I was born before the Internet. I know, I know—calm down. I’m not a monster, despite what some of you might be thinking; I also don’t know Morse Code, and I can’t field strip a moose. But I do remember a time when it was a whole lot harder to get access to culture that wasn’t part of the immediate mainstream. When the first Borders opened in Portland, Maine, it was a big deal, because for the first time, I could actually read a Harlan Ellison short-story collection instead of just reading what other people said about his work. I remember my dad hooking up our computer to the phone the first time—that horrible sound the modem made. (Is anybody even going to remember that in 10 years?) Then the first few peeks into a bulletin board. All glimpses into a world larger than anything I’d thought possible. Back then, you heard rumors about great movies or shows, but it was almost impossible to track anything down. There were ways, but being a kid in a small (very small) town with no real money to speak of led to a lot of second-hand appreciation.
The first time I heard about Monty Python was at a friend’s birthday party, where someone had a brought a tape of Monty Python And The Holy Grail. We watched some of it, and, well, I’ll be honest: I didn’t get it. To me, the grimy, murky visuals weren’t funny, they were terrifying, and the gory bits were too gross to be comical. (I have since come around on this opinion.) Yet something about it appealed to me, so the next year at Christmas, I asked for a Monty Python movie, and my parents got me And Now For Something Completely Different. (Another year, I asked for a Clive Barker novel, and Dad got me Shadows In Eden, which was actually just a collection of interviews and writing about Clive Barker, and was a lot better than anything Barker ever wrote. Anyway…) In a way, this wasn’t a great decision on their part. Of the four movies the Pythons made together, And Now For Something Completely Different is the weakest of the bunch, without Holy Grail’s medieval absurdity, Life Of Brian’s surprising narrative effectiveness, or Meaning Of Life’s bite. It’s not actively terrible, but given that the sketches all come from Flying Circus (and are significantly more effective in their original version) there’s no reason to watch it; you’d be better off watching the show.
But when And Now For Something Completely Different was originally released, watching the show was a lot harder to do than it is now. That was the point: When the film debuted in the United States in 1972 (after doing passably well at the British box office the year before), Monty Python’s Flying Circus had yet to be be broadcast stateside. ANFSCD should, in theory at least, have served as an introductory course in the Python comedy style. But it didn’t work. Despite decent reviews, audiences didn’t respond, and it wasn’t until PBS started airing Flying Circus in 1974 that Python really started to take hold in the U.S. As a gateway drug, the the movie is less than ideal. And yet it worked for me; I must’ve watched my VHS copy a dozen times or more. Surely something about it must’ve held my attention. Surely there was enough good here to help explain how I became a Monty Python fan for life.
At least, that’s what I was hoping when sat down to rewatch the movie for this review. The end result didn’t provide any obvious answers. ANFSCD is a greatest-hits collection from Flying Circus’ first two seasons, but the hour-and-a-half long running time doesn’t make enough room for everything. The Spanish Inquisition is notably absent, maybe because we were expecting it; also missing is the Ministry of Silly Walks, which is odd, given that the gag is so visually appealing it would seem a perfect way to appeal to audiences unfamiliar with British comedy.
But just about everything that is included is gold, at least from a script perspective. The movie opens with “How Not To Be Seen,” and then segues through a new version of the show’s opening credits (different animation, same march), before sliding into a run of segments with little more to connect them than the occasional appearance by Cleese’s Announcer, or Graham Chapman’s disapproving General. There’s the Hungarian phrase-book sketch, with Cleese once again babbling sexually suggestive phrases at Terry Jones’s baffled shopkeeper; the marriage counselor sketch, in which Eric Idle seduces Carol Cleveland away from a twerpy Michael Palin (well, “seduces” is the incorrect phrasing; maybe “is present when Cleveland has her eyes open”); Cleese as a man organizing a mountaineering expedition who has the unfortunate handicap of always seeing double; there’s the World’s Funniest Joke, and the blackmail game show, an accountant who wants to be a lion tamer, and Hell’s Grannies. And so on and so forth. Even Gilliam’s animation sequences are bits he’s done before, although the animation looks to be all new.
All of these sketches are tested, and proven, material; all of them feature some of the greatest comedy writing of the 20th century, performed by the troupe that made them famous. So why does it feel so stale? Admittedly, a large part of the problem is one of context. I’ve seen the first two seasons of Flying Circus three or four times by now, and I’ve seen the best sketches even more than that; which means I (and I’m assuming most of you out there reading this) know these routines, if not by heart, than at least well enough to mouth along to some of the dialogue. The freshness is gone from the start, even before you get to the actual quality of the film itself. I can’t remember the last time I found the Parrot sketch to be actually hilarious—I can recognize the quality of it, I can snicker at a few of the lines, but it just doesn’t quite work the same way anymore. It’s like hearing a great piece of music; the appreciation doesn’t necessarily diminish, but the emotional response eventually fades.
Still, while I don’t always laugh my ass off watching Flying Circus, I can still recognize its greatness; and, as a corollary, I can recognize when something doesn’t quite work the way it’s supposed to. And that’s as good a way to describe ANFSCD as any. It’s just off, in a number of subtle, but increasingly negative ways. There’s a palpable exhaustion that runs throughout these 90 minutes, a sense of performers giving their best but still not being able to surmount the project’s inherent flaws. None of the Pythons give bad performances in the film; if anything, the work they do here is more polished, and more precise than it was on the television series. Yet a certain spark is gone, a sense of edginess, an impression, of well, life. These are very professional, very accurate (with a few changes; most of the sketches are shorter than they were on the show, and nearly all of them have different endings) copies. The snap of discovery is gone for the performers, even if it’s still there for some of the audience.
ANFSCD also suffers from the lack of audible laughs. While not every Flying Circus sketch was filmed in front of an audience, every episode features an audible, and sometimes overwhelming, audience response. That response adds a critical level of energy and enthusiasm to the sketches that simply doesn’t exist here. In later films, the troupe would learn how to compensate for the silence by adding more of a soundtrack, and, more importantly, working harder to take advantage of the opportunities the new medium provided. Here, though, with a lot of older scripts (and, presumably, not much time to rework them), there’s no effort made to change the approach, and that robs the Pythons of one of their greatest gifts: self-awareness. There’s a decent bit at the beginning where “The End” pops up after the title sequence and Terry Jones comes out to apologize for the film running short, but for the most part, everything’s business as usual. Sometimes this isn’t a problem; the Funniest Joke In The World works just fine, with the more convincing location shooting adding an extra layer of verisimilitude that underlines the humor. (The Pythons would use this to great effect in later films.) There are even rare moments of striking visual beauty, like the opening of the Musical Mice sketch, in which Eric Idle’s slimy emcee looks like he stepped out of a David Lynch film. For the most part, though, going from cheap video to film works against the routines; the sketches based off TV programs suffer especially hard, since there’s no illusion that what we’re seeing is just a part of an evening broadcast.
Flying Circus worked because the strong sketch writing was augmented by a willingness to deconstruct, to poke holes, to strive relentlessly to keep the viewer off guard. There’s a little of that here, but not nearly enough, and the few attempts to point out the artifice of what we’re watching fall flat. Film isn’t as intimate as television, and while ANFSCD never comes across as a huge expensive production, it lacks that shoddy, live-theater feel that kept Flying Circus aloft for so long. Nothing here is going to go wrong; the sets won’t collapse, the actors won’t corpse; even Gilliam’s animation looks like somebody threw some money at it. This is a movie that doesn’t risk anything. It shows up on time, it hits its marks, and it hopes for the best, but it doesn’t linger. The whole thing just feels so terribly, disappointingly safe, and that’s a look that doesn’t suit Monty Python at all.
Yet it worked for me when I was younger, and if I’m being honest, that “safe” quality is part of the reason why. Flying Circus is a thrilling, hilarious, marvellous work of art; it’s demanding not because it’s inaccessible, but because it refuses to sit still, or let you accept your assumptions about what you’re watching without question. As a fairly sheltered kid, I needed a little hand-holding to get me past the initial shock. So maybe ANFSCD does have a use: consider it a set of training wheels for the inexperienced. And like all training wheels, your best bet is to throw them away as soon as possible and then wait for the screams.
- Big thanks to everyone who read these reviews; I hope you got something out of my rambling, intermittently nonsensical prose. Chances are, we’ll be back next summer to check out the third (and hopefully fourth) season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Until then, don’t die!
And now for something completely different: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine reviews will return at… some point.