In praise of Monty Python

MontyPython

Who doesn’t love Monty Python? Well, my wife and daughter, for starters. (My son reveres Monty Python and the Holy Grail, at least.) But all right-thinking people should adore them.

I first came across their TV series when I was a nerdy, disenfranchised 14-year-old in 1975. I’d never heard of them until one day, in TV Guide, I saw a program entry for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Variety.” (Ironically, their “variety” show never had a featured guest, just an occasional cameo from someone like Ringo Starr or a BBC newsreader.)

Anyway, I tuned in, and I didn’t laugh once — I think I was beyond laughter at the sheer awe of their range. My post-show reaction was, “That was the weirdest comedy show I’ve ever seen! When can I watch it again?” The secret — for me, at least — was that I had to watch each episode twice: once just to take in the sheer breadth of it, then a second time so that I could appreciate the jokes.

IMHO, the modus operandi of most of “Flying Circus” was to show adults being nonchalant (or at least acting that way) in the midst of jaw-droppingly outrageous circumstances. A man goes to buy a newspaper and is completely oblivious to the fact that his check-out clerk is a nude female. A rustic farmer has a well-considered opinion as to why sheep are napping in his trees. And only on “Flying Circus” could any conversation plausibly begin with the request, “I’d like to have an argument, please.”

After that, at least in my formative years, I was a sucker for anything even vaguely Python-related. I watched a lot of their solo work, most of which wasn’t nearly up to the high standards of “Flying Circus.” (Major exception: John Cleese’s “Fawlty Towers,” surely one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.) And I ate up all of their team movies, of course.

DeadParrot

The hardest thing was trying to explain Python’s comedy to anyone who was used to sedate American sitcoms. “A man just bought a parrot, see, and he’s returning it because it turns out to be dead.” – “How can death be funny?” – “Well, see, the salesman doesn’t ever admit that the parrot is dead.” – “And that’s supposed to make death funny somehow?”

SirRobin

Even worse was when schoolmates would try to repeat Python jokes in the hope of showing how funny they, the schoolmates, were. Plus, they usually mangled the jokes in the process. The Holy Grail scene where the minstrel taunts Sir Robin by singing about how cowardly he is, was re-played by one schoolmate with the minstrel supposedly shouting, “He’s a fag, he’s a fag, he’s a fag!”

“Flying Circus” had its ups and downs (the biggest down was when John Cleese begged off of the final six episodes), but for the most part, there’s been little to meet or top its quality in TV comedy. It would never have gotten made in America, then or now, because network execs would be too busy looking for a “hook” that audiences could grasp on to. “Er, why don’t you change one of those Gumby guys into a wacky next-door neighbor instead?”

As you probably know, the five surviving members of Monty Python are currently whooping it up in London, in what they have proclaimed to be the final Python gathering of all time. The final-final show will be simulcast to theaters across the world next Sunday, July 20.

I have duly bought my ticket and am hoping for the best, but I have misgivings. Someone who obviously had a cell-phone camera recorded a bit from the live show and posted it on YouTube (the clip has since been removed). It showed a much older John Cleese and Michael Palin trying to work their wonders with the “Dead Parrot” sketch. It didn’t seem all that amusing, mainly because (a) they finished it by trying to mash it up with their “Cheese Shop” sketch (Why would a guy who’s returning a dead pet be interested in purchasing cheese?) and (b) Cleese looked as though he’d rather be somewhere else. Maybe it was a good idea when The Beatles didn’t reunite.

Anyway, to lead up to that final show, starting this Tuesday I’ll post a review-a-day of each of the team’s five theatrical films. So set your bookmarks, and let’s all pray that at the very least, one more of the Pythons doesn’t die before their London gig ends!

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