So as part of my shameless self-promotion, I occasionally reflect on pop culture and the particular entries that have influenced my writing. In case it’s not obvious, I’m kind of weird. A lot of entries are about cartoons, or comic books, or comic book movies. I tend to like comedy more than tragedy because real life seems tragic enough already. But I out of all the things I like and that have influenced my sense of humor and writing, Monty Python may be the weirdest. May be. Jury’s still out.
As I find myself increasingly surrounded by ever-younger co-workers (get off my lawn you dang whippersnappers) I realize that the pop cultural touchstones I take for granted are not as universal as I believe. I had to, for example, explain to a young co-worker that Paul Newman was not “the salad dressing guy.” So I’m not going to assume everyone reading this is familiar with Monty Python, although you may have heard of them.
In the late ’60s, five British guys and one American formed a sketch comedy troupe that was called “Monty Python,” which was pretty much appropos of nothing. They got a show on BBC that was called, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” also appropos of nothing. I would be remiss in not mentioning the one woman of the group. She has been with them from the beginning, but was only utilized in roles when the writing called for an actual woman as opposed to a man in drag; she took it with good humor. There were four seasons before the group decided they were done with the show. Also, like with most great ensembles, individual members wanted to part ways and do their own thing. But they released a few albums here and there (so many, in fact, that in part of a documentary I watched, Steve Martin said he thought they were a musical group), and four movies. They also did a lot of live shows with a decent degree of success, although they never really got back together for any length of time. In 1989, one of the founding members died. The members got together a few times after, including this latest and probably last round of live shows of the full remaining group (the poor guys and gal are in their ’70s).
Monty Python’s Flying Circus:
This was a weird, weird show. Many of the skits were making fun of the state of Britain at the time, so those jokes are completely missed (I am absolutely not the target demographic). Many had at the core some absurd premise played more or less straight (the “Dead Parrot” sketch), some relied on one line and a sight gag (“The Queen Victoria Races”), and many were just plain weird (the “Fish-slapping Dance”). The lone American supplied mostly very, very strange cartoons that also made fun of Britain at the time or were completely insane (but no one should be surprised). Some of the humor was so weird that I often got the sense I was missing something because I wasn’t the target demographic, but I think maybe the humor was just that weird.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
Their first movie, which was shot on a shoestring budget in a very short amount of time and was by all accounts a miserable experience. It lampoons the story of King Arthur searching for the Holy Grail and contains some biting satire, some slapstick and sight gags, and some plain absurdity. The movie is imminently quotable, and many of my friends can quote most of it with very little prompting. It was so popular it was even turned into a highly successful musical, which I have also seen and is pretty funny. I even own “Monty Python Fluxx,” which is a variant of Fluxx based on this movie.
“Help, help, I'm being repressed!” - Dennis the peasant
Life of Brian:
The second movie, which was by all accounts a much better movie-making experience. This is the story of a man who is mistakenly worshiped as the Messiah. This also contains some biting satire, some slapstick and sight gags, and less absurdity. Also, it’s probably pretty blasphemous. It’s actually a better movie than the first and more cohesive. The ending is, well, what happens to Messiahs but accompanied by a light-hearted musical number.
“Life's a laugh and death's a joke it's true...” - Victim
The Meaning of Life:
The third movie, which is kind of a series of sketches that goes through the stages of life, with a twist, of course. It has more musical numbers than the other two movies, including a rather memorable one regarding the Catholic Church and its views on procreation. But it’s not as cohesive just by the nature of the structure and doesn’t hold together quite as well. Some of the sketches are really good, but that makes the less good ones just stand out more.
"And get the machine that goes 'ping!'" - Obstetrician 2
And Now for Something Completely Different:
This is a flat-out clip show from “Flying Circus.” If you’d like to find out what this group is all about, I’d recommend finding this movie. It features what are generally considered the classic and best sketches and some cartoons and leaves out most of the topical stuff and really weird stuff.
“Pining for the fjords?!” - Irate Customer
There still are some copies of the live shows available. Most are just compilations of the best/most popular “Flying Circus” sketches although there is sometimes new stuff. The latest version had some new musical numbers and a guy in kangaroo costume randomly appearing in sketches. No idea why since no one reacted to him except once. So, there’s still the touch of the absurd present. It’s also clear they still really miss their fallen member, as evidenced by a slight change to the “Dead Parrot” sketch.
“This parrot has gone to meet Dr. Chapman!” - Irate Customer
The lasting influence on me is an appreciation of the absurd, and how funny contradiction can be. For example, of the skits that made me laugh out loud was the philosophers’ soccer match. A team of historical German philosophers facing off against the ancient Greeks in a modern soccer match is a funny concept to me, and the execution of it is brilliant. The “Dead Parrot” sketch and the “Cheese Shop” are two examples of something ridiculous taken seriously. And despite the fact the guys are not good singers, the songs are pretty funny. My favorites are “The Philosopher’s Song,” the “Universe Song,” and of course, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” And I also learned to beware the cute, innocent looking rabbit.