- The logo that opens the show is for Thames Television, the third U.K. channel at the time Flying Circus was airing. For me, it makes me think of watching Danger Mouse and Count Duckula on Nickelodeon when I was growing up; a semi-random association that nevertheless seems appropriate. (The TV presenter who introduces the show, David Hamilton, was a TV presenter.)
Here we are… at the end… of a season… and perhaps also… an era… of a certain quality… which can only be expressed… through a frustrating… overuse of ellipsis… and a straining… of a premise. Here we are at the final episode of Flying Circus’s third season, and also at the last time the show would boast, in its entirety, the full complement, to the last man, of the complete set, as it were, as it would have been, and as it would one day be again but not in this own particular context, but we will not see such days again, unless we do, at which time we will be the first to recognize them, and blow the horn of good fortune, it being, as ever, the the grail of our, as it were, lives.
Gosh, that gives me a headache. Anyway:
“Grandstand (The British Showbiz Awards)” (season 3, episode 13; originally aired 1/18/73)
This is it, folks—the last Flying Circus with a full complement of Pythons. After this episode John Cleese is gone, departed, absent, not present, exiting stage left, and if “The Golden Age Of Ballooning” is any indication, we will miss him for the remaining six episodes of the show’s run. (Fortunately this all has a happy ending, because I paid the masseuse a bit extra. No! It’s because the whole group will be reunited for their films, and most of those films are excellent, and we also know John Cleese went on to do a great many other funny things, and it’s okay, you should really stop crying now, I promise we’ll find you another puppy.) Thankfully “Grandstand” is excellent. There’s a consistently funny framing device that strikes the right balance between useful structure and escalating absurdity, and there are clever sketches throughout that walk the thin line oh damn, I already used the word “between.” Anyway, it’s good stuff.
Let’s start with “The British Showbiz Awards!,” a brutal satire of the effusive sentimentality and pompous phoniness that underlines so much of show business’s efforts to aggrandize itself. This is the sketch that will provide the episode’s connective tissue, as Eric Idle’s babbling, agonizingly effusive host (“Dickie Attenborough,” a pretty vicious takedown of Richard Attenborough’s soppiness) guides us through a number of major awards, many of which just happen to have nominees which just happen to have sketches in them. It’s a bit that could’ve come across as overly designed or precious, were it not for the fact that it seems possible at any moment for the Awards ceremony to become so unhinged it simply flies away, never to return.
- Lemon curry?
Take, f’r instance, the escalation of Idle and his tears. The most obvious gag with the character (apart from obvious bald-cap, which doesn’t match Idle’s skin tone even in the sub-par A&E print) is his nonsensical excess of sycophancy; every introduction he gives, regardless of the subject, is a barrage of word soup—as though someone dumped standard awards puffery into a blender, and what came out was something almost, but not exactly, like human speech. The effect is as much baffling as it is funny (although that’s rarely a downside for the Pythons), and suits Idle to a tee. As well, it helps to make the satire aspect of the sketch even more vicious, as Dickie’s commentary is so utterly vapid he can’t even be bothered to speak in coherent sentences.
But the tears, right? The tears. Everything else, while I hesitate to call it straightforward, at least springs obviously from the premise. But at some point in the first scene, Idle starts dabbing his eyes with what appear to be lemon wedges; it’s easy to miss, so much so that at first, I wasn’t sure I was even seeing what I thought I saw seeing. Then some stagehands wheel out an urn full of “the late Sir Alan Waddle” to announce the nominees for the first award, and I forgot about the wedges entirely.
The next time we cut back to the awards show, Idle has ropes of garlic around his neck. At one point, he starts dabbing tears into his eyes with a medicine dropper. And finally, he’s wearing a kind of crying machine with spigots coming out on both sides of his head. The initial joke—the presenter trying to manufacture the illusion of overwhelming rapture and joy—gets overwhelmed itself in the progression, until it’s not even recognizably human anymore. Python’s commitment to absurdism (which comes up throughout the showbiz sketch; in addition to Waddle’s ashes, David Niven’s refrigerator also pops up) almost always supercedes any effort at pointed commentary. You get the sense that the group hates phonies and authority, but they’re much more interested in finding fertile targets, and then using those targets as a scaffold to hold together the humor.
- Pasolini was killed just over a year and a half after this episode aired. He was run over several times by a car.
Like, say, the Oscar Wilde sketch. Now, Oscar Wilde’s presence here is important. He’s played by Chapman, which is a pretty good in-joke, but more importantly, the sketch is about a battle of wits, and having Wilde around provides a kind of entrance into that premise. He throws out one of his more famous quotes (“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,”) and for a brief period, it looks like the Pythons are going to beat the Kids In The Hall to the punch by a good decade on the famed playwright’s probable insufferability; anyone who walks around talking like they hope Bartlett is in earshot is going to get tiresome fast.
But the sketch takes a turn when Cleese, as the painter James Abbott Mcneill Whistler (also known for his cutting wit), steps in, and the troupe references a famous exchange between the two men: Whistler rephrases one of Wilde’s jokes, Wilde says, “I wish I’d said that,” and Whistler shoots back, “You will, Oscar, you will.” So then the two men start to spar (just like in real life!), throwing insulting phrases at the Prince of Wales, pretending the other man’s responsible, and forcing that other man to come up with a positive interpretation of the phrase. Eventually George Bernard Shaw (Palin) gets pulled in.
The way this is all put together uses the Python’s grasp of historical incident as a starting point, taking a well-known anecdote and using the specificity of that anecdote as a launching point for, well, “Your Majesty is like a stream of bat’s piss.” You look at it backwards, and it’s almost like someone was trying to win a bet; the fact that Shaw manages to extricate himself from the situation (“I merely meant, Your Majesty, that you shine like a shaft of gold when all around is dark.”) just makes the whole thing feel even more like a game someone’s playing on us. And just when you think you know the rules, the game changes. Shaw gets stuck with an unfixable insult, gives the room a raspberry, everyone laughs, and we cut back to Dickie.
All that historical info works to make “bat’s piss” (and “Your Majesty is like a dose of the clap”) more ridiculous. The line is weirdly shocking enough on its own—I mean, who ever says “bat’s piss?” Who even thinks about it? But without the stodgy framework of the set-up, it wouldn’t be quite as shocking as it is, and that sense of barely controlled anarchy wouldn’t be quite so present. The Python’s chaos works best when it has a target to bounce off of, which is one of the reasons why there are so many stuffy cops, military officers, and judges on the show. Even when these figures are acting like loonies (as they so often are), they’re still wearing the uniform of authority, and that uniform is enough to provide the necessary context. (This is also why Terry Gilliam’s animation holds up as well as it does; his scrappy, cut-and-paste approach uses typically staid visuals like old photographs and chops them up in ways that openly mock their supposed respectability.)
- I’m not going to talk about the Pasolini sketch. It’s a good sketch! But as I know nothing about either cricket or the director’s work, all I can do is appreciate it as a collection of familiar arthouse-y shots, and a lot of sports jargon. Which is still fun, but something I feel even less qualified to discuss than usual.
Then there’s Jones and Chapman sitting in a living room, chatting about buying a new brain. As a pair of Pepperpots (both named “Mrs. Zambesi,” in one of Python’s beloved “Okay, that didn’t actually make me laugh but I appreciate the weirdness of” gags), the two men aren’t serving as figures of authority so much as figures of mundane conventionality. The humor comes not from seeing typically serious or status-bearing figures reduced to absurdities, but seeing how those absurdities play out in a scene that should be defined by its fundamental averageness. The Pepperpots are a symbol of middling day to day life, and scenes featuring them always revolve around revealing unexpected depths of intelligence and insight, translated into the most humdrum expression possible. A Gumby’s stupidity is basically the whole joke (and it’s a funny joke, don’t get me wrong). The Pepperpots tend to be a bit daft, but never as daft as you assume they’ll be; they surprise you with their knowledge, but that knowledge is always expressed in purely matter-of-fact terms. Like, say, Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion arguing about Sartre. They debate their conclusions, but when it comes time to form a decision, they just go ask the writer directly—a solution that at once misses the point of literary discussion, while at the same time having a certain appealing practicality. (Provided you can overlook the fact that they had to sail across the ocean in a raft to do it.)
This particular Pepperpot piece doesn’t get into the complexities of French avant garde literature, but it does have Jones deciding he needs to buy a new brain, which leads to Palin showing up as a door to door salesman to provide her with just that. Before that there’s some messiness with Cleese at the door doing a strained voice, and someone throwing in a dummy as a brain salesman; these bits border on weird-for-weird’s sake, although Cleese’s nasal Marvin the Martian inflection puts most of it over.
(“Weird-for-weird’s sake” is a frustratingly vague criticism, I realize, and I also realize that much of what makes Flying Circus so subversive and surprising is the writers’ willingness to perform material that’s, at times, aggressively abstract and closed off—jokes that seem to exist independently from audience eyes, daring us to interpret them without offering any obvious reference points. But there’s a difference between surrealism and messiness, and while the line differentiating the two is hard to define, this sketch felt like it flailed in the early going. This will come up more in the next episode, but it’s indicative of the high level of difficulty of what the troupe was trying to pull off: there are no specific rules for managing chaos with intent. That’s inherent in the philosophy. And yet it can fail, and because there’s no obvious guidelines—you can’t talk about “shallow characterization” or “bad pacing,” although both can be relevant—it must be terribly difficult to make adjustments, or even to know that one is fumbling. I’ve said this before, but I think the parts of Flying Circus that don’t work [and anyone who calls this show “perfect” is being silly; it’s the best sketch comedy ever created, but it is not perfect] are nearly as important as the parts that do, because they remind us that there is a goal here. This isn’t randomness by amateurs. This is anarchy that is set to undo our expectations and conceptions through humor and disruption, and the more I think about it, the more “Confuse-A-Cat” seems like a thesis as much as a sketch.)
Things pick up when Palin arrives with a new brain (in the form of an electronic doohickey that goes on top of Jones’s head; it wouldn’t look out of place on an old Doctor Who serial), and the sketch returns to the comfortable ground of exploring a premise. There are some jokes about how dumb Jones is as Palin adjusts the brain, and unsurprisingly, the brain adjustments don’t entirely take. As ever, it’s a relief when a Python sketch steps back from rapid-fire madness and returns to arguably more traditional material; it allows the audience to reorient itself, and it leads to bigger laughs because those laughs are as much a release as anything. We can see recognizable punchlines, and they’re funny in and of themselves, but also because there’s been a lot of nervous shuffling and strangeness to get us to this point.
- It’s largely in the background, but the episode has a handful of callbacks to earlier sketches from the season. While the Zambesis are walking outside, they pass a penguin (unexploded) waiting at a bus stop, and a pair of kilted Scotsman (also unexploded) quivering on the sidewalk.
Okay, enough of that. How about a sketch with a very clear, direct premise that doesn’t entirely work? I give you: “The Urine Sketch.” Or whatever it’s called. (Wikipedia lists it as “Blood Donor,” which I guess avoids spoiling the joke, so they win this round.) “Blood Donor” has Cleese as a doctor running a blood donation clinic, and Idle as a potential donor who really, really, really wants to donate his urine. The two negotiate (well, Idle negotiates, Cleese just tries to get him to leave), and finally Idle forces Cleese to let him do what he wants in exchange for a jar of Cleese’s own blood.
Cleese and Idle are both gifted performers, and their exchange proceeds with enough internal logic that it nearly works. And yet there’s a flatness to this throughout, because the concept of Idle wanting to donate his urine just isn’t a good enough concept to build a scene out of it. You can see it in how the two actors keep trying to get an argument going in the early stages; there’s a lack of energy, a sense that both men are doing their level best to force the scene to play and it just doesn’t happen. The sketch has individually amusing gags (Cleese sniffing the jar of blood and declaring it his is great), and the premise is odd enough to keep you watching, but it never really builds. “Blood Donor” is just too puerile—without being puerile enough—to deliver.
Which is doubly disappointing, because so far as I can tell, this sketch is Cleese’s last major role on the series. He pops up a few times in the “Wife-Swapping” sketch that follows (a chippy bit of naughtiness that details a rush of marital affairs with the language of various sports programs), but he’s not in the “Dirty Vicar” scene (I think). In fact, his presence throughout the episode seems a bit more tangential than usual, more a guest star than a core player, popping up as a cameo in the Pepperpots sketch, briefly impersonating Pasolini in a sketch about the director’s uber-pretentious film about cricket. Oh, and he was Whistler too, can’t forget that. Maybe it’s just the problem of viewing things in retrospect, but there’s no great stand-out moment for Cleese on his way through the door. But then, I suppose that’s fitting. Making this a showcase for a departing performer would mean acknowledging immediate reality, and that has no place on this show.
A last thought, then, about “The Dirty Vicar Sketch.” It works because it’s terrible. Oh sure, Jones assaulting some poor woman in period garb is good for a mild chuckle, but the point of the sequence is that this is a stupid, predictable piece of work; it plays like something you’d see in the most mainstream sketch show imaginable. “It’s funny cos they’re in fancy clothes and then you can almost see her tits,” that sort of thing. It’s tacky as hell, so the Python’s frame it as the winner of the best sketch award at Idle’s awards show. This works great—first you get the long process of all the sketch’s participants getting trotted out on stage and congratulated. Then you get the actual sketch (in which some of the actors, like Gilliam, have bit parts that add nothing to the scene). Then you get Idle coming back and leading another round of applause for the performers. This gets what little laughs there are out of the material of the sketch itself, while at the same time using the very thinness and predictability of the humor to generate more humor through the overripe “prestige” that material inspires. “We’re better than this, although we basically aren’t,” is the have-your-cake-eat-too message.
- “And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for-” and we cut to “THE END.”
“The Golden Age of Ballooning” (season 4, episode 1; originally aired 10/31/1974)
And now we enter the show’s fourth and last season, an abbreviated run of episodes (only six, less than half of a run of any one of the previous three seasons) which I approach with a good deal of trepidation. Admittedly, if the end of Flying Circus turns to complete shit, I’ve got my work cut out for me. I can just sit around taking potshots and relaxing in the superior knowledge that, had it been me trying to make up for the absence of one of the group’s founding members, I would’ve done things differently, and also perfectly. But I love this show, and I love getting excited about this show; and the thought of spending the next few weeks bemoaning the same tedious and overly evident flaws fills me with no joy at all. (I’ll note here that I have actually seen these episodes before, but it’s been a few years, and I remember almost nothing about them. This is not a good sign.)
So how is “The Golden Age Of Ballooning”? It’s… not great. I can definitely and with a clear conscience say that is not in any way shape or form great, unless you have a soft spot for Michael Palin’s doing an accent. (Actually, I do. I mean, it’s not enough to save this, but it’s something.) Yet this isn’t as bad as I’d feared, and it’s not as dire as its worst sections suggest. There are flat, drawn out exchanges that seem to go on forever; but at the same time, there’s also a focus on building character and modest narrative, and the episode’s best scene is a sketch that isn’t quite like anything the Pythons had ever done before.
Maybe that’s the most striking difference. It wouldn’t seem as though Cleese’s absence would that have big an effect. The group had already done three seasons of television together, and while Cleese’s contributions to those seasons were undeniably important, he wasn’t the sole genius in a room full of Ringos. (I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Ringo, here, sit down. It’s just been terribly difficult at home lately, and I—tea?—I’m afraid I’ve been lashing out. I’ve been punishing others for my own inadequacies. I feel overwhelmed lately by the demands of my life, incapable of rising to the challenges I face on a daily basis, and I look around the world, tears filling my eyes, and I think WELL THANK BLOODY CHRIST I’M NOT A FUCKING SHIT DRUMMER, EH?) With Cleese gone, there were three—no, five—Pythons available to take up the slack. Well, technically four, since Gilliam was off doing his own thing, but he was around at least.
But what we get here is something that apes some of the mannerisms of Flying Circus while at heart turning out to be something completely, um, damn, there’s a word here, obvious one too, might even even be a direct quote from a show I’m reviewing but, ah, it’s lost. “The Golden Age Of Ballooning” is like Flying Circus, but it isn’t Flying Circus, and I don’t just mean that the Naked Organist, Announcer, and It’s Man are nowhere to be seen. We can argue how much Cleese on his own contributed to the Pythons (I’ll just say that, apart from Gilliam, Cleese seems to have had the most creative and commercial success outside the group; he’s the only one to be a driving force behind two absolutely essential British comedy series, although Idle, Palin, and Jones have certainly kept busy), but it’s undeniable that there’s a fundamental chemistry to the troupe as a whole which is lacking with even one member absent. Whatever alchemy happened when Cleese, Chapman, Palin, Jones, and Gilliam were all together has now been irrevocably changed.
The result is, at least so far, something like a children’s show. A crazy children’s show, and one which relies quite a bit on jokes centered on obscure historical references and a bit of multiple murders, but still. Which makes sense; with Cleese out, the majority left over (Palin, Idle, Jones, and even, albeit to a lesser extent, Gilliam) were graduates of Do Not Adjust Your Set, a nutty children’s program that we talked about earlier in this review series. While Chapman remains an important part of the group, it makes sense that the sensibility of the earlier program would come to dominate, especially as the writers were trying to figure out what the show would be in Cleese’s absence. The episode comes across as a curious sort of hybrid, a not-quite-there half hour that stumbles frequently, but is also occasionally inspired.
The nominal story (which is more story than a Flying Circus episode typically gets, but less than the one long plot that formed “Cycling Tour”) focuses initially on Jones and Idle as the Montgolfier brothers, the inventors of the hot-air balloon. Their first scene, after some amusing self-awareness about their place in encyclopedias, strands the two performers in a draggy exchange about “washing;” it’s undeniably a play on the stereotype of the French having poor hygiene, but it’s so strained and unnatural that its continued existence is more a case of obstinacy than inspiration. It’s too clearly something that’s being written, and while that means it works better as it builds (Gilliam’s animation of the brothers bathing is funny, and having Jones pop up in a towel and a bathing cap for two scenes is a good pay-off), the foundation is rocky.
This first major sketch just feels awkward as a general rule. All of the Pythons don’t seem quite sure of themselves, and when an outsider shows up to start a running gag (a “Mr. Bartlett” who keeps trying to introduce himself into various scenes) the whole thing comes perilously close to being just a regular old variety show, full of stodgy, predictable routines (ha ha, the French are dirty) and random cameos which don’t disrupt the program so much as reduce it to a lot of empty-headed laughs.
But then Gilliam’s animation takes over, and things start to improve. Chapman has a monologue as an announcer selling increasingly improbable balloon-themed products, and while it’s not hilarious, it at least feels more like classic Python. In the next segment (labeled “Episode 2;” there are multiple “episodes” of “Golden Age Of Ballooning” throughout), Palin’s Scottish French king shows up, and the whole thing starts to pick up. I’m not sure why, exactly; maybe it’s just the accent. But the whole half-hour grows in confidence as it moves along. There are fits and starts, and the pacing is often atrocious (I’d be curious how quickly this was written, and how comfortable the troupe was with their lines), but there are at least enough moments of inspiration to prevent this from being a complete train wreck.
Palin’s a big part of this. Chapman is arguably the best actor of the group, but with Cleese gone, Palin comes across as the most charismatic performer; his two major roles in this episode (in addition to some minor parts) are easily the episode’s best. He has an energy that elevates the scenes around him, and suggests another reason why Cleese is so immediately missed. While each member of the troupe can be an effective, and inspired, comedic talent on screen, but Palin and Cleese have the most immediately obvious presence. Two of the series’ best sketches (“Dead Parrot” and “Argument”) both essentially revolve around them talking to each other, with little in the way of distraction of adornment. In the absence of well-defined character, you need someone with a strong (and not instantly irritating) presence to fill in the blanks. Palin is capable of this to a degree that’s just a bit better than the others, and it shows.
Chapman does get a fine scene as a butler who receives rapturous applause after announcing his exit line (this bit goes on for a while, but in the best possible way; eventually, the joke becomes seeing just how long the Pythons can hold off returning to the “real” scene), but for my money, the best sketch of the episode is the last. It features Jones and Palin as the Helmuts, a married German couple having a quiet evening at home. Overhead, Chapman’s mad balloon—ahem, zeppelin inventor is throwing various heads of state out of his flying machine, and all of those men crash into Jones and Palin’s drawing room, leaving poor Mrs. and Mr. Helmut to decide what to do with them.
I said this was unlike a typical Flying Circus sketch, and I’ll stand by that; there’s a totally unexpected but completely undeniable adorability to the Helmuts’ conversations, and “adorable” is not a word I think I’ve ever applied to the Pythons before. This is largely thanks to Palin. Jones provides excellent support throughout the scene, but there’s something about Palin’s German accent, combined with his childlike sadness and enthusiasm for dealing with a room full of corpses, that just makes you like him. Like both of them, really. It’s a scene that could’ve easily been uproariously morbid, and it nearly is, but the affection for the leads adds an unexpected degree of whimsy. It suggests a new direction for the group post-Cleese, something that’s gentler without losing its teeth. Only time will tell if that direction continues to bear fruit. Or corpses.
- The Ronettes show up at one point. I wonder if this means we can expect more celebrity guests.