The following is my contribution to the “Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon,” being held March 27 through 29 at the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Click on the above banner, and read interesting insights into bloggers’ favorite single episodes of TV series!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
“My name is Pither…as in ‘brotherhood’, but with P-I instead of BRO and no HOOD.”
Broadcast for a total of 45 episodes — first on the BBC from 1969 to 1974, followed a year later by its American premiere on PBS — Monty Python’s Flying Circus changed the face of television comedy. Its sextet of writer-performers (Britons Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin; and American expatriate Terry Gilliam) delighted in offering sketches that had no punchline finale and often commented on each other. Generations of comedy fans have delighted in this TV surrealism.
However, as Humpty Dumpty proved, sometimes it’s just as meaningful to put something back together again as it is to break it. After 33 episodes of TV deconstruction, the “Flying Circus” actually went the traditional route for one episode. “The Cycling Tour,” a third-season outing from 1972, actually carries a linear storyline from start to finish.
However, even most Python fans are not likely to cite this as their favorite “Flying Circus” episode. Even though it has a “traditional” plotline, it careens all over the map even more than their Etch-a-Sketch-style episodes. It has references that will be lost on the average American viewer. (Previously, I was unaware of the Eurovision Song Contest, which plays a major role in many of this episode’s gags.) And one scene contains Chinese stereotypes that are as jaw-dropping as anything you’ll find in old Charlie Chan movies.
Perhaps it’s for all of these reasons that ‘The Cycling Tour” is my all-time favorite “Flying Circus” episode. It’s as though the Pythons are saying to their detractors, “You don’t like our unique comedy style? Right, then, we’ll do a sitcom-style plot and screw up that tradition for you!” For that reason, I find this episode as adventurous and wondrous as anything in the Python pantheon.
(Actually, the only reason that this is a more “traditional” “Circus” episode is that Michael Palin and Terry Jones, who are the main stars of this outing, had written this script for another venue, only to see it unused. The Pythons snapped it up to fill out an episode when they found themselves running short of material during their third season.)
The episode follows the adventures of Reg Pither (played by Palin, who seems to have gloriously channeled Stan Laurel for his character’s likable imbecility). Mr. Pither is on a bicycling tour of Cornwall, and every few yards (or so it seems), his bicycle overturns because, as he informs us in off-screen narration, “the pump got caught in my trouser leg.”
Mr. Pither recounts this mundane fact (and the contents of his lunch pack) to any number of people who couldn’t care less. He blathers on about it to a woman who tends to her gardening without ever acknowledging him; then to an equally disinterested restaurant cashier; and finally to an arguing couple whose relationship’s demise is aided by uncomprehending Mr. Pither.
My favorite such encounter is when Mr. Pither goes to a doctor (Eric Idle) after one of his pump/trouser catastrophes. The doctor tries to uncover Mr. Pither’s malady, but he has none. Pither went to the doctor simply because he needed proper directions and didn’t want to trust “the possibly confused testimony of some passer-by.” Irritated, the doctor provides the necessary directions — in prescription form. The doctor scribbles some Latin on a piece of paper and says, “Here, take this to a chemist [pharmacist]!”
Eventually, Mr. Pither has one too many trouser-based accidents and winds up in the backseat of a car driven by Mr. Gulliver (Terry Jones). At last, Pither has found his equal in pedantry. It seems that Gulliver is an inventor making breakthroughs in self-protected lunch items. He has even perfected a tomato that ejects itself from an automobile just seconds before an accident occurs. Sure enough, a Gulliver-laced tomato pops out of the car, followed by crash sound-effects and a screen blackout.
When the scenario resumes, Pither is transporting Gulliver to a hospital via his bicycle. Gulliver lost his memory in the car crash and now thinks he is Clodagh Rogers, the then-recent winner of the Eurovision Song Contest for her pop smash “Jack in the Box.”
The hospital scene is a slapstick delight involving Palin, Jones, and Chapman and Cleese as hospital personnel. One Python biographer reports that the scene actually bombed when performed live for the show, but Jones and “Circus” director Ian MacNaughton turned it into a comedy miracle via some judicious editing.
In any case, Gulliver gets booked in a nightclub to sing as Clodagh Rogers. But once he gets on stage, he suffers another lapse of memory and starts spouting Communist propaganda in the mistaken belief that he’s now Leon Trotsky.
Pither checks Gulliver into a hotel for safety and goes to the British Embassy, not realizing that his bicycling has taken him all the way to Communist China. As previously mentioned, there follows the episode’s most unforgivable scene, with Chapman and Cleese cavorting as outrageous Chinese stereotypes that put even Jerry Lewis’ foreign mimicry to shame. (However, it is funny, in the Pythons’ usual non-sequitor way, that the embassy duo are singularly obsessed with bingo.)
When Pither returns to the hotel, he finds that Gulliver/Trotsky has headed for Moscow. The Russian secret police are tailing Pither, and they take Pither to Moscow “to be present as an honored guest when Trotsky is reunited with the Central Committee.” But they tell Pither — who is too dim to figure out the international mess he’s in — that they’re taking him to a clambake.
When Gulliver/Trotsky is “reunited” with his comrades at a huge meeting, he starts out by giving a pro-party speech, but the speech then turns into a seductive nightclub number complete with feather boa. Gulliver has suffered yet another memory bash; he now thinks he’s Eartha Kitt. The Russians arrest Pither for misleading them, but they decide to let Gulliver continue his number since “He’s going down well.”
Pither is then thrown into prison, and shortly thereafter, he finds himself in front of a firing squad. Again, Pither is completely oblivious to this ominous threat until the guns are actually aimed at him. Luckily, everyone in the firing squad misses their intended target. Pither is thrown back into prison while the firing squad practice their shooting skills.
There follows one of Python’s greatest-ever gags. I am a long-time opponent of the old “It was only a dream” cop-out; it was used in countless Chaplin and Keaton silent comedies, as well as many TV sitcoms to follow. Instead, in this extremely satisfying scene, Pither falls asleep in his cell and wakes up to find his mother serving him tea in their backyard. There follows this exchange:
Sure enough, Pither is woken up so that the firing squad can have another go at executing him.
Meanwhile, Gulliver/Kitt has snagged yet another nightclub engagement. But as luck would have it, when he gets up to perform, he slogs his memory one more time and now becomes Edward Heath, the then-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (who was a frequent butt of Python jokes). When “Heath” starts spouting capitalist rhetoric, an Eartha Kitt fan in the audience smacks him with a turnip.
The turnip finally brings Gulliver to his senses, and he runs out of the nightclub and through town (while in a gown, high heels, and blackface) screaming for Pither, as the out-for-blood audience trails him. Gulliver hears Pither’s voice and climbs over a wall to get to him.
“Pither!” an elated Gulliver cries. “What a stroke of luck!” “Well, yes and no,” dithers Pither, as he points to an oncoming firing squad armed with bayonets.
How are the duo going to get out of this one? We’ll never know. A “Caption – Scene Missing” title flashes on the screen, followed by Pither and Gulliver on the outskirts of town, recounting their luck at their “amazing escape.” The duo say goodbye and go their separate ways, as the title “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” finally graces the screen. (The episode had no opening title sequence, probably to try to confuse viewers into thinking they’d switched on the wrong TV show.)
Oh, did I mention Terry Gilliam’s animation? Two strange-looking monsters named Maurice and Kevin rear their ugly heads every so often during the episode, before coming on after the credits to provide a rousing final laugh.
Despite its being a traditionally-based episode, I find “The Cycling Tour” as endearing as any episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It has every element that made the series a comedy stand-out: Completely insane actions performed by nonchalant people who act like it’s just another day at the office; hysterical verbal wordplay and sight gags; Gilliam’s wacko animation; and definitely a smattering of bad taste. I might not recommend it as an introduction to the Python style, but the episode wouldn’t have been out of place at the end of the team’s movie debut, the sketch-laden And Now for Something Completely Different. Kudos all around!