suggest in the most obvious way possible that there are no real rules here. There’s no conventional separation between segments, no pause to allow us to sigh, laugh, and move on. There’s just anarchy with wit. The funny comes later.

These are all important elements, but we’re missing—well, hold on, let’s break down the structure here. Let’s get all stodgy and work out the beats:

  • The “It’s… ” Man: We’ve covered this, but it’s worth mentioning how weird it plays. It’s like wandering into a joke in the middle of the setup, and leaving before the punchline.
  • Opening credits: Gilliam’s animation. See previous paragraph.
  • The Pig Sketch: If the “It’s… ” Man didn’t get to you, this might. There’s a runner through the whole episode involving people killing pigs. It’s not gory or anything—mostly it’s just someone sitting down (usually a television announcer), followed by an oinking sound, then someone looks surprised, and we cut to a chalkboard covered in pig drawings. One of the drawings is Xed out. There’s no payoff to this, no real conclusion, and no traditional jokes. It’s just odd. Hold onto that.
  • “It’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”: or, The Wide World Of Deaths. Mozart (Cleese) hosts a sports competition judging the demises of various famous people. Unlike the later sketch about cycling painters, this one isn’t too in-depth, although it does find time for a slow burn (Gengis Khan takes a while to kick off), Idle’s cheeky announcer, and Chapman’s hilariously forced civilian death. (“Strewth!”)
  • Beginning Italian: Terry Jones teaches a group of stereotypical Italians how to speak Italian. Arguably the first really traditional sketch of the bunch, as it focuses entirely on Jones’ clueless instructor and his cheerful, fluent students. There’s really only one gag, but Jones and the rest make the most of it; the biggest laughs come from the contrast between Cleese, Palin, and Idle’s enthusiastic efforts to please and Jones’ befuddlement, which builds finally to him directing a German student to Beginning German down the hall. It’s one of the few sketches in the episode with a traditional conclusion, and, as though to wash that conventionality out of our throats, we move immediately to Gilliam’s animation.
  • Whizzo Butter: A short bit that segues from animation into Palin selling Whizzo to a group of suspicious housewives who can't tell the difference between Whizzo and a dead crab.
  • The Interviews: These two each follow the same setup: an interviewer (Cleese in the first, Idle in the second) asks a series of inappropriate questions to an increasingly uncomfortable subject. Cleese wants to call filmmaker Sir Edward Ross (an appropriately dignified Chapman; Chapman excels at older, grumpy men) by a variety of intimate names, while Idle wants to get to the bottom of Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson’s nickname (Jones, who has a knack for put-upon vulnerability). This is sketch at its most pure, using conversation as a form of comedic assault, and the two bits come together in the end when Cleese shows up in Idle’s interview and helps him kick poor Jones off the stage. “Two Sheds” works better than “Eddy Baby” because Jones manages to create a significant amount of pathos in just a handful of lines, and the way he pleads to to talk about his music, against Idle’s patient, not at all invasive inquiries, is wonderful.
  • The Racing Painters: Picasso has plans to paint a new masterpiece while cycling through the British expressway. This is a good example of the show’s willingness to go highbrow, as one of the highlights of the sketch is Cleese ranting a list of all the painters who have joined Picasso on his trip. The bit works in a similar way to the “Mozart” sketch, although here we have supposed BBC announcers running the show. Python would get a lot of material out of mocking the BBC, and most of its longer segments take the form of typical network programs, like…
  • The Funniest Joke In The World: I didn’t time it out, but I think this is the episode’s longest single sketch. It feels long, not because it’s boring but because it escalates in a way that none of the other sketches do. Framed as a historical documentary, “The Funniest Joke In The World” introduces us to Ernest Scribbler, a man (pictured above) who writes the world’s funniest joke, and then dies laughing. His wife finds his body, reads what she assumes are his last words, and then dies laughing. The police are called in after more deaths, and a sergeant attempts to extract the gag with the assistance of mournful dirges, manages to escape the house alive, but still dies in the effort. Then the military steps in. The logic is what makes this so effective. Yes, it’s silly to think a joke could be so funny it could kill (how can it be that funny to everyone? How can you even write a joke that would make you die laughing?), but once you accept that, well, how would you transport such material? And, it being the war and all, why wouldn’t you want to use this as a weapon? The other sketches in this episode stay in one place. They establish a concept, poke around for a bit, and then move on. This one digs in for the long haul, telling a definite story—joke is created, joke is tested for fieldwork, joke is put into the field, Hitler struggles with the joke, joke is finally laid to rest. In a way, all the impatiences and jumping about that happens earlier in the episode makes this sudden focus even more effective. (And it’s not like it’s entirely traditional, either. The scene with Palin as a heroic POW facing off against Cleese’s sadistic SS officer has Chapman hanging out to the side with a sign that reads “Gestapo Officer.”)

And that’s the episode. The writing is sharp, and the concepts are top-notch, but there’s a certain quality above and beyond the obvious that makes the show so distinctive. It’s in the performances, which are effective but range from inspired to charmingly amateur. There’s little effort made to sell the audience on the “realism” of any of this, and that means we’re as much laughing at the idea of the sketch as we are laughing at what’s happening in the sketch itself; to get pretentious, Flying Circus is practically Brechtian in its relentless unwillingness to let us relax or lose ourselves in the material. That’s where the pig jokes come in. Again, this isn’t really effective as humor; there are some giggles in imagining announcers sitting on pigs, and the sight of the chalkboard and its crossed off piggies should garner a snicker, but the scene late in the episode where Jones reports the death of a soldier to a pair of general somberly moving model pigs across a map (in the way generals are always moving models of soldiers across maps) falls entirely flat. Comedy requires risk and experimentation, so this could just be a dull gag, but the place of the sketch in the episode as a whole is important. The interruptions create a sustained feeling of disorientation. Comedy is about surprise, and right from the start, Monty Python knew that the best way to make an audience laugh is to catch them off guard.

Stray observations:

  • There will be no grades for these reviews, unless I decide to grade something, and that is my right and privilege and you WILL NOT DEFY ME. From now on, we’ll be looking at two episodes a week, which means we’ll be digging into “Sex And Violence” and “How To Recognise Different Types Of Trees From Quite A Long Way Away” on July 19. I hope I can keep my pants on until then.