It’s…Python Rewatch 1.3: How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away

Eric Idle at his sleazy best.

Series 1, Episode 3: How to Recognise Different Types of Trees from Quite a Long Way Away, originally broadcast 19 October 1969.  This by far is my favorite of the early episodes. It contains so many of their best-known skits, and the humor and silliness are top notch here. And it also contains the extremely rare skit that actually contains a punchline!

The It’s Man is only on screen for about twenty seconds this time (crawling through a heavy forest, complete with wild animal sound effects in the background) before the credits hit. Then we’re immediately thrown into the first running gag of the episode: a lo-fi nature slide show indeed showing us How to Recognise Different Types of Trees from Quite a Long Way Away, with narration provided in perfect BBC deadpan by Cleese. This gag ends up being used throughout the episode for links between sketches, and always with the same exact tree image.

The first skit proper is the Courtroom Sketch, written by Cleese and Chapman but quite ably delivered by the entire troupe: a man (Idle) is brought before the court and asked his plea, and proceeds to deliver a dramatically overwrought Shakespearen response. (We’re provided the actual offense afterwards, of course.) Witnesses are brought to the stand: a Pepperpot (Chapman) delivering nonsensical rumors, a dead person in a coffin, and a Cardinal Richelieu impersonator (Palin) who is proven a fraud by a well-loved panto-singing officer from Scotland Yard (Chapman). This sketch prides itself on completely losing its intended way almost from the start. The skit ends with Cleese attempting to reprise Chapman’s song, much to everyone’s confusion (and a knight in armor boffing him with a chicken in response).

The next skit is the fantastic Jones/Palin ‘Bicycle Repairman’ skit, set in a world full of Supermen going about their day, with the humble F.G. Superman hiding the fact that he is in fact the titular repairman saving the day of trouble bicyclists. Almost all the lines are delivered with over the top American accents to pay on the whole Superman mythos. This is pure Jones/Palin, who frequently play with the ideas of ordinary folk in strange situations (they’d work together in the mid-70s in a similar vein with Ripping Yarns). As the hero walks into the distance after fixing a Superman’s bike, we’re linked by a hilarious voice-over by Cleese, whose anti-Communist lines become increasingly more outlandish and insane, until he’s interrupted by his wife.

The follow-up is another skit-gone-wrong, this time wonderfully written and delivered by Eric Idle as a pastiche of a children’s story time show that gets cut short due to the not-so-child-friendly stories he’s given to read. The story time animation returns, this time with the cute hopping bunnies getting trampled by a not-so-cute hippo.

A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke (“donkey rides”) link introduces my favorite of this episode, the Restaurant Sketch. A couple (Chapman and soon-to-be-regular Carol Cleveland) are about to eat at a fancy restaurant, and all seems to be going fine until Chapman reveals that he happens to have a dirty fork. The waiter apologizes profusely and brings out the maitre d’, who brings out the floor manager, who brings out the owner, until finally the cook (a hilariously over-the-top Cleese), each of them growing increasingly despondent that such a horrible thing has befallen not just their customer but their restaurant. This is one of the very few Monty Python skits that actually has a punch line — done on purpose, since their whole oeuvre is about not having them — at which point the audience actually boos them!

Another weird Gilliam animated commercial (‘Purchase a Past’) provides another link to the Seduced Milkman sketch. It’s an old-school joke that any other comedy troupe would riff on, but it’s short and its payoff is pure Python. We cut to another variation of the News Report riff, this time with robbers stealing Cleese’s completely oblivious newsreader, who is put on a lorry, driven across London and finally dumped into the ocean.

We’re brought back to the Larch link once more, surprising us by providing “And now…the horse chestnut” before going to a vox pops link with Palin, Idle and Jones as nervous school boys who eventually introduce the final sketch.

And that final sketch is one of the most famous and most quoted early skits, Candid Photography (aka Nudge Nudge), written by Idle. It’s Idle at his sleaziest and funniest, trying to get a conversation going with a fellow pub drinker about strange cryptic pastimes that are eventually revealed to be double entendres about sex. This too has a punch line of sorts, but it’s delivered as such a quick zinger that it works, almost Goon Show style. Cut to end credits, with the It’s Man re-entering the woods and allegedly getting attacked by unseen animals. And an arrow pointing to one of the trees in the shot, providing us with one last example of The Larch.

This episode was a huge favorite of my circle of friends back in high school in the 80s, when MTV played the show early in the evenings and as part of their Sunday night lineup. I’ve been known to quote quite a few lines from it (“Why not?”, “So anyway!”, “…with a melon?”, “You bastards!”, “oh, no no no…yes.”), and my band The Flying Bohemians even named one of their demo tapes after a line (“And now…No 1…The Larch”). I love this one because it’s consistently silly and brilliantly paced, and there isn’t a single skit or link that trips it up. It’s also a sign of the levels of absurdity they’ll reach in future episodes, particularly in the second series. If I had to choose one episode to explain Python to newcomers, I would most likely show them this one!

Coming up: Episode 1.4: Owl Stretching Time

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