Judging by the contents on the Tango Entertainment DVD set, At Last The 1948 Show was a decent sketch comedy program. Produced by David Frost’s production company, the series ran for a total of 13 episodes from 1967 to 1968. Some of these episodes have been lost, or partially destroyed, and the DVD set, according to Wikipedia, is actually lifted from five compilation tapes which were originally sent to Sweden, of all places. There’s no indication of this on the DVD box, and the episodes themselves aren’t designed in such a way as you’d notice any continuity errors. The video quality on the set ranges from decent to poor, the audio is tinny, and apart from interviews with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Terry Jones (the latter of whom didn’t actually work on the series, but is presumably the only Python member Tango could find who was willing to talk), there are no extras. It’s hard to ignore how obviously the cover of the set pushes the Monty Python connection; the art is as close to a Terry Gilliam design as one could get without incurring a lawsuit.
Again: It’s a decent sketch show. Exactly how decent depends on how much you like sketch comedy, and how much you enjoy seeing performers doing work before they hit their prime. There are a few knock-out sketches, a lot of decent ones, and a handful of outright duds. Judged on its own merits, it’s fun, but far from essential. As a Python precursor, however, it’s fascinating, largely in terms of contrast. The show’s structure is consistent to the point of rigidity. Each episode is hosted by Aimi MacDonald, a bubbly blonde who introduces each sketch (without saying much about it), while encouraging viewers to appreciate her wonderfulness. So, she’s a parody of a host, but she’s still a host, and the sketches are conventional material, with beginnings, middles, and the inevitable punchline. And man, those punchlines are a mixed bag.
Take “Let’s Speak English.” It’s amusing, if slow, as each cast member (Brooke-Taylor, Marty Feldman, Graham Chapman, John Cleese—apart from MacDonald, that’s the whole ensemble) speaks simple English sentences, before building to Cleese’s manic tear across the studio. His rampage is the climax of the scene, and after it resolves (Cleese gets more money), there’s a beat, and Feldman delivers the punchline, the last sentence straight into the camera: “I am a chartered accountant. But I’m thinking of becoming a gorilla.” Which, ha-ha, oh you, what a nut and so forth. Judged as a short play, this does its job; there’s a hint of character, a conflict, and a final twist. But sketch comedy doesn’t have to work like this, and watching older sketches makes it easier to see just how important the Python approach was to the form. The punchline here is unnecessary, and it kills the momentum of the show. It allows the audience to get comfortable, to relax—okay, this is finished, now I’ll just wait for the next bit. There’s no surprise. It’s stale, predictable, sacrificing energy for the sake of doing things the way they’ve always been done. Flying Circus’s bizarre non sequiturs and stream of consciousness segues can often appear haphazard, but watching something like At Last The 1948 Show helps you appreciate how critical those changes really were.
The other contrast which jumps out at you is the difference in performance style between the (not yet) Pythons of the cast, and the rest. Feldman (who made his television debut with this show) and Brooke-Taylor were both talented comic actors, and they bring tremendous enthusiasm and energy to their work. But their approach doesn’t quite fit with how Cleese and Chapman interpret the material (all of which was written by the four men), and, as such, the group was never completely meshes over the course of these five compilation episodes. Feldman and Brooke-Taylor play to the audience; Cleese and Chapman play characters. It’s a crucial distinction, because while the former style plays better to a crowd, the latter is more effective in the long term, and easier to translate onto taped shows. It’s not just that Cleese and Chapman are subtler than the other two, although they often are. It’s that their style is more clearly in service of each sketch as a whole, whereas Feldman and Brooke-Taylor are working to milk as much laughs as they can out of every second they’re on screen. Both approaches have their place, but you can’t really combine them in the same scene; it makes for a lot of overlapping lines and clashing tones. The mugging doesn’t age very well, either, and it’s at least one of the reasons why At Last The 1948 Show comes across as decades older than Flying Circus, despite the shows being separated only by a couple of years.
“Full Frontal Nudity” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 12/7/1969)
This is one of my favorite episodes of Flying Circus, although I didn’t realize it was until I rewatched it for the review. I’ve gone through the whole show at least twice before, maybe three times, and I’ve seen the first season more times than that, but I’m rarely able to pick out specific episodes. Marathoning the show makes each separate half hour blur together, until it’s all just one massive wall of Spanish Inquisitors, Pepperpots, and British accents. But “Full Frontal Nudity” is, if not light years ahead of everything else we’ve looked at so far, a fine example of the troupe at its best. The connective tissue—here driven by the return of the Colonel, and his insistent demand that things not get too silly—keeps the sketches flowing along, re-using the same notion of almost subliminal tension we saw back in “Owl Stretching Time.” The performances are self-assured and effective. (It may help that two of the segments, “Hermits” and “Hell’s Grannies,” were shot on film.) The writing is as good as the troupe has ever been and ever would be, from the ambitiously conceptual “Buying A Bed” to the gleeful parody of “Hell’s Grannies.” I’m not sure it’s a perfect episode, as there’s a bit of a lag between the end of “The Parrot Sketch” and the start of—
Oh, right. I suppose we ought to get that one out of the way first.
“The Parrot Sketch”
Premise: A man buys a parrot. That parrot turns out to be dead. The man is not pleased, and, in order to express his displeasure, he returns to the store from whence he purchased the aforementioned corpse.
Sample line: “Pining for the fjords?”
Analysis: I can’t say with absolutely certainty what makes this particular scene so perfect—the premise, Palin’s mumbled responses to Cleese’s increasingly irate complaints, the prop parrot corpse that Cleese wields about the set like a club—but my favorite bit is Cleese’s accent. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be; Swedish, maybe? The pinched, nasal voice he uses throughout is just one detail among many, but it sets just the right note. Because the customer never seems to be actually mad. Irritated, sure. Baffled by the shop clerk’s obfuscations, definitely. But no matter how much Cleese raises his voice, there’s never any real rage in him. It transforms the sketch from being a great, but familiar “normal person struggles to come to terms with a loony” into two loonies playing a game of words. The customer has a legitimate complaint, but as the conversation goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that he’s not a regular person. He should be, the whole structure of the sketch seems to demand that he be the straight man to Palin’s comedian, but he isn’t, and that’s adds an extra layer onto everything.
Cleese got the idea for the sketch from Palin while they were working together on How To Irritate People (1969); Palin told him about a mechanic he’d known who was impossible to deal with, because he dodged every complaint with circular conversation and increasingly implausible excuses. Cleese and Chapman worked the idea into a sketch for the earlier show (and that version’s not bad), but when it came time to use the material for Flying Circus, they decided they needed a subject with more kick. Ergo, dead parrot. What’s interesting is the fact that Cleese’s peevish customer wasn’t the starting point for the scene, nor was the bird corpse—those two elements are arguably the showiest parts of the sketch, but it’s Palin’s stubborn refusal to accept the obvious that gives the bit its engine. While Cleese’s terrific performance gets most of the biggest laughs, and while the parrot adds just the right absurdist touch, you can change out each of those items for something else and still have a good, maybe even great, scene. Like, Terry Jones with a broken watch, or Chapman with a screaming accordion—either would be fine. But without Palin mumbling each denial through his cigarette, it doesn’t play.
Anyway, like I was saying, the only time the energy seems to lag in the episode is the end of “The Parrot Sketch,” which has Cleese getting the runaround from Palin. But even that is full of great bits (“But you told me it was Ipswich!” “It was a pun.”), including Cleese’s conversation with Terry Jones’ Complaint Dept., before the Colonel pops in as he does in just about every sketch this week to stop things for being too silly. It’s a closer that should get old, but never really does, largely because of Chapman’s performance. Again, like Cleese, he doesn’t come across as furious. Just stuffy and rather upset, and every time he walks into the scene the other actors all break character and look ashamed of themselves. Some of them try and argue, like at the end of the “Hermits” sketch (a filmed bit about Idle and Palin as super chatty cave dwellers), to no avail. It’s a ridiculous idea, but Chapman plays it straight, and the show reacts as though he’s for real, and that’s why it works. Speaking of working…
“Buying A Bed”
Premise: A groom and his bride try and buy a bed from a very silly department store.
Sample line: “Now I have to stand in the tea chest.”
Analysis: All I really want to say about this scene is that it’s great example of Python being terribly clever and terribly funny at the same time. Flying Circus is always a smart show, even when it’s being utterly ridiculous, but every so often the writing lets you in on just how sharp the troupe is. Sometimes it’s in a run of references or a tossed-off gag about an obscure historical figure; here, it’s in the concept of the sketch itself. Terry Jones and Carol Cleveland would like to buy a mattress—and, as they are dressed like they just came from a wedding (and since the sketch was introduced by a long sequence of Jones carrying Cleveland over a series of landscapes), they clearly really, really want to lie down. The salesmen at the store are friendly enough, but they each have a curious sort of disability. Idle multiplies every number he says by 10, but Chapman divides every number he says by three. It’s a random concept, and the sketch quickly devolves into out and out absurdity (whenever Chapman hears someone say “mattress,” he puts a bag over his head) which is just as funny, but it’s just so wonderfully tricky—it forces the viewer to puzzle out what each sentence means. Which, again, is key to the Python approach to comedy. If you’re watching something waiting for when you’re supposed to laugh, it’s harder to hit you by surprise. But if you’re trying to do math in your head, you’re just distracted enough to get caught unaware.
“The Ant, An Introduction” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 12/14/1969)
Watching the opening sketch of this (fine, excellent, generally wonderful) episode, I was struck by something—probably a brick. After I got cleaned up, I started the episode again, and, well, you couldn’t really blame me for wondering if concussion hadn’t sunk in, right? “Part 2 The Llama” is a complete goof, as Cleese does a manic Spanish rant on the glories of a certain quadruped, Jones and Idle serenade him from the corner, and Chapman shows up in a wedding dress. It’s the kind of shrill nonsense that normally dies on the vine when it pops up at the 80-minute mark of a sub-standard Saturday Night Live, but it works here, more or less. I wasn’t in hysterics, but I giggled a bit, and I wasn’t bored. It sets everything off on the right foot, it’s doesn’t run longer than it needs to, and I will never, ever get tired of seeing Cleese get that crazy gleam in his eye.
So Flying Circus is a better show than SNL, gasp, surprise, etc. There are plenty of reasons why (and it’s not really fair to compare the two that closely, given their different styles, longevity, etc), but what struck me the most watching “The Ant, An Introduction”—even harder than the brick, ha-ha—is how much mileage Monty Python gets out of the charisma of its ensemble. This should be an obvious; the group wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did, nor been as successful, if it wasn’t a bunch of guys that most people enjoyed watching do stuff. But it’s easy to overlook, because it’s something I take for granted at this point. I’ve grown up watching Cleese, Palin, Idle, Chapman, Jones, and (to a lesser extent) Gilliam do their shtick, and by now, their faces are as familiar to me as the faces of old friends or cousins I don’t see much but am rather fond of just the same. But each member of Python stands out in a crowd, or at least on a TV set, and each one is watchable and charming, even when they’re being absolutely horrible. That’s necessary, I think, for their approach to comedy to work. It’s like The Beatles; everybody wants to talk about the music, and that’s the part that will last, but one of the reasons the band was able to get so far is that you wanted to hang out with its members. You wanted to be a part of whatever it is they were in on.
Monty Python isn’t quite so inviting (there’s not a lot of footage of screaming, hysterical teenagers at their live concerts), but Flying Circus gets a lot of mileage out of the way Cleese is mesmerizing when he yells, or Jones is loveable when he’s befuddled, or Palin is someone you’d like to buy a beer. It doesn’t mean they’re nice, and it doesn’t mean the group can’t be subversive, but their inherent likeability creates a sense of trust with the audience. It stops me from rejecting a bizarre scene about llamas out of hand, in part because I know the show is bound to get up to shenanigans, and also in part because I believe the group has a reason for doing what they do, and I dig them enough to be able to enjoy seeing what happens next. The charisma can’t cover for bad writing very long, and it can’t make a bad joke funny, but it does buy each sketch a few extra seconds of cover in order to get us into the right mindset. (Side note: This is one of the reasons that The Kids In The Hall is, to me, the most consistent sketch show of all time. The Kids are likeable, but more than that, they made a likeable show—it’s fundamentally good-hearted, even in its character pieces. That makes it go down a lot easier.)
As for the actual content of this episode, it’s another great one, with a fine mix of solid sketch material and loopy transitional stuff. The “Kilimanjaro Expedition” is another one of those tremendously clever bits, about a man (Cleese) who sees everything doubled. Admittedly, that in and of itself is not all that amazing an idea, but the way the scene explores the concept and builds outward from it is very sharp. First Cleese thinks Eric Idle is two people; then, even after being corrected, he goes on to address Idle and his non-existent twin; then he talks about their planned trip to the twin peaks of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Idle repeatedly explains to Cleese that there’s only one where he’s seeing two, and Cleese always accepts this information, adjusts to it temporarily, and then promptly forgets. Chapman’s violent demonstration of his climbing technique is just icing on the cake. (This is also one of the occasional Python bits with an actual punchline; Idle storms out, Cleese asks the “other” Idle if he’s still game, and then we see there actually is another Idle, somehow.)
“The Ant, An Introduction,” also features the Lumberjack song, which I’d heard many, many times before finally getting around to watching this episode. It’s a catchy tune (Idle wrote most of the group’s numbers, so I assume he’s responsible for this one, although Palin does the singing), and one I don’t really have a lot to say about, apart from noting that it does what so much Python material does in presenting an image with certain expectations—rowdy, family-friendly singing, ruddly masculinity, guy and his girl (Connie Booth, John Cleese’s eventual ex-wife and co-writer/co-star on Fawlty Towers, making her first appearance on the show), supportive chorus—and upturning all of them. We get our first Gumby who’s actually called a Gumby in this episode, singing a stupid song; an enjoyably dark scene with Palin as a homicidal barber struggling to stop himself from killing an oblivious Jones; and while I’m not a huge fan of stretching the emcee speeches, Idle’s turn as the smarmy host of the refreshment room at Bletchley works well enough. Oh, and the film of idiot hunters is a hoot.
But what I really wanted to look at more closely is…
Premise: Graham Chapman is entertaining Carol Cleveland at home. The doorbell rings, and he makes the mistake of answering it.
Sample line: “She smells a bit, but she has a heart of gold!”
Analysis: Some sketches I admire for their razor sharp pacing and conceptual brilliance. Other sketches I love because they’re loose and shaggy and can’t be bothered to have much of a point. This would be the latter kind. At first, the set-up seems obvious: We spend enough time with Chapman and Cleveland to learn they’re respectable, polite folks who are tentatively interested in each other, and, had they been left alone long enough, would’ve most likely gotten into some really seriously heavy-duty, basically pornographic, hand-holding. Then the doorbell rings, and Eric Idle comes in, playing basically the same guy he played in “Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge.” He forces his way into the apartment, Chapman is uncomfortable, Idle is cheerfully sleazy, and, well, that makes sense. The “jerk who forces himself on people too nice to tell him to get lost” is a tried and true comedy setup. Only then Idle’s friends show up. First it’s Cleese, looking like a Frankenstein’s monster in his over-sized suit, and Jones as his shrill hag of a wife. Then Gilliam pops in wearing a cape, a spangly Speedo, and a smile. Then he brings in Palin as a goatherder. Chapman objects, Cleese shoots him, and they end the scene with a merry song. None of this exactly violates the concept I mentioned earlier, but the sketch is less about Chapman’s horrified reaction to his uninvited guests, and more about the Felliniesque assortment of freaks. When Cleese shoots Chapman, it’s shocking, but it’s almost beside the point; as the room fills up with cartoonishly outlandish weirdos, Chapman and Cleveland become less and less relevant. They don’t belong there, really. This, to me, is the heart of Monty Python (if Python can said to be had a heart beyond “anything for a laugh”): the nutters are taking over your television, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
- I really love “Hells Grannies,” too. Especially the Baby Snatchers.
- Katya Wyeth returns briefly in “Full Frontal Nudity” to basically redo her earlier sketch with Palin.
- “The Ant, An Introduction” has Cleese, dressed in his announcer suit, doing “And now for something completely different.” It’s a segue that’s going to come up again.
- I have seasonal allergies, and they seem to get worse at night. Isn’t that odd?
- Carol Cleveland doesn't get a lot of lines, but she always makes the most out of her facial expressions.
- Oh, if you’re curious about At Last The 1948 Show, a lot of the series is up on YouTube. It’s worth a look! (I especially liked “Studio Tour” and “Mice Laugh Softly.” Also check out “The Four Yorkshire Men,” as it’s a sketch Python would often do in concert.)
Next week: We tackle “Untitled” and “The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes To The Bathroom.”