The first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was about seeing what the Pythons could get away with. In The Pythons’ Autobiography, John Cleese talks about enjoying “a real sense of discovery. It’s like you want to be a painter; however, the paints haven’t arrived, there’s not much you can do. Then suddenly one day the paints turn up and you start dabbling around and you’re excited by the all the possibilities.” Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and Terry Jones had been floating around serving in various roles on the BBC, but it wasn’t until they all came together with Terry Gilliam that the whole thing finally clicked. The result, as we saw last summer, was 13 episodes of barely controlled chaos, comedy created by minds so intoxicated by inspiration that at times the momentum, the frenzy, the sheer volume of ideas tossed across the screen threatened to become overwhelming. Yet somehow, it worked. This was a new kind of sketch humor, routines that resisted the tyranny of beginning-middle-end, combined with a refusal to ever let an audience relax into the familiar.
The surprise can’t last forever, though, and heading into their second season, the Pythons faced the same challenge that faces all freshman hits: Maintaining the momentum without losing the freshness. Those first 13 episodes were also about figuring out what worked and what didn’t work, and the thrill and enthusiasm of that, the constant sense of discovery, covered over a fair bit of awkwardness. The enthusiasm remains (although not forever; this was never a series that was going to last more than a few seasons, as the Pythons are too restless, working to undermine material almost as soon as it hits the screen), but now confidence has replaced adrenaline, and the novelty has, to an extent, worn off. On shows with regular characters and an on-going storyline (whether or not those storylines are tightly serialized), there’s the benefit of having built-in story engines, and the opportunity to build off of pre-established relationships between members of the cast. Flying Circus has cast members we recognize, and bits that recur from time to time, but it largely eschews recurring sketches. Inspiration has to come from somewhere else.
If “Face The Press” and “The Spanish Inquisition” are any indication (and while I’ve seen the rest of the season multiple times, I honestly can’t remember if they are), season two of Flying Circus holds onto the energy while working toward a more fluid, less jittery, style. Both of these episodes follow the rules (or lack thereof) established in season one, but there’s also a greater sense of connectivity. In “Face The Press,” a line of gas-cooker delivery men winds and out of the background of the scene, holding together seemingly disparate material with the illusion that it all takes place in the same basic space; while in “The Spanish Inquisition,” the titular trio of crimson-clad menaces pop in when they’re least expected, a running gag that injects a sense of narrative, the first two appearances setting up a punchline that has Palin, Jones, and Gilliam racing to beat the clock of the end credits. In both cases, there’s a sense of cohesion. Earlier episodes had callbacks, but those usually brought with them an increased a confusion, an impression of a flurry of gags fighting for the same airtime. Now, it’s (slightly) more measured. There’s less white noise.
“Face The Press” (season two, episode one; originally aired 9/15/1970)
(Available on Amazon.)
Well, not exactly. White noise—or nonsense used to distract from actual meaning—is a cherished tool in the Python toolbox. Stream-of-consciousness babbling, convoluted wordplay, and a nitpicky obsession with grammatical clarity (Daffy Duck’s complaint about “pronoun trouble” wouldn’t be out of place here) are all deployed at various intervals, the absurdity overlaying a mild satire about the inanity of bureaucracy and television news. There’s a strong theme of disinformation running through the first two-thirds of “Face The Press.” The news is buried under empty theatrics; a housewife wades through Kafkaesque paperwork to process a simple delivery; and, in the episode’s most famous sketch, a government official takes the one of the simplest physical acts imaginable and embellishes it into something very, very silly.
At first glance, there’s nothing to set the “Face The Press” sketch apart from any of a dozen other BBC knockoffs in the last season. And maybe that holds true after a deeper look, but it’s interesting how the surrealism—Graham Chapman in a dress arguing with “a small patch of brown liquid”—serves some light-hearted, but pointed, satire. The program is ostensibly about conveying political discussion to the public, but any substantial debate is drowned out, first in the visual lunacy, then in Chapman’s decision to talk in a normal voice, and then in a very pitched one; not that it matters, since Eric Idle spends most of Chapman’s speech discussing his dress. As is so often the case on the show, any inherent criticism is second to the jokes. You’re supposed to be laughing at the madness, not nodding at all the insightful criticism. Yet in order for the gags to land, there has to be some kernel of truth, some recognizable intent driving the humor.
This carries over to the “NEW COOKER SKETCH” (the dramatic, movie-epic title that flashes on the screen belies the sketch’s middling, mundane focus). “Face The Press” cuts to a shot of Cleese in drag on television, the camera pulling back to reveal Terry Jones in drag (his outfit much more convincing than the others; Jones’ housewife needs to be believable for the sketch to work). “She” answers the door, sees a lunatic on the doorstep, and realizes she’s in the wrong house. The disinformation continues: No one’s in the right place, sketches seem ready to go off before fizzling and the focus shifting in a different direction. Mrs. Pinnet (Jones) changes houses (and the episode takes the time to watch her climb over the backyard fence), and Palin and Chapman show up with a new gas cooker. The only problem: The cooker is addressed to a street that doesn’t exist, and to the wrong name. Anyone who’s ever dealt with confusing paperwork and labyrinthian company regulation will have some understanding of what Mrs. Pinnet goes through, as more and more delivery men show up, and less and less gets done. Finally, on Palin’s advice, she resorts to suicide by gas to ensure quick service.
It’s a sketch that’s more intellectually entertaining than gut-busting, as the strings of convoluted technical detail blur together quickly. Thankfully, the visual gag of the ballooning number of brown-coated officials trailing out into the street keeps things moving, leading into Eric Idle’s frustrated attempts to pick up porn in a local shop run by Jones. It’s a one note bit that doesn’t overstay its welcome, playing off the difficulty of acquiring pornographic material in the U.K. Idle reads postcards off a bulletin board, hoping each one is code for wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. The phrases he picks get more innocuous as the sketch goes on, starting in the easy to misconstrue “small white pussy for sale. Excellent condition,” and ending on “Blood donor.” For once, the group goes for an obvious punchline; when Jones hands Idle the real card, he reads off “Blonde prostitute will indulge in any sexual behavior for 4 quid a week,” without any clue what it means.
All this is just prelude, however, to one of the quintessential Python routines, a bit that also stands as one of the troupe’s few forays into overtly physical comedy. “The Ministry Of Silly Walks” ostensibly fits in with the “obscurity over clarity” idea that drove the previous sketches. It’s buried a little, but it comes up in chief official Cleese’s speech to prospective Silly Walker Palin; Cleese is bemoaning the Ministry’s lack of funding, but £348 million a year sounds likes an awful lot of money for a department whose sole purpose is taking something straightforward and making it needlessly (if hilariously) baroque. And yet that point is lost in the undeniable power of Cleese’s majestic, stork-like gesticulations. Last season, the Pythons didn’t always get the effect they were going for with their material, as audiences, slightly baffled, worked to keep up. With season two, the viewers finally caught up to the style, and for the most part, the laughs land where they’re supposed to.
Not always, though, and any attempt at a gag in “The Ministry Of Silly Walks” that isn’t simply Cleese jerking around the set is doomed before it really gets going. In some cases, that’s just the writing falling flat; Cleese’s brief exchange with his secretary ends with an “out of her mind” that’s clearly supposed to earn a chuckle, but falls on deaf ears—the joke is too over-thought (Cleese is calling her a loony for calling him “Mr. Teabag” right after he called her “Mrs. Two Lumps”) to hit the nerve endings, especially when there’s so much more obvious humor on display. (“Overly conceptual” is one of Pythons’ big pitfalls, largely because the difference between “brilliantly funny” and “too brilliant to be funny” is very, very thin.) Other gags, like Cleese’s aforementioned speech, the one that arguably serves as the whole point of the scene, are drowned out entirely. There’s a script here, and other actors, and a nice bit about spilt tea, but all that really matters is Cleese’s mincing, skipping, dancing perambulation. (Note how nobody else is even close to as good at this as he is. There’s a characteristic precision to his performance that would go on to make Basil Fawlty one of the best sitcom protagonists of all time.) The intensity of the audience reaction is telling, because it’s an exception to the rule; for once, the Pythons’ got a bigger response than they planned on.
“Face The Press” ends with the long-form “Piranha Brothers” sketch, about a pair of ruthless criminals who hold London in their nightmarish grip through a combination of a violence, head-nailing, and violence. Communication difficulties come up here, between the wrong-way microphone exchange (Jones interviews Chapman, never pointing the mic in the direction of the person who’s talking), and the Piranhas’ attempt to come up with an effective extortion method. Between Chapman’s seedy, mumble-voiced con and Idle’s glad-handing desperation, this is a fine section of ensemble work, and the way it ultimately ends the episode, with Dinsdale Piranha’s dreaded nemesis, Spiny Norman (a giant hedgehog), peering over the line of delivery men still queuing outside Mrs. Pinnet’s house, makes for a suitable conclusion.
- Terry Jones’ police detective-cum-actor gives us a nice sight gag of Jones in various theatrical costumes; it also leads to a bit about campy backstage coppers that plays on a joke (authority figures as effeminate caricatures) the troupe will re-use later in the season.
- Another, not quite successful moment: Chapman’s crazed psychologist in “Piranha Brothers,” describing Dinsdale’s madness while barely restraining his own urges. It doesn’t hurt the episode, but it’s sort of fascinating to see a bit like this, understand what the gag is, and realize it just doesn’t play like it’s supposed. The problem is Chapman doesn’t manage enough distinction between the character’s two settings; without a stark differentiation between “sane, boring type” and “raving loony,” the humor falls flat.
“The Spanish Inquisition” (season two, episode two; originally aired 9/22/1970)
(Available on Amazon.)
Forgot to mention: The opening of the first episode used both the It’s Man and the Something Completely Different Announcer. “The Spanish Inquisition,” follows suit, but the main joke of the cold open is Jones’ disastrous attempt at a flying machine (nice use of camera angles), which—eh? Look, I don’t know why they changed it. I’m assuming they ran of the ideas for the It’s Man that week, it doesn’t have to be a conspiracy. There’s not a deeper meaning in everything. I don’t have all the answers. Look, I just came here to write a damn review, I didn’t expect some kind of…
Yeah, yeah, stop rolling your damn eyes. Had to get it out of my system at some point. And let’s be honest: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” was a meme before the word “meme” even existed. It’s one of the Pythons’ signature bits, a sketch that has gone beyond its origins to become a catchphrase spouted by spotty nerds the world over. It’s hard to imagine watching the episode now without knowing what’s coming when Chapman lays down the setup; the two lines (“I didn’t expect”/”Nobody expects”) form a kind of “Shave And A Haircut” style call and response, impossible to resist, boiling a joke down to its barest components. As always with popular routines, there’s a chance that the repetition could rob the exchange of its humor, and it’s true that simply shouting “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” at every remotely appropriate opportunity isn’t going to win you any friends. But then, part of the gag is that line is supposed to feel familiar. It gets used multiple times over the course of the episode (hardly the usual), and the gag is a riff on seeing such a dour, violent, and loathsome organization reduced to ineffectual mustache twirlers, cartoon villains from a children’s show.
The choice of actors for the nefarious trio is key: With Chapman, Idle, and/or Cleese in the roles, the effect would invariably be more authoritarian, or, at the very least, more overtly slimy. But Michael Palin’s so disarmingly nice that his attempts to make it through his introductory spiel (constantly having to edit his remarks as he remembers more detail; again, communication difficulties, this time from a group who serve largely to interrupt other people’s conversations) are instantly endearing. Unlike Mr. Hilter from last season, Cardinal Ximénez (once assumed to be the man responsible for establishing the Inquisition’s most heinous offenses) is a loveable goof, and his attempts at torturing the innocent never get beyond mild inconvenience. The trio returns again and again, and it’s always delightful to see them because the characters are clearly defined. As Ximénez, Palin is the impotent, intensely frustrated, and repeatedly thwarted by his ineptitude and the ineptitude of his men. Jones’ Biggles (wearing red robes and an aviator cap) is the typical Jones straight man, eager to help but not quite bright enough to manage it. Gilliam hams it up as Fang, the Animal of the bunch. (“THE COMFY CHAIR!”) The catchphrase is memorable, but what makes the sketch linger is the internal logic, the sense of reality that brings the idiots to life. It’s not a cutaway gag. It has texture.
“The Spanish Inquisition” is one of my favorite Flying Circus episodes (so much so that I used it as an introduction to the series in my Gateway To Geekery column on the show; I’m probably going to repeat myself). Even taking out the Spanish Inquisition segments, there’s a lot of great stuff; the “let’s remind everyone that this is a sketch show” material returns with a vengeance after the first Inquisition sketch, as Cleese’s BBC man asks for Chapman’s everyman to help the show by answering a door in a sketch. It’s a fantastic conceptual gag that works because the sketch Chapman is facilitating is actually a pretty good one—Idle running through a long list of increasingly horrid practical jokes (“Breaks the ice at parties!”; also, note how part of the joke here is that we never hear the sketch’s punchline). There’s an elegance to how the transition works that, unlike much of last season, suggests a kind of persistent universe. Cleese picks up Chapman from the Inquisition scene, and drives him to the next segment, chatting about the madness of it all as Chapman sticks with his regular guy persona. One can almost imagine an entire episode from his perspective, bouncing from bit to bit, a little like the lead in Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare. He even faces a similar fate, getting his head cut off in the service of the episode’s larger agenda.
A brief, amusing sketch about sex taxation follows, simultaneously demonstrating the limits and advantages of resisting standard structure: The lack of a traditional beginning-middle-end for the scene (it putters around for a bit, then cuts to some man-on-the-street interviews that feature the Gumby, that dopey doofus with a handkerchief hat) means it doesn’t have much impact, but because the Pythons are free to move on as soon as they feel finished with a concept, there’s no tiresome dragging out of an unpromising idea. There follows another Inquisition sketch, this one longer than before, culminating in an old lady getting some nice pillows. And this (after a quick Gilliam animation interlude) leads into “The Semaphore Version Of Wuthering Heights.”
Some sketches rely on the performances to work; others benefit from the show’s innovative format. “The Semaphore Version Of Wuthering Heights” is an example of high-concept brilliance, an idea so innately, irresistibly hilarious that it would’ve taken effort to fuck it up. And of course they don’t. The iterations of the original idea are great (“Julius Ceasar On An Aldis Lamp” is the best of these), but nothing ever tops those shots of Heathcliff and Catherine signaling their love over mountaintop via flag gesture. Or the governess signaling “Shh!” to a baby signaling “Waah.. Waaah..” Carol Cleveland comes out the winner of the performances, stone-facedly indicating her heartbreak with the kind of intense sincerity that only makes the flag movements more incongruous.
Before the episode’s final appearance from the Inquisition, we get a long-ish court scene that mixes in a charades segment and some goofy stuff about clashing, catty judges. Courtrooms are a Flying Circus staple, and while this one never quite peaks, it’s full of enough enjoyable business that it doesn’t drag. The charades are yet another example of the troupe’s love of information-through-obscurity; note Chapman’s judge’s comment on how you “can’t find someone Not Esther Williams!” It’s a funny line, but the joke isn’t just laughing with the judge’s observation—there’s also the fact that he’s smart enough to point out one obvious fact, but so locked into the routine of the game that he fails to recognize there are very few appropriate words you can find someone “not” in court.
And finally, there’s the payoff to the Inquisition runner, as for the first time in the episode, someone mentions the Spanish Inquisition without the immediate appearance of Ximénez and his team. It’s another favorite Python tool, and one that, interestingly enough, defines a lot of modern storytelling: the subversion and frustration of expectations. As the credits roll, the Inquisitors rush to the scene, the cardinal commenting worriedly over the names passing on the screen in front of them (is this the first time characters on the show commented on the credits? Fitting, considering the Chapman door-opening sketch earlier), and then, finally, at the moment of their greatest triumph, a crash cut to black with the words “THE END” shutting down the episode over Ximénez’s curses. After establishing the call-and-response, and ingraining its rigid structure in the audience’s head with deft efficiency, the final gag is on us, a reminder than the troupe are still able to surprise. There’s no resolution, no satisfaction. Just an abrupt cut-off that nobody expects.
- Another “call attention to the artifice” moment: the subtitle of “Diabolical Laughter” over diabolical laughter, and “Diabolical Acting” over, well, y’know.
- A two person body count this week for Bureaucracy. Paperwork is deadly!
- “I would tax Raquel Welch. And I’ve a feeling she’d tax me.”—The It’s Man. (With a joke that wouldn’t be out of place on The Benny Hill Show.)
In two weeks: We experience “Deja Vu” and enjoy “The Buzz Aldrin Show,” and I (hopefully) come up with something interesting to say about Terry Gilliam.