Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Dennis Moore”/“A Book At Bedtime”
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John Cleese
John Cleese

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Dennis Moore”/“A Book At Bedtime”

The Gathering Storm

A word, then, about language. About eloquence. About loquacious, effusive, articulate, exuberant pontification. About particular paragraphs, sententious sentences, nattering nouns, voluminous verbiage. About—oh hell, you get the point, and I’m not good enough at my job to keep this up any longer. Which is probably one of the many (many, many) reasons I’m not a comedy writer; or at least, why I’m not an all-time genius comedy writer like the members of Monty Python were. Are. Whom. What?

Watching Flying Circus, one’s first impulse is to focus on the most obvious: the costumes, the premises, Gilliam’s animations, the constant digressions, the silly walks, and so on. This is only proper. Language can draw attention to itself, but not on a regular basis, and the writing voice of Python is very consistent; there’s a showiness to the group’s expansive vocabulary, but that showiness is such an integral part of the humor that it’s paradoxivally easy to overlook. After a minute or two watching, you just expect everyone to say very silly things in a very smart way, which makes it funnier, and that’s about that.

Really, though, it’s worth taking a moment to marvel at just how effective the troupe is at using English (among other languages) to enhance, or at times even make, jokes. This week’s first episode goes out of its way to draw attention to that effectiveness, with a sketch involving Eric Idle as a synonym spouting Pepperpot whose monologues eventually lead to a placard full of words being dangled from the ceiling, inviting the audience to shout along with each exasperated burst of, um, speaking stuff. (dammit) It’s a random bit in a sea of random bits—the sketch is another vague situational run where the closest thing to a premise (a visit from Terry Jones as a thoroughly sketchy physician) isn’t really enough to support the entire scene. But it still works because the unmoored absurdity seems to build organically (Idle and Chapman are having a conversation in a living room), and because the individual gags are good.

One of those individual gags being, again, Idle going off. The script does a good job of establishing Idle’s volubility before drawing attention to it for deconstructional purposes, but I suspect the material would’ve played well enough even if it hadn’t; the Pythons have, to a certain extent, established personas by this time in the show’s run, and while those personas aren’t restrictive, they enhance humor like this which is helped by our knowledge of Idle’s work in past sketches. Cleese or Palin could’ve done the same bit and it would been okay, but Idle is the One Who Talks Too Much. There’s something perpetually unctuous about the man—not in the daffy, charming way Palin has, or Jones’s Badger-like plodding, but slimier, greasier, gabbier. Where Cleese would cut you off at the knees with a devastating, perfectly crafted retort, Idle would bury you in superfluity.

All of which means that when the show starts to mock itself for the absurd lengths it will go with with a thesaurus, Idle is an exceptionally good target for the gag. But it’s not as though he’s the sole mouthpiece for the Python love of grandiose terminology. There’s also the long-running sketch that gives the episode its title. “Dennis Moore” focuses on Cleese’s well-meaning, but not particularly gifted, Robin Hood-type. His bigger monologues tend to be endlessly digressive attempts at clarification—less a joke about smashing in as many obscure words as possible, and more a riff on the Zeno’s Paradox-esque nature of accurate description, how each effort to perfectly capture a concept or visual in words can inadvertently serve to remind one of the fundamental impossibility of expressing just about anything with absolute clarity.

There are also the rich fops played by Jones and Palin, who rattle on about the history of the period until Moore swings through a window, first to rob them of their lupins, then to take away all their actual valuables. So call it a third form of language-loving: providing excessive knowledge in a scene that doesn’t call for it. Python sketches are full of characters ranting with impressive specificity about, well, nearly everything, although generally it centers on the sort of information that an especially keen university student might have picked up over the course of his education. These rants provide a level of subtle but undeniable authority to the material. It’s not just any only clown fucking around on-camera. It’s an educated clown, and that makes his foolishness all the funnier.

But there’s another level to all this which is less about humor (although that’s always relevant), and more about the simple pleasure of the craft of writing. Take, for example, the Parrot Sketch. Imagine the following exchange:

Customer: Excuse me! Excuse me.

Clerk: Yes?

Customer: This bird you sold me is dead.

Clerk: No it’s not.

Customer: Yes, it clearly is.

Clerk: Isn’t.

Customer: It’s lying on the bottom of it’s cage, and it isn’t breathing.

Clerk: It’s sleeping.

Customer: Well, no matter how much I scream, it never wakes up. It’s dead.

Clerk: It’s a bird that sleeps very soundly. Hard to wake up a bird that sleeps like that.

Customer: But it isn’t sleeping. It’s dead.

Clerk: No it isn’t.

Customer: Yes, it is. It’s dead. It’s very dead. It’s very, very, very dead.

Clerk: It isn’t.

Customer: Yes, it is.

Clerk: You’re wrong.

Customer: No, I’m not.

And so on and so forth. It’s still possible for this to be funny, I think; I exaggerated the banality to make a point, but some slight tweaks and a pair of gifted comic actors could find ways to underline the bizarre nature of the situation, and keep an audience from changing the channel in bored disgust. But it doesn’t really sing, does it. It’s all so blandly, bluntly functional, a Mamet play without the masculine rage, a Pinter exchange without the nightmarish subtext.

I won’t quote the real Parrot Sketch in its entirety, since I don’t really need to (and I doubt the editors would appreciate me padding out my word count in such an obvious, unnecessary, pointless, unexceptional, predictable, tedious, perfunctory, monotonous, meaningless, gratuitous, redundant, unneeded, excessive, expendable, can you believe Kelsey Grammar is going to be in that movie kind of way). But just look at this brief speech from Cleese that pops up about halfway through the scene:

Mr. Praline: ‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

Putting aside the silly name (which was presumably only invented to amuse the Pythons themselves, since it never comes up in the sketch itself), and the dialect Cleese uses throughout, that’s a marvel of a mouthful, a series of increasingly elaborate ways to establish that most unavoidable of facts: the bird is dead. Cleese’s emphatic, strained performance helps to make each fresh idiom into an impotent assault against an unknowing (or rather, uncaring) opponent—but while that escalation adds to the humor, there’s also an unfettered glee in the run itself, in hearing that many different, baroque ways of describing an avian migration into the final frontier. It’s the spice that makes the sauce all the better, and that spice is constantly being put to use by the group. Their grasp of English affords them chances to exploit the inconsistencies and contradictions of grammar, but also to allow their characters modes of expression which are at once in jarring contrast to their situations, and, even divorced from context, utter aesthetic joy.

There’s a reason people quote Monty Python. Okay, there are multiple reasons, and one of those reasons is that Python quotes are a quick geek recognition system—if you can shout “We are the Knights Who Say Ni” at someone, and have that someone say “Ni!” back (or mention shrubbery), you know you have at least one point of reference in common. But another reason for the quotes is the pure pleasure of the language. “We are the Knights Who Say Ni!” is a simple (if silly) phrase, but it rolls off the tongue quite nicely—and if you look at Cleese’s monologue quoted above, you’ll see it does much the same. There’s a poetry in this. It’s easy to overlook, but it’s there, and without it, you wouldn’t laugh as hard at the jokes, or remember them so easily.

“Dennis Moore” (season 3, episode 11; originally aired 1/4/1973)

For some reason, I’ve always thought the Dennis Moore sketch was in the fourth season. I realize this is impossible, since Cleese had left the show by then, and the sketch revolves around his lead performance; but it’s one of those long-form pieces that I tend to associate with the end of the series’ run, rather than the beginning. (But then, we are nearing the end, aren’t we? We might even finish this summer, provided the penguin on my computer doesn’t explode.) (It’s a laptop. He’s very uncomfortable.)

“Dennis Moore” isn’t a long form sketch like “Cycling Tour” or even last week’s epic Sgt. Gaskell saga. It is, in fact, a series of four regular length pieces which, when added together, form a coherent story. That’s not all that unusual for the show, but it’s striking just how, well, coherent the whole thing is. Filling in a few of the blank spots and the concept could’ve easily filled the entire episode; as is, it exists in this strange nether world between a full-on comic story, and a series of sketch concepts grouped together under a theme.

Gah, that’s not quite right. “Dennis Moore” is very definitely a story. The singing chorus that comments on the action (commentary which climaxes in the moment when the singers call Moore a “stupid bitch,” a criticism he both hears and takes immediately to heart) gives the sketches a feeling of a corny old-fashioned adventure serial, providing the name “Dennis Moore” with the instant authority necessary for the parody to work. Because this is a parody—Moore’s actions are modeled after good old Robin Hood, and the aristocrats he plunders gives the whole thing a vague sort of Scarlet Pimpernel-vibe. For it to be funny, there needs to be a sense of authenticity, and the chorus, costuming, and outdoor filming work together to make that happen.

So it’s authentic, and it fits together logically enough (Moore steals lupins; Moore realizes lupins aren’t really a pressing need for the average starving peasant; Moore steals everything from the rich and gives it to the poor, who then become rich; Moore decides to take a more balanced approach to distributing wealth); but it doesn’t feel quite complete, and not just in that disruptive, “We don’t do punchlines” kind of way that Python so regularly embraces. Maybe that’s the problem, really. It’s a perfectly fine bunch of sketches, and I’ll always have a soft spot for narrative in comedy, but the whole thing seems to end on a shrug. It’s funny to see Moore carefully trying to split everyone’s money equally (and Cleese’s exasperation when someone tries to keep their cash hidden is great), but it all feels a bit obvious and conventional in a way that Python usually avoids.

Really, the most inspired part of the sketch is the initial reveal that Moore is fixated on lupins. There’s no explanation for it, which is why it works so well; the fact that Moore turns out to be a surprisingly sane, entirely well-meaning chap for the rest of the sketch means that there just aren’t any surprises left. Maybe there’s some buried social commentary that makes it more clever, but on the whole, it’s a series of diminishing returns. The story is enough to keep it alive, but the innovation, the anarchy, the intensity that’s the hallmark of the greatest Flying Circus scenarios just isn’t there.

The rest of the half hour is a mixture of more abstract material and segues; for once, the Pythons make an effort to find different routes back into the “Dennis Moore” sequences. Probably the most memorable of these sketches is the Ideal Loon Exhibition—there’s something a bit familiar about the concept, in that it harkens back to the Upperclass Twit of the Year sequence, but the various flights of absurdity are more pronounced, and stand well enough on their own. The pieces loses something by not having any actual target, though; unlike the Twit of the Year, or even, say, the Ministry of Silly Walks, this just comes across as a generic “Here’s a bunch of foolishness.” Thankfully, few groups could manage foolishness with the aplomb the Pythons bring to the material, so it works out okay.

“A Book At Bedtime” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired 1/11/1973)

This week’s second episode is going to get shortchanged, I’m afraid, as I appear to have spent quite a lot of time talking about words and Dennis Moore, and am now tired and out of those things with the letters in them that you use to convey information and win book deals. Besides, “A Book At Bedtime” doesn’t offer a lot of opportunities for discussion (he said conveniently). The title sketch, which parodies an actual program that sounds like it was kind of adorable and comforting, has various Pythons struggling to read through a novel whose words and phrases they continually mis… miss… mis-prah… masprona… mispronounce! Mispronounce. It’s a fun bit that pops up a few times over the course of the half-hour, but it’s not particularly surprising; as with Dennis Moore, once you get the gist, you get the sketch. Thankfully in this case, the joke is intended more as a momentary disruption than as anything substantial, and it serves its purpose just fine.

(I wonder, too, if my standards for “surprising” have grown too high. If so, that’s probably at least in part a function of writing these reviews; after a while, you start flailing a bit for something to say that isn’t just “Gosh, that was funny, and those boys sure are swell,” and, entirely subconsciously I assure you, you start to look too hard for points of potential critique. But more interestingly, there’s also the fact that Monty Python was so effective at the unexpected that after a while, one starts to, well, expect it. Subversion and disruption are activities which are difficult to sustain convincingly over long periods of time; eventually, the shocking becomes routine, and even more damagingly, the audience starts to anticipate a certain level of surprise. The unconventional becomes the convention, and what was once revolutionary seems quaint, predictable, and, most tragically, formulaic. Python was never solely about shock, as the majority of their best sketches feature comic writing and performances so rock solid they’d be appreciated in any era, but in order for the troupe to be its most effective, the sense of innovation needs to be keen. At Flying Circus’s peak, it felt like a show that was being beamed into televisions from some imaginable future, and while the sets, costumes, and references have dated, that intoxicating strangeness remains timeless. These later episodes aren’t bad—in fact, they’re quite often brilliant. But like it or not, conventionality has set in. The Pythons haven’t changed to fit expectations, but expectations have changed to fit them; and while that’s a triumph, it’s hard to escape the feeling that something vital has slipped away. Maybe when people talk about “hipsters” turning on bands that become too famous, that’s actually what they mean—it isn’t about wanting to stay with what’s barely cool, but just wanting to hold onto that elusive, intoxicating sensation of being on the edge of something new. You get closer and closer to that edge, and you’re astonished at how sharp it is, and how mundane the world looks beyond it. But then the edge passes you without you realizing it, the song is on every radio station, and people keep throwing dead parrot jokes into crummy TV reviews, and the moment is gone.)

The episode’s other main runner is an abbreviated military adventure story about kamikaze Scotsmen and secret Russian military plans. As stories go, it’s even less developed than “Dennis Moore” was, but it does offer us the chance to see Chapman flailing about in a kilt, desperate to kill himself, and if that isn’t good for a laugh, I’m not sure what the point of anything is. 

Then there’s a digression about the phrase “no time to lose” which gains points for conceptual weirdness, even if it never entirely comes off. Cleese uses the phrase in conversation with Jones, and Jones claims to have never heard it before, which is funny enough, although more in a “huh” way than something that would provoke serious laughter. The troupe than doubles down on the idea, showing Palin visiting the “No Time To Lose Advice Center,” where an over-eager Idle offers tips on proper use of the phrase whilst throwing out visual reminders of it at every possible opportunity.

At the risk of sounding heretical, this doesn’t work. The performers give it their all (Idle is especially determined to wring every possible laugh out of the situation), but there’s something at once too abstract and too contrived about the routine for it to land. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or just a matter of personal taste (always a problem this time of year), but the premise is so thin that it can’t carry the weight it needs to; “no time to lose” either needed to be a more conventional, mundane phrase, or else it needed to be something entirely obscure, to justify this sort of attention. As is, I found myself appreciating the concept of what was happening while not being able to get much out of it, and that’s rarely a good thing. (On the plus side, the bit does lead into Gilliam’s animation of “No Time Toulouse,” which is great.)

Let’s see, what else can I cram in here before I inevitably leave out some very obvious material so you’ll have something to talk about in comments… There’s a sketch about an institute of tennis-based scientists investigating the limits of the penguin brain that isn’t bad, although as with the “No time to lose” bit, there’s a definitely sense of two sticks being rub fervently together without managing to produce a spark. Maybe that’s the real separation between a good and a great Monty Python sketch: something can be carefully plotted out and ably executed, but there needs to be something in it that catches, beyond simply acknowledging that “Oh my, that’s a silly idea.” And given how much time the group spends on the outer rim of sanity, it’s inevitable that there’d be misfires—and not even painful misfires, either, just material that’s good-but-not-great, writing that only really suffers in comparison.

Thankfully, the weather changes so quickly around here that if you wait long enough, things are bound to improve. Like: while I love the “unexploded Scotsman” gag that ends the military adventure, my favorite scene from the episode is the battle of the dueling announcers. It’s just such a perfect bit of childishness: Cleese begins narrating a scene, and Palin asks to borrow his microphone. Because he’s British, Cleese hands the mic over, and Palin starts his own narration on a completely different subject. Cleese tries to get the mic back, first begging, and then ultimately resorting to violence. A car chase ensues. The public remains woefully uninformed about mountains.

The whole sequence caught me off guard; TV presenters have long been a favorite Python target, and the mixture of pompous adulthood and little-boys-playing-keepaway is wonderfully funny. It’s a sketch built off characters with strong objectives, and the escalation is just right—from low-key “wait, what?”, to full-blown madness. And just watching the way Cleese and Palin play off each other is a delight. Cleese’s peevish “give it backs” might even be funnier than the actual climax—watching a full-grown man (and a nominally authoritative one at that) whining like a five year-old who lost his favorite racing car is just perfect. (And the stunt work during the car chase is impressive stuff; it’s hard to tell on the DVDs, which have all the visual snap of a super 8 film projected onto rushing water, but it looks like actual Pythons nearly getting themselves killed.)

Stray observations:

  • TODAY IN SUBTLE CLASS COMMENTARY: Palin and Jones play both the impoverished peasants and the snooty upper-class snobs in “Dennis Moore.” Time is a flat circle.

  • Apparently, there’s a sketch at the beginning of “A Book At Bedtime” that was cut out from the A&E DVD release. (This would also explain why there’s no naked organist in the episode’s intro, just the Announcer and It’s Man.) I’ve read the sketch—a goof on a politician trying to master giving a speech with choreography—and it doesn’t read like a missing classic; but I’m curious why it was omitted.

  • Oh, I didn’t talk about the Racism game show. It was funny. And there was racism.

  • “Morning, Mrs. Trepidatious.” “I don’t know what’s good about it.”

  • A Sketch I Almost Wish Had Gone On Longer: Idle, in a shop, going off with the flowery language—”I’m afraid I’ve caught poetry.” And Cleese replies that he had short stories once. Who hasn’t, really. I remember once, my father and I took a long drive into the countryside, and with the car running low on gas, we pulled off at a small convenience store. While he was filling up the tank outside, I went into the store to pick out a soda; the light was dimmer inside, and it took me a second to adjust, and once I did, I saw shelves of dusty, past-their-sell-by date cans of pasta and meat byproducts with names that sounded like they should be familiar, but weren’t—the letters were English, the words were readable, but everything left a taste in your mouth just by looking at it, the way some sounds smell like cheeses. Anyway, they didn’t have any sodas I liked, and when I got back to the car, Dad asked me for gas money, and since I didn’t have any, he made me ride home on the elephant. Wait, I think I actually caught dreams.

  • Spot The Looney just seems like a variation on the Ideal Loon Exhibition, doesn’t it? I’m as much a fan of surrealism as I am a fan of surrealism, but this sort of thing needs to be specifically random to work, I think. Not just “alright, let’s pull out the goofy stick again.”

  • THE END

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