Friday, May 10, 2013

And Now For Something Completely Different: Python Petting

Karen Mulder, guest blogger

By rights, this is the Last Blog before Mother’s Day. By rights, some sweet little encomium in honor of the cosmic bedrock that is motherhood should go right here. Hallmark insists. But frankly, Gleaners, I’ve been overwhelmed since April by an overabundance of mothering in the popular outlets.
After a decade of writing in the ‘60s, a mop-haired group of gangly young men seeking to overthrow the conventions of their times strode into pop culture and caused a commotion. No…not the Beatles. We’re speaking of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And just like the Day-Glo-hued paisley prints that currently speckle this year's sales racks in trendy boutiques, these surrealistic comedy writers re-entered the public noodle with "Spam-a-Lot," which premiered on Broadway in 2005.
Fully geared up: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle

I hustled myself over to 42nd Street to see if Eric Idle’s rewrite truly encapsulated the manic energies of Python’s 1975 Holy Grail, a movie that seemed simultaneously inscrutable and hilarious. I sat next to a prim, dour British man who radiated discomfit as bawdy, brash, really really stupid stuff exploded on stage. It couldn't have been all that bad, though, because that year, a British poll put Eric Idle, John Cleese and Michael Palin in the running as three of the top 50 funniest comedians in the English-speaking world (Cleese was No. 2...cough cough elbow elbow wink wink).
Revivalized, Monty Python resurfaced in countless print and media tributes. There were simpler presentations of their most popular skits and songs, like the paperback Monty Python Live!: The Never-Before-Told Story of Six-and-A-Half Men and a Girl, On the Road! (2009), compiled by the Pythons and friends. At the other extreme, virtual dissertations issued forth, epitomized if not trumped by Luke Dempsey’s 880-page opus with “all the bits”: Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Complete and Annotated--All the Bits (2012). It's such a chunky hardcover that a fan called it ‘a dangerous batch of reading,’ but it cannot be faulted for lacking any bits or bobs of Python lore. Did you know, for example, that the merciless chubby foot in Gilliam's animations is excerpted from a Bronzino cupid?Are we really to believe, though, that John Cleese’s real name is “Jack Cheese”?

More than just an exemplary doorstop, All the Bits has got to be the final word on Python’s output, since it purportedly includes every single skit or song or argument or gaffe from the group’s 45 BBC episodes between 1969 and 1974, material from all their live tours, and biographies on each participant. Between each dose of sarcasm, the annotations actually add fabulous explanations for the more obtuse Anglicizations, revealing the logic behind British japery and some Python origin and creation myths. This tour-de-force in 60s-style book design (think Peter Max, psychedelic) includes more than 2,000 photographs, and many Terry Gilliam animation panels.  As Eric Idle blurbs, it's “Ideal for people who can’t read,” or “can be used to make a small bungalow sleeping eight,” and made Goethe quip, “I wish I’d stayed alive long enough to write this kind of stuff.”
If you’re not convinced that Python humor is smart humor, consider Python’s Descartian reduction: “I’m pink, therefore I’m SPAM.”  Or try a stanza of "The Philosopher’s Song": “Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable. Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table. David Hume could out-consume Schopenhauer and Hegel, and Wittgenstein was a beery swine who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.” Speaking spamically, either you have a taste for it or you don’t.
The Yorksh'a men in their Wellies and befuddlement: check out the annotations to learn about such Pythonesque archetypes.
If you like really fresh (if not downright impertinent) writing jokes, that range from the unanticipated to the outrageous, if irreverence and absurdity jangle your funny bones—these surveys will serve you well. I have it on the full authority the Loo Literary Society from Oxford and Cambridge, where four Pythons received their educated guesses. But bring your visual memory to the pages: there is a liability to merely reading Magritte-inspired stagecraft that was initially sung or performed or ridiculously costumed, it’s true. On the other hand, reading them means you can skim rather endure some of the misfired sketches—which, when they lagged, occasionally received the kibosh with a liquid-sounding annihilation via Bronzino's foot, or Cleese's greasy announcer's statement, "And now, for something completely different...". Still, the originality is positively scintillating, and so rare in the bland gray protoplasm of unexceptional sitcom writing, or in the predictable acidity and gratuitous vulgarity of many stand-up comedians.
Classic Python balletics from the Minister of Silly Walks
On the other hand, the more modest paperback works the same way, albeit with fewer photos and animation stills. Its distinction comes in the form of its augmented silliness, provided by Python members, who contributed contemporary snide remarks, graffiti, intentional typos, and self-excoriating commentaries, all of which clearly demonstrate how well their humor neurons are still firing, 40+ years hence.

Doesn’t everyone need a really good, stupid laugh these days? Even mummies?
Mugging before the Hollywood Bowl show in the 70s: Palin, Jones, Idle, Chapman (1941-1989), Gilliam, Cleese


  1. Ahhhh, the Monty fellows! Great way to end the week. I've seen the films more times than I care to admit:) In regards to the 50 funniest list, I'd love to check it out...

  2. Gotta love Monty!

  3. I wonder if Number One on that British list wasn't Benny Hill...

  4. John Cleese, the Minister of Silly Walks! Seeing that image made me chuckle. I've loved Monty Python from a way too young age. I probably watched Holy Grail when I was 8 or 9 years old, and have loved it and the rest of the series(es) ever since.

  5. From Karen: On the 2005 poll about humor: actually, I think no. 1 was Peter Cook, later involved with Dudley Moore pre-Arthur stage, pre-Hollywood phase--considered to be the granddaddy of modern British humo[u]r...but who can tell with these statistical type polls? As someone noted, statistics are like a streetlight to a drunk at they light they way, or simply hold the drunk up?

    1. That's a damn sight funnier than anything I can remember Peter Cook saying!

    2. Maybe the daddy of British humour had all the good lines.