Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “The All-England Summarize Proust Competition”/“The War Against Pornography”
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Michael Palin (left), John Cleese
Michael Palin (left), John Cleese

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “The All-England Summarize Proust Competition”/“The War Against Pornography”

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“The All-England Summaraize Proust Competition” (season 3, episode 5; originally aired 11/16/1972)

“Summarize Proust Competition”

Premise: A competition in which various strange characters attempt, to the best of their abilities, and not at all successfully, to summarize in fifteen seconds Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, a seven volume book known in English as In Search Of Lost Time.

Is it funny? Conceptually? Yes. Proust’s book is a very long book (over four thousand pages in English), and the idea of trying to satisfactorily sum it up in less than half a minute is amusing because it’s impossible. That’s a concept you’ll see again and again, both in drama and comedy: if you want to hook in audience, present a seemingly insurmountable problem. In a drama, a hero will either win the day (triumph!) or fail tragically (pathos!). In comedy like this, the promise of failure is built into the joke—instead of cringing in suspense at the immense danger, we laugh at the absurdity that something like this could even exist. Having a contestant show up and win the competition wouldn’t have ruined the humor, but it would’ve changed it. An unwinnable contest gets by on the pointlessness of its existence. A unwinnable contest that someone actually wins moves from concept to narrative, because now there’s an arc. Anyway, nobody wins this round.

No, but is it funny? Decently so. There’s the sort of cavalcade of embellishment which we’ve come to expect in a Python sketch; not content to rest on the laurels of the main idea, the troupe brings in any number of odd adornments, like the judges panel made up of cardboard cut-outs (mostly sports figures, but hello Omar Sharif!), or Graham Chapman’s interest in strangling animals and golf, or the choral brigade that ends the competition, and will be appearing intermittently throughout the rest of the half hour. These ideas largely serve to distract rather than enhance the sketch’s premise, but then, it could be that this was a premise that could only go so far. We’ll never know. The science isn’t there yet.

ROLL END CREDITS. Which, obviously, doesn’t mean the end of the episode just yet.

Interrupting bit: The goofy looking man.

After the Proust contest ends, we cut to a shot of Mount Everest, as Michael Palin narrates. He fumbles the narration (saying Everest is the mountain with “the biggest tits,” a nod to the end of the previous sketch in which the prize goes to the “woman with the biggest tits,” the Pythons always being very progressive in such matters), Idle cuts in with “Start again,” and a goofy looking man leans into frame, waves, and then leans back. Then the Everest sketch begin properly.

This is a weird bit. It’s not weird in concept, because the Pythons do this shit all the time (see ROLL END CREDITS); it’s weird because the goofy looking man is just, well, weird. Eerie, almost. In the context of the episode itself, it’s just a silly bit of randomness that gets repeated a few times over the course of the half hour. But in the context of pop culture as a whole, the appearance of an overly ridiculous, and oddly mysterious, figure tends to make one feel a bit jumpy. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, though.

“Hairdressers Climb Mount Everest”

Premise: Hairdressers climb Mount Everest. Which is not something you would typically expect hairdressers to do. Hence, the humor of the situation.

Is it funny? As ever, the Pythons know how to sell a documentary-style bit. The footage throughout looks convincing, from the shots of various characters in tents to the image of the planned journey overlain atop a photo of the mountain itself. And it is a pleasingly absurd idea that ends up at a pleasingly absurd conclusion, with various other inappropriate groups struggling to beat the hairdressing team to the top.

But a lot of the humor here comes from the contrast of effeminate men engaging in traditionally masculine activities, and while the jokes never come across as mean-spirited, there’s not a lot of depth here. The concept has potential, and the execution is spot on; but most of the individual gags are all pretty obvious and surface-level. Oh hey, they brought hair-dryers with them. Oh, and they’re going to open a salon. It’s not terrible, but if the premise alone doesn’t strike you as absolutely hilarious, the sketch itself will probably only earn some appreciative chuckles. It’s decent, but not inspired. Speaking of…

No, wait, there’s some Gilliam animation first. It’s fine. No criticism needed here.

“Fire Brigade/Our Eamonn”

Premise: If you’re curious, I’m swiping these sketch titles from Wikipedia, because I’m lazy and it seemed easier. Anyway, this is a weird one, because I’m not sure it even has a premise. Remember what I said earlier about the adornments on the Proust Competition scene? Those quirky twists and oddities that add a certain, troupe-specific texture to a piece. “Fire Brigade/Our Eamonn” appears to be a sketch entirely made up of such adornments, to the point where there’s no one single idea to unify the scene, apart from the consistent presence of its central figures.

I shall attempt to summarize. Jones is a housewife with two sons, one of whom lives at home and is played by John Cleese. The family hamster is dying, so when the sketch opens, Jones is in the process of contacting the fire brigade. (The brigade hangs up on her.) So far so good. Then Cleese comes out, doing his stupid-angry-man Cleese thing, and he takes over the phone, so we get some more phone comedy, and a joke about shoe sizes that will run through the rest of the half hour. (The joke is that the person on the other end of the phone keeps asking about shoe sizes.) The hamster dies. Chapman shows up in black-face as Eamonn, having just returned from Dublin. The Fire Brigade arrives on Friday. Chaos reigns.

Really, this is a character piece more than a premise sketch, and it certainly has the novelty of keeping the audience guessing. But as is so often the case when Python does this sort of sketch, the formlessness means that (and I realize I’ve said this before, but it keeps being true) there’s no build to the scene. Stuff happens and some other stuff happens, and the fact that the fire brigade shows up again means there’s something vaguely like continuity, but the whole thing dangles on the dangerous edge of Weird Shit For Weird Shit’s Sake. The Jones/Cleese/Chapman family aren’t very well established characters, either; Jones and Cleese are both fine (Chapman is basically just another “ha-ha, he’s in black-face playing an African warrior!”, which is a weak gag even before you work in the offensiveness of black-face), but there’s nothing to distinguish them from the sort of likable, thick-headed middle-class family type that the Pythons are so often using.

Remember Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion from a little while back? Cleese and Chapman were playing Pepperpots, no question: all strangled, shrill falsetto and house-dresses. But in their conversation, they made themselves distinct in a way that doesn’t really happen in this sketch. There’s no time for character building here because we’re just getting wave after wave of surreal ideas. With Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion, there was a sense, at least on some very basic level, that we were supposed to view them as people, which meant that their story (which did, admittedly, have a good premise) justified its existence. This sketch is more just a lot of noise thrown out over time, and some of it works, and some of it doesn’t, and there’s no underlying structure to help the stuff that doesn’t work go over.

Yes, But IS IT FUNNY? Eh, I laughed a couple of times. The shoe size gag is more odd than amusing at this point, but the fact that it recurs several times is nice.

“‘Party Hints’ With Veronica Smalls”

Premise: An instructional film that starts off with the credits of an epic, before cutting to Eric Idle in a dress as Ms. Smalls. She offers helpful tips to fight off Communists.

Is it funny? Sure. A straightforward, clever gag done well, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Some Gilliam animation about Communists here.

“Language Laboratory”

Premise: A lab where interested people can go to learn (via tape recording, headphones, and a microphone) how to speak like various cultural stereotypes.

Is it funny? Sure? Like the hairdresser sketch, the premise is a good one, but it doesn’t really have anywhere it can go; once you figure out the gag, you just see a few iterations of it and it’s over. (There’s some singing at the end. A lot of singing in this episode.) There’s a politician, a Scotsman, and a, well, I guess you’d say a pouf? Then Cleese tells Chapman he wants a voice that will make people take him seriously, and they debate a bit on exactly what sort of voice that should be, and then it’s the singing. Not a gut-buster by any means, but the sense of barely controlled chaos that bogged the episode down in the “Fire Brigade” sketch is less evident here. The sudden shift into a musical number is digressing from an actual structure, as opposed to just happening to pop up because what the hell, why not.

The goofy looking man comes back. Look, I’m sure it’s fine. I’m sure I’m not the only one seeing this. It’s just, I watch these episodes alone in my room, and I think… I think he’s looking at me.

“Travel Agent”

Premise: After Palin briefly reprises his Mount Everest narration, Eric Idle plays a prospective tourist who visits Palin’s travel agency looking to book a ticket to someplace new. Carol Cleveland flirts with him (a joke they’ve done before), but he doesn’t realize it before the moment passes. Then there’s some business about Idle being unable to say the letter “C,” although, as Palin points out, he can just replace hard c’s with “K,” which had apparently never occurred to him before.

But the real heart of the sketch comes when Idle launches into a monologue about all the things he hates about traveling with more traditional travel agencies. It’s a long, long speech, and Idle tears into it, reciting the whole thing in a monotonous rush that goes past the point you were expecting it to, then goes further, and then goes further still. Eventually Palin, at first politely agreeing with Idle than more and more desperately demanding that he shut up, calls the fire brigade. They ask him about his shoe size.

Is it funny, although I suppose in this case it would be more appropriate to ask this question from two distinct perspectives, to wit is the sketch funny in a conceptual sense, ie are we, the viewers, intrigued and amused by the idea of a performer launching into an unexpectedly verbose and situationally inappropriate monologue, and also is it funny in the purely reflexive sense, a non-thinking sort of way that hits us right in the gut and demands a response that can neither be controlled nor denied? Yes to the first, it depends to the second.

For me, this is a good example of a sketch whose conceptual cleverness can get in the way of it being actually in-the-moment hilarious. As an idea, Idle endlessly monologuing is pretty great; but what makes it great (oh, it’s so irritating when someone keeps droning on and on and on!) is perversely what makes it difficult to effectively use on a show like this one. As, say, performance art, it’d be fine, but as an actual sketch, eventually the tedium does set in a bit. It’s helped by the quality of the writing, but even there, the monologue is designed to be more a torrent of words around a single point than anything meant to convey a concept or tell a story with anything approaching clarity. Reading the monologue on the page, it’s impressive how much material they were able to get on the theme, but in practice, it all goes by in a rush. The bit works better later on when we leave Idle still speechifying, and then come back to him to find that he hasn’t stopped talking; it conveys the same information (he never shuts up) without forcing us to endure it ourselves

“Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses”

Premise: Anne Elk (Cleese) has been invited onto the television program Thrust to discuss her theory on brontosauruses. She does this. Eventually.

Is it, in a word, and the word that I mean, in this case, the word being, this word that I’m about to ask you about, this word that I have decided upon myself, it being a question that I am asking you myself, me and no other—funny? Decently so. Cleese’s prim, prissy vocal performance is pretty great, and it’s entertaining to watch a long build-up knowing full well that the theory, when it is actually delivered, will not be particularly impressive. (It isn’t.) But as with Idle’s monologue, there’s again that problem of getting laughs out of an irritating character without actually making that character too irritating to enjoy. Here’s another sketch with a straightforward premise, and once that premise is introduced, there’s not much else to do with it. Elk is determined to take full credit for her (very silly) theory, and she keeps insisting on this until she finally delivers the theory. She’s an obstacle, but one with limited appeal. Thankfully, this doesn’t drag out too much.

After that, there’s a bit more singing, and everything mashes together, and, well. The goofy looking man comes back one last time. I think I’d like to leave now.

Stray observations:

  • I’m trying to vary the format just to keep you all guessing. If you’d prefer one way or the other, please mention in the comments, as it’s easier for me to ignore you.

  • Idle’s name in the Travel Agency sketch is “Mr. Smoke-Too-Much.”

  • I would like to apologize here for the fact that I will not be able to cover every sketch in the following review.

“The War Against Pornography” (season 3, episode 6; originally aired 11/23/1972)

This one opens with a documentary about housewives defending the decency and moral rectitude of British society. I may be reading too much into it, but given that the Pythons were struggling with the censors by the show’s third season (Chapman’s line about “golf and animal strangling” was originally “animal strangling, golf, and masturbation.” You can tell that it was changed because the sound goes briefly out of sync.), it doesn’t seem that far a stretch to suggest a certain bitterness in this sketch; at the very least, the escalation from “making sure the boys at home keep the war effort up” to book burning has a certain bite to it.

It’s strange, though; maybe it’s the distance of time, or the vagaries of personal interpretation, but even a sequence as clearly satirical as this one (you couldn’t be more obvious what the point here was if the housewives had showed up in the end doing a chorus line of Nazi salutes) doesn’t really have a rage behind it, bitterness or no. There are sketch shows that are clearly angry about things, and some of them are great; Mr. Show springs to mind, with its brutal takedowns of show biz phoniness and stupidity. (Their riff on “Tears In Heaven,” Eric Clapton’s maudlin ode to his dead son that swept up at awards time, is merciless and deeply satisfying.) When Bob Odenkirk and David Cross took aim at something, it was very clear that they were looking to wound, maybe to kill if they could, and that never got in the way of the humor.

Monty Python, though, is a group so deeply in love with foolishness, with idiocy, with sneering and poking fun and undermining and tipping over and sticking out tongues and making fart noises, that it hardly ever feels like the group is truly upset about anything. We’ve talked about this before, but while it would be possible to construct a persona out of Flying Circus’s sketches—something educated in a specific style, into wordplay, straight male but with a willingness to explore, very British, stuck somewhere between posh and prole—it would be very difficult to ascribe a specific perspective to that persona. The archetypal Python doesn’t really believe in anything, at least not anything obvious, because having beliefs suggests that there’s something that might come before the joke. Nothing comes before the joke. (Although you could make the case that maybe something did with Life Of Brian, but we’ll get to that, please hold all questions until then.)

Case in point: after things get a bit dark with the book burning housewives, the episode jumps to that silliest of silly recurring characters, the Gumby. Palin plays a Gumby with a headache, Cleese plays a Gumby doctor, and, well, c’mon, no one needs to draw anyone a road map here. The best part of the sketch is Chapman preparing for Gumby surgery by putting on the Gumby uniform (and changing his voice accordingly), but really, either you are amused by the long stares, adenoidal voices, and handkerchiefs, or you are not. I am very much amused by them. The Pythons have all manner of silly characters, but the Gumbys have a special place in my heart, mainly for the blank faced pauses that come between every line of dialogue; unlike other stupid characters (who either don’t recognize their stupidity, or blithely ignore it), the Gumbys all seem to realize on some fundamental level that they are missing something. There’s a curious (if extremely limited) pathos in that, which makes them funnier to watch.

All right, so remember all that blathering I did above about the “Fire Brigade/Our Eamonn” sketch? “The War Against Pornography” has another seemingly-character based bit, but it’s significantly stronger, and I think it underlines quite neatly that earlier sketch’s problem. This is a slight cheat, because “Molluscs” does actually have a premise, albeit it a thin one: Cleese as a man who goes door-to-door performing live documentaries in people’s living rooms. But the scene is as much character driven as it is concept driven. Jones and Chapman play Cleese’s prospective audience, but they aren’t dressed like normal Python straight men; they’re in formal wear, with numbers on their backs (Chapman is wearing a backless dress, so his number is painted on) as though they’d just come home from a dance competition.

This is never explained. Nor does it need to be. It’s that adornment we’ve been talking about, the extra detail and strangeness that can either support an already strong sketch, or else distract from an under-cooked concept. In this case, the whole thing just comes together rather brilliantly. Each performer has distinct personality in the sketch, and those personalities work to make the premise more than just a curiosity. “Live documentary in the home” is okay by itself, but the joke only really works when it becomes clear that Cleese is very desperate to sell his work to his audience; and that said audience is not all that interested in a dry, if enthusiastically delivered, lecture about snails. “Molluscs” may have more of a premise than “Fire Brigade,” but what’s most important is that it has a character with an objective to drive the sketch. Instead of just wandering around a kind of living diorama, there’s actual tension to compel us onward. Will Cleese succeed? Yes, by turning to filthy sex talk, as one might have expected.

This kind of drive doesn’t really come up again the remainder of the episode, although there’s good material here. Nearly all of its clever, which I think is another reason why the Pythons hardly ever seem to be interested in really going after anyone or making some kind of statement of purpose. To a man, the group is deeply in love with its own cleverness; but where in lesser hands this could quickly grow insufferable, more often than not the troupe manages to turn their pleasure in being smart and quick-witted into something that the audience can appreciate as well. While the Beatles comparison is trite, it is, again, the best one I can think of off the top of my head (remember: lazy)—that feeling of nearly joyous exploration and play that comes from the best songs, and the best Python sketches. When the spark of genius isn’t there, the exploration turns indulgent and self-conscious.

Fortunately, the rest of this episode holds up well. It goes in more for the conceptually amusing than the gut-bustingly hilarious, but it’s still enjoyable to watch. Palin describing the actions of various absurdly named government officials (the Minister For Not Listening To People, others) is entertaining wordplay, and the transition TV programs, from Today In Parliament to a classic serial to a documentary to a children’s program and back and forth a bit, is, again, clever; the longer it goes on, the more off-balance the show becomes, and the more we start looking for a punchline to laugh at. That punchline is arguably in the form of the slow-motion soccer victory moments that turn into sexy times. It has nothing to do with the previous sketch, but it allows for, well, release.

The quest to find Lake Pahoe, another pseudo-documentary sketch, goes back to the realm of the diverting and amusing. Random side gags abound, from Cleese as a host who loses his leg to a bear trap and slowly turns into a pirate, to the fact that all the Navy men helming the expedition have the names of famous starlets. The pay-off for the bit is the discovery of the lake in the basement floor of an apartment house. If the visual of a middle-aged couple in a middle-aged living room that just happens to be completely submerged doesn’t do it for you, well, hopefully something else does. (I’m not a finance man, but this visual gag does seem like something that would be moderately tricky to pull off, and somewhat expensive. I believe I have just successfully demonstrated why I am not a finance man.) And the whole thing ends with a self-aware shrug, with Cleese interviewing Idle and calling him the “silliest person we’ve ever had on the programme,” and then a bit at a restaurant that abruptly ends. 

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