This is too weird! For decades, I’ve listened to a Monty Python sketch titled “Happy Valley,” but I thought they had recorded it only for one of their albums. I happened to be surfing YouTube just now and found a filmed version of it! Enjoy!
This is too weird! For decades, I’ve listened to a Monty Python sketch titled “Happy Valley,” but I thought they had recorded it only for one of their albums. I happened to be surfing YouTube just now and found a filmed version of it! Enjoy!
I have Monty Python on the brain tonight. That’s because tomorrow night, my son and I are attending a local screening of the 40th-anniversary edition of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then, four days after that, we’re going to see John Cleese and Eric Idle doing a live show at the Florida Theatre.
So I decided to succumb to list-mania and make a list of 10 terrific Monty Python sketches. However, I didn’t want to go for the obvious. Even non-Python fans are familiar with “Spam” and “Argument Clinic” and “The Lumberjack Song.” But in 14 years of sketch creation, the Pythons came up with plenty of material that might not be as equally legendary, but is surely as equally funny.
So here are 10 of my favorites. Click on the sketch titles to link to them on YouTube. Some of them are from their TV series, others are vocal-only sketches from their record albums (Did you know that the Pythons did albums as well?). All are quite the laugh riots.
Logician – This is from the Holy Grail soundtrack album (whose actual title is too irritatingly long to print here). The album has snippets of dialogue from the film, interspersed with Python comedy bits. This sketch comes after the sound bite of the movie’s scene where the “man of science” determines that a woman is definitely a witch because she weighs the same as a duck and is made of wood (don’t ask). John Cleese plays a logician who tries to argue this point and then goes off on an unrelated tangent about his wife.
String – From Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, again featuring John Cleese, here as an advertising agent. He wants to help a client (Eric Idle) promote a collection of string that he’d inherited. But the client says there’s a major problem with the string. No problem for Cleese’s one-track-minded ad guy!
“What Do You” Quiz Game – From Monty Python’s Previous Record. Eric Idle is the caffeinated host of a radio game show that has very complicated rules. (Ironically, years later, Idle performed this hilarious sketch in a guest appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” where it bombed like the results of The Manhattan Project.)
The Bishop – From Episode 17 of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Terry Jones plays the title role in this outrageous mash-up of religious pretentiousness and James Bond movies. (I’ve nothing against men of the cloth, but some of them get offed in some extremely creative ways here.)
Milkman – From Episode 3 of “Flying Circus,” and featuring Michael Palin and Carol Cleveland at her most come-hither. It runs only a minute and is completely wordless, but it’s a gem.
Deja Vu – The finale of “Flying Circus” Episode 16, and surely one of their best-ever closings. Michael Palin plays the host of a show titled “It’s the Mind,” where he examines the phenomenon of deja vu…over and over and over.
The Attila the Hun Show – Thank you, Monty Python, for documenting the fact that inane sitcoms are not strictly limited to America. If you can get past a quite unforgivable blackface stereotype from Graham Chapman, this one is worth its weight in gold. This sketch is from “Flying Circus” Episode 20, as is…
Take Your Pick – John Cleese, as a smilingly venomous game-show host taking out his hostilities on a female contestant (Terry Jones), is laugh-till-you-cry hysterical.
The Adventures of Ralph Mellish – From the album The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief. Michael Palin narrates the not-quite-breathtaking story of one man’s almost perilous journey to work.
The Background to History, Part 4 – Also from Matching Tie and Handkerchief. Graham Chapman hosts an assessment of Britain’s medieval open-field farming system as it might have been interpreted by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
After watching and listening to all of that, you have every right to declare:
This week, one of my favorite bloggers, TV scripter and novelist Ken Levine, asked: “Can comedy stand the test of time?” As an example, Levine cited Steve Martin’s once-famous catchphrase, “Ex-cuse ME!”, and posited that a current teenager wouldn’t have any idea why someone from the 1970’s would laugh at such a thing. Levine also mentioned how the Marx Brothers enjoyed a 1960’s and ’70s revival that seems to have dimmed down considerably since then.
Well, can comedy stand the test of time? My answer is:
If it’s comedy that you’re still talking about, then yes.
I grew up in that hallowed era of the 1970’s. All around me, on TV and in revival movie theaters, were testaments to the eternal comedic appeal of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy. Then I got to witness the budding of comic masters such as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Monty Python.
These days, my college-age son and daughter do the usual scoffing at their old man’s pop-culture tastes, yet they’ve managed to pick and choose things they like from that era. My daughter has enjoyed Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the musical version of The Producers with me. I’m not the Cheech & Chong fan that I was as a teenager, but my son definitely enjoys their streetwise humor. And while neither of my kids is a die-hard Monty Python fan like me, my son is head over heels over Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and my daughter has let down her guard enough to let the “Fish Slapping Dance” and “Argument Clinic” sketches make her laugh like crazy.
Conversely, the kids enjoy comedy that doesn’t terribly interest me, such as Amy Schumer (daughter) and Louis C.K. (son). I’ve watched some of their work and don’t particularly “get” them, but I can appreciate why the next generation does.
The thing is, there’s nothing more subjective than comedy. If someone enjoys the same comedy that you do, you have had some measure of bonding with that person. And if someone doesn’t pick up on a comedian who makes you tear up with laughter, expect the very definition of “stony bitch face” from that other person.
Anyway, I’m in my mid-fifties, and I’ve long given up on trying to apologize for or rationalize my tastes in pop culture. Like any comedy fan, I like what I like, and if you don’t agree…
Well, ex-CUUUUUUUSE ME!!!!!!!!
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!
As a rabid fan of Chaplin and Keaton, it has always amazed me to see how many of their short subjects ended with the old cop-out of Charlie or Buster waking up and discovering that the entire previous 20 minutes had been “only a dream.” This cliche was beaten further to death in countless sitcom episodes concocted by desperate writers.
Because of this, I have always been gratified that that all-time sacred-cow-killer, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” turned this cliche on its head once and for all. Go to the 3:20 mark in this clip from “Flying Circus'” episode “The Cycling Tour,” and you’ll see what I mean.
(As a lead-up to Monty Python’s final concert performance on July 20, each day prior to that, I have posted a review of a Monty Python movie. Today: Python’s valedictory film.)
It’s too pretentious to regard Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life as the culmination of what is, after all, only the movie career of a mortal comedy group. And yet, with all its faults, I treasure it as their final filmic statement. It’s not without its faults, yet like The Marx Brothers, even Python’s lesser works are more ambitious than most latter-day comedians’ greatest efforts.
The movie begins with a curtain-raiser short subject, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” which has ‘Terry Gilliam’ written all over it. It was intended to be another sketch in the film, until it mutated into a movie of its own, at which point the Pythons passed it off as the movie’s prologue. (They make a brief reference to it later in the film.) A pirate-movie parody about some senior-citizen insurance workers who rebel against their younger superiors, it’s Pythonesque enough to be a worthy intro, though it’s more astounding than funny in its scale.
Then a bunch of fish (the Python group in elaborate costumes) introduce the main feature, followed by a great Gilliam-animated title sequence, and an even greater Part I in which Chapman and Cleese play oblivious delivery doctors. As a father of two, I can vouch for the antiseptic touch of the manic doctors who throw the new father out of the delivery room and tell the impending mother that she’s “not qualified” to participate in the delivery.
This is followed by one of Python’s peaks, an Oliver!-like sequence titled “Every Sperm Is Sacred.” It’s guaranteed to offend Catholics, pro-lifers, and most musical-number favorers, and it’s a beaut of staging. If you show this movie to a Python “virgin,” this scene is the acid test as to whether he/she will walk out or stay put.
From there, the movie goes all over the map, particularly in a restaurant sequence where Terry Jones plays the world’s most obese man, vomiting as a matter of habit. (John Cleese, at his peak, plays the obsequious waiter, all too willing to provide a bucket on demand.) The movie is the epitome of Python’s virtues (a great sequence with Chapman as a doomed man being chased by naked women) and debits (What the heck is with that prolonged tiger sequence??).
Yet when the “Flying Circus” intro plays on a wayward TV at the end, all Python fans have to feel a twinge of sorrow at the group’s demise. A few semi-reunions since movie’s end can’t dim the feeling of the end of an era, to be followed by a whole lot of dumb and dumber.
(As a lead-up to Monty Python’s final concert performance on July 20, each day prior to that, I will post a review of a Monty Python movie. Today: And now for more something completely different.)
Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl has a curious and checkered history. It was originally a videotaped recording of the British comedy group performing some of their most famous sketches during a 1980 stint at the Hollywood Bowl. Unfortunately, Denis O’Brien–the man who arranged the concert and who, with George Harrison, formed the Python movie company HandMade Pictures–made off with the Pythons’ concert profits. So they actually made no money from the concert until it was released in movie form.
That said, we can only wish that all such dirty deals resulted in something as good as this movie. Granted, the video-to-film transfer makes the movie look a bit grainy. And despite the wealth of comedy material herein, Python buffs continue to complain, “No ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch!!”
But there’s some great stuff here that is either rare or just plain unavailable elsewhere. The movie opens with four of the Pythons singing their infamous song “Sit On My Face” (from their Contractual Obligation Album, released at the time of the concert), complete with rear nudity. Any movie that starts off with such a bang can’t be all bad.
There are plenty of other “new” sketches throughout, among them The Pope’s (a mustachioed John Cleese!) raving to Michaelangelo (Eric Idle) about his Picasso-like “Last Supper” painting that features three Christs. (“It works, mate!” declares the assertive artist), and a pseudo-academic deconstruction of slapstick humor (highlight: Terry Gilliam grinning dumbly as he inflicts pain upon his fellow demonstrators).
Neil Innes, frequent Python song contributor, is also well-represented here, his John Lennon-like vocals adding much-needed gravity to his tunes “I’m the Urban Spaceman” and “How Sweet to Be an Idiot.”
Live at the Hollywood Bowl falls about halfway between the benign sketch humor of Python’s And Now for Something Completely Different and the pungent satire of The Meaning of Life. It’s not a bad place to be.
(As a lead-up to Monty Python’s final concert performance on July 20, each day prior to that, I will post a review of a Monty Python movie. Today, it’s the Judean People’s Front [me] versus The People’s Front of Judea [Monty Python].)
As a die-hard Python fan, Monty Python’s Life of Brian is my least favorite of their movies (and that includes the sketch movie that the Pythons themselves maligned, And Now for Something Completely Different). The movie probably satisfies viewers who want a solid story instead of Python sketches, but it still feels as though there’s something missing. And, as with Charlie Chaplin’s black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, the movie’s fans seem to be celebrating what the movie is intending to do (make a big statement), rather than the actual movie.
The movie follows a Jerusalem resident named Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), from his birth to his very lyrical death. Brian, it seems, is cursed from the start. On the night of his birth, his mother Mandy (Terry Jones with terrible dental work) is visited by the Three Wise Men of Biblical fame. Turns out they went to the wrong house. Jesus, the Savior they were looking for, resides right next door to Brian.
The movie caused an uproar among conservative religious groups when first released, but in every way possible, Brian is the least offensive of the Python movies — and that’s not necessarily a compliment. Anyone who devotes any attention to the movie can clearly see that it’s not Jesus who’s being made fun of–it’s the crazed followers who are all too willing to give up their individuality in order to be seen following the “right” savior.
What is most bothersome about the movie is, the Pythons are so eager to ram their message home that they forget about the comedy. Much of the supposed humor is based on speech impediments, or repetition of gags that are thin the first time around. It’s as if the movie was written by second-rate Python imitators.
The movie is also annoying in that it tries to make radical statements and then blithely shrugs them off when they’re not convenient to the plot. At one point, Brian makes an impassioned speech to his mother about how he’s a fervent Jew. Then later, when Brian is trying to avoid harassment by the Romans, he nonchalantly announces, “I’m not Jewish, I’m a Roman.” This is the underdog whom we’re supposed to admire?
And (SPOILER PARAGRAPH) considering how hard the Pythons wanted to make their point about rabid followers, it seems strange that as soon as Brian is sentenced to crucifixion, the same people who hang on every word he says suddenly disappear from the plot.
That’s not to say that the movie is completely worthless. There are some choice moments of wordplay and sight gags. (The movie’s Star Wars reference is a typical Python non-sequitor that gets you laughing for no good reason.) And the famous closing number is sublimely done.
Yet the Criteron Collection DVD of Brian offers some deleted scenes that are funnier than some of the stuff that was left in. I can’t help feeling that if the Pythons had gone for a more freewheeling style a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the movie might have been less political but far funnier.
(As a lead-up to Monty Python’s final concert performance on July 20, each day prior to that, I will post a review of a Monty Python movie. Today, the Holy Grail of them all.)
Eddie Murphy once did a great routine about how some of his fans mangled his best jokes in their re-tellings. Monty Python and the Holy Grail has the same effect on people. When you read reviews of this movie, people tend to not critique the movie so much as re-quote its punchlines, as though they hope the movie’s wit will rub off on them.
Suffice to say that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of the great sacred-cow killers of all time (literally, in one of the movie’s gags), on a level with The Marx Brothers’ classic Duck Soup. And when Pythoner Terry Gilliam (at least I think it’s him) plays soldiers’ heads as a xylophone in exactly the same manner as Harpo Marx did in Duck Soup, you realize that the torch has been passed from one comedic generation to another.
One wouldn’t have thought that the King Arthur legend was ripe for spoofing, but this movie gets the job done admirably. The movie begins with credits that can’t even agree with themselves, so you know the movie’s sense of history is going to be screwed up. Sure enough, it presents King Arthur as a man who can’t command a modicum of respect from even the lowliest peasant (who, in one scene, argues with Arthur about the virtues of socialism).
Plot? We don’t need no stinkin’ plot! The movie is mostly an excuse for hilarious wordplay, outrageous Marx Bros.-like musical numbers, Terry Gilliam’s inspired animation, and Python’s pointed pointlessness (what a cop-out ending!). It also has an outrageous amount of gore for a comedy, which turns out to be part of its point: Macho knights aren’t quite so romantic when they’re hacking apart real flesh and blood.
Satire is now a cottage industry in movie comedies, and the movie year of 1975 probably had a lot to do with it: that was the year of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, Woody Allen’s Love and Death, and this Monty Python entry. But at least satirists aimed high then. Nowadays, the pedestrian antics of a spoof like Scary Movie would themselves be ripe for Python picking.
(As a lead-up to Monty Python’s final concert performance on July 20, each day prior to that, I will post a review of a Monty Python movie. First up, their film debut.)
Most likely, if Britain’s Monty Python comedy troupe hadn’t hit it big in America in the mid-70’s, And Now for Something Completely Different wouldn’t even be considered in the annals of movie comedy.
When “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” became a British hit in the early ’70s, British Playboy entrepreneur Victor Lowndes convinced the Pythons to commit some of their best sketches to film in an attempt to win over an American following. The movie was done on the cheap (much of it was filmed at a dairy farm), and it initially laid a huge egg in America (as did a notorious Python appearance on “The Tonight Show” at that time). The movie was revived for American audiences only when Monty Python and the Holy Grail became a surprise hit.
Python’s John Cleese was the most vocal about a plotless sketch movie wearing out its welcome halfway through. That said, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to Python comedy. Most of “Flying Circus'” best sketches from the first season are here, from “Nudge Nudge” to “Dead Parrot” to the famous “Lumberjack Song.” And Carol Cleveland, the only woman allowed in Python territory (most of their female roles were played by Python’s males), is in full, bosomy blossom here. (Sketch-wise, the movie also paved the way for cult hits such as Kentucky Fried Movie, the first film effort of the Airplane! creators.)
For die-hard Python buffs, the only complaint is that the material is often too benign. One almost wishes for some of their “meatier” sketches from their later seasons, when Python hit its stride, were represented here. (As to Cleese’s complaint about sketch comedy wearing out its welcome, a perfect closing for the movie would have been “The Cycling Tour,” a “Circus” sketch that filled an entire half-hour and was one of their funniest outings.)
But this is nit-picking. If you’re in the mood for a worldview gone askew, you can’t get much more different than And Now for Something Completely Different.
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