Yes, I’ve been planning on doing this sooner or later, especially since we just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the inventive, irreverent and influential BBC comedy that most of us Gen-Xers remember as being played on PBS as a kid, and then as part of MTV’s comedy line-up in the mid to late 80s.
Most all of us can quote or act out our favorite lines from the show. And sadly some have had it quoted to them far too often enough that it’s no longer funny. But for me, it’s been far too long since I’ve sat down and watched one of my favorite shows as a teenager. I think it’s time to do a rewatch and do a bit of sort-of-liveblogging of it.
So! Without further ado…
Season 1, Episode 1: Whither Canada? Aired 5 October 1969.
We open the series with Michael Palin’s tattered and exhausted It’s Man climbing out of the bay towards the camera, to say his opening line: “It’s…” It’s a running joke used throughout the series, but what makes this particular one so wonderful is that it takes a full forty-five seconds! And cut to the opening credits.
Speaking of opening credits, I was extremely amused to discover that most of the classic paintings used as source material for Terry Gilliam’s animations can be found either in the Louvre in Paris, or at the National Gallery in London. Having visited both museums over the years, it is kind of amusing to walk into the room and think ‘oh, THAT’s the Bronzino he uses for the dropping foot!’
Post-credits, it’s clear that the theme of the show is absurdity. There are bizarre and often unexplained jokes aplenty: accidental pig deaths (followed by a line of drawn pigs being x’ed out), John Cleese as Mozart as a talk show host focusing on famous deaths (which includes Admiral Nelson being thrown out a top-story window…another visual gag they’d return to constantly over the course of the show), and so on. The Pepperpots (the classic vaudevillian men-in-drag characters) make their first appearance in a vox-pops skit about Whizzo Butter. Gilliam’s animated fills are similar to the ones he’d done for the kids’ show Do Not Adjust Your Set, bringing stodgy Victorian art and photography alive in the most bizarre ways.
One can also immediately see the comedic styles of each member of the troupe within the first few minutes of the show: the vaudevillian Palin, the experimentalist Gilliam, the satirist Eric Idle, the physical Cleese, the intellectual Graham Chapman, and the straight man Terry Jones. They work quite well off each other, mainly in that they’re aiming for a common theme here, which is to take quintessentially British mores and habits and either turn them on their head or take them to absurd extremes.
It’s also clear that they can take a one-joke theme and run with it for minutes at a time. This is often where most comedy show skits like those on Saturday Night Live can fall flat, where the joke is just repeated ad nauseam without any variance. Python understood that in order to pull this kind of long-game humor off, it needs to build constantly. The extended riff of Pablo Picasso Painting On a Bicycle only works because of its pacing as well as its increase in absurdity. It starts off seemingly as a throwaway joke by Palin in a newscast, only to return a few skits later as a live sports newscast, complete with running commentary, on the spot interviews…and the shocking revelation that Picasso isn’t the only painter working whilst biking. [This last one is brilliantly underscored by Cleese blitzing through his live feed while actual bicyclists are streaming by, and capped by the non-verbal sight gag of Toulouse-Lautrec riding by on a tricycle!] Python would return to this Breaking News theme constantly throughout their shows and it remains one of their funniest.
One can tell the Pythons are still working out exactly what they want to do with the show, as there are many funny but not necessarily memorable skits in this particular episode. It does contain, however, The Funniest Joke In the World sketch, which is a major fan favorite. What makes this particular one work is its sheer Britishness: it’s set to take place during World War II, still fresh in the minds of many, considering it had ended just a little over twenty years previous. The winner here is British ingenuity, coming up with a surefire weapon devised in secret that wins the War. [And the added payoff is that it’s obviously in nonsense German, making the sketch that much sillier. There’s also a wonderful fly-by visual joke in which it’s mentioned that “it’s better than Britain’s greatest pre-War joke”…while we see a shot of Neville Chamberlain.]
All in all, it’s a fun if kind of uneven episode. There are numerous moments where the audience isn’t quite sure if they should laugh, but they’re balanced by the lunacy of other more successful skits. It’ll only take a few more episodes until they reach their stride become more consistent.
Coming Up Next: Season 1 Episode 2: Sex & Violence!