Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “How Not To Be Seen”/“Spam”

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “How Not To Be Seen”/“Spam”

“How Not To Be Seen” (season two, episode 11; originally aired 12/8/1970)

(Available on Amazon.)

It almost seems sometimes like the Pythons signal how to take each sketch in advance. For example, in the scene that opens “How Not To Be Seen” John Cleese plays an advertising executive, and Eric Idle enters as an employee who’s been taking a, shall we say, unorthodox approach to his work. (Well, we won’t say it, since we’re all alone in the office and we don’t want to give the impression that we talk to ourselves. We’ll just type it with raised eyebrows.) Concept-wise, it’s fine—the main joke is that Idle’s efforts at promoting Conquistador Coffee have been awful, not just inept but seemingly devoted to tearing the company down. (Like changing the name to “Conquistador Instant Leprosy,” or using the slogan “Conquistador Coffee brings a new meaning to the word ‘vomit.’”) As ever, it sounds stupid when explained, but it’s effective enough in practice, especially the relish with which Cleese explains each of Idle’s terrible creative choices. But the sketch doesn’t really pop, not the way later segments in the episode do.

This could just be a fault in the material, but it doesn’t really play as though this is a mistake, or a weakness in the writing. The Pythons do a good job at punching up and ornamenting their work, to the point where “low energy” sequences seem as much a part of the design as the higher quality classics you end up quoting for the rest of your life. Which is, intentionally or not, basically genius; a sense of cohesion makes everything feel more purposeful, and one of the secrets to selling an audience on material is convincing them that everything really does happen for a reason, even if we don’t immediately see it. Which brings me back to what I was wondering—do the Pythons intentionally gauge their performances based on the individual sketches? Or are those performances more a reflection of what’s already in the script?

This is, I admit, a stupid question; I’d be surprised if anyone in the troupe consciously decided to underplay a bit just because the premise wasn’t a sharp one. Yet there’s something about the acting in this scene, particularly Idle’s, that consistently undermines what little intensity the premise generates. This could just be Idle not giving a shit, or having an off night, or even subconsciously rebelling against the writing—but the writing is actually fine, so that doesn’t make sense. (And it kind of has an Idle-ish feel to it, too.) The son character (the punchline of the sketch is that Idle is Cleese’s son) is something of a wet end anyway, but Idle has this conscious detachment throughout, and he and Cleese never quite connect. Which, again, could just be bad luck, except for the way the script keeps working to undercut itself. When Cleese does a bit about Idle’s former client offing himself, he holds up a card that reads “Joke” on it—it’s an obvious gag, but rather than let it slide by unnoticed, the Pythons need to underline the obviousness. Later, Idle does the same thing. It’s the kind of humor we’ve talked about before, a sketch which mocks itself, drawing attention to its artifice to create comedic anarchy. There’s something so relentlessly artificial about the way Idle and Cleese go through the motions, something Brechtian about their detachment. It’s less a sketch about father and son co-workers, and more a sketch about a pair of comic actors performing a sketch about father and son co-workers.

The show’s not always that removed, however. Other sequences later in the episode are more committed to tackling their premise straight on, even if they still allow room for the show’s usual dicking about. Take the Train Schedule Murder Mystery scene. The concept is, in its way, as one-note as the advertising sketch: It’s a kind of drawing room thriller, only every conversation is fixated on train schedules. This leads to a lot of the dense recitation of time tables and railway apocrypha, the usual Python attention to detail paying off in a series of absurdly dense exchanges. Yet there’s a greater attention to detail and a considerable commitment to maintaining the surface reality of the scene, at least until the curtains fall and we segue into the payoff. Unlike the opening sketch, the Train Schedule sequence is never undercut by meta commentary from the cast. Everyone is convincingly costumed, and while the characters are all caricatures of upper-class propriety, Idle, Carol Cleveland, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin commit to their roles. Palin overplays his part slightly, but as the killer, his performance makes sense in the context of the sketch, something that, say, Idle’s performance in the coffee sketch doesn’t really do, at least if you’re trying to take that scene at face value.

As to why? Well, it’s funnier this way. In practice, the coffee sketch was less a single idea than it was a collection of related bits, and Idle’s rote, monotone take on the material is, in its odd way, appropriate. It’s not a bad performance—and the amount of time I’m spending on it is a little ridiculous—but neither he nor Cleese seem fully present in the same way the cast of the Train Schedule sketch does. It’s doubtful this was a conscious choice, but it’s good excuse to look at how the Pythons were fully capable of playing a bit “straight,” so to speak. Because some bits are funnier without the ornamentation. The humor in the Train Schedule Sketch depends a lot on the absolute unwavering adherence to the main concept. It’s not just that the family and a police detective keep bringing up railway esoterica. It’s the way trains managed to inform the worldview of every character in the scene, to the point where Palin killed his “father” in order to steal his train ticket—and the inspector catches him when his story about schedules fails to pan out. This leads to a funny payoff in which we learn that the sketch is part of a series of films written by a man absolutely obsessed with trains; but while that’s a great gag (and Jones is clearly having fun with it), the sketch works fine without it. The willingness to follow the premise all the way through to the end makes it effective, and part of that willingness is knowing not to have anyone hold up a card that reads “Joke.”

This sequence is then followed by Cleese as a very excited critic giving a long speech about all the themes he finds in the work we’ve just seen. Python monologues are generally hit or miss, given that the group’s love of verbiage can be overwhelming, but Cleese’s manic enthusiasm really sells it. It also feels slightly odd to be commenting on something which is, in effect, skewering what I’m actually doing right now, but as a clever person who “talks very loudly in restaurants,” I feel comfortable saying that the the troupe’s swipe at intellectual interpretation is really an acknowledgement of the scope and breadth of their work, and a desperate signal to all those savvy enough to perceive it that there are great treasures buried here, provided one has the wit, the courage, and the passion to write repetitive long winded articles about them on the Internet.

“How Not To Be Seen” has a good run from start to finish, with a great Terry Gilliam animation bit about the International Chinese Communist Conspiracy (and Crelm Toothpaste), and a swipe at organized religion featuring Idle at his smarmiest, and Cleese at his most goonish. (The scene of Cleese threatening Palin’s housewife character is terrific.) But any discussion of the episode would be incomplete without a brief look at the sketch that gives it its title. How Not To Be Seen is another of those marvelously perfect concepts where it seems as though much of the work is accomplished simply by dreaming it up. Unseen, Cleese narrates a film strip that shows various shots of the countryside in which people are hiding behind shrubbery or trees or the seaside. Anyone who reveals themselves is shot, and when the participants catch on and start refusing to come out of their hiding places, Cleese (and whatever force is working for/with him) starts blowing them up, the violence spreading wider and wider until it eventually becomes stock footage.

It’s just nifty, and memorable enough to be one of the troupe’s signature routines (helped in part by the decision to refilm it, along with a number of other sketches from season one and two, for Monty Python’s first feature film, And Now For Something Completely Different). The idea is delightfully silly, but what makes it stick so well is the growing menace behind each sequence; it’s the old idea of stakes again, this time manifested by a bodiless authoritarian figure with just a hint of Orwellian omniscience. Like the doomed heroes of 1984, none of the “hidden” in the segment have any real chance, regardless of how thoroughly they attempt to not be seen. The violence itself isn’t horrific (the sight of the first two victims getting shot is a great sight gag), and yet, as the narrator tracks down a couple which had thought to avoid him by going on an early holiday, the comedy comes from knowing they’re doomed. To that effect, Cleese’s utterly lunatic cackle at the end puts the whole thing in perfect context. This isn’t an instructional video. It’s the leisure activity of a lunatic god.

Stray observations:

  • Other great moments I didn’t discuss: Cleese as an aggressive Exchange & Mart editor (Exchange & Mart is an actual classifieds magazine) trying to negotiate a deal with a potential job applicant; Chapman as a hideously bucktoothed filmmaker who makes historical dramas in which everyone has hideous buckteeth; Palin interviewing Jones, who’s hiding inside a filing cabinet in a doomed attempt to Not Be Seen; and a band doing a live performance of “Yummy Yummy Yummy,” its members hidden in boxes.
  • “Not for sale? What does that mean?”—Exchange & Mart editor
  • There’s a Naughty Religion, a No Questions Asked Religion, a Lunatic Religion, a Cartoon Religion, and the Most Popular Religion, ltd. Which do you belong to?
  • “I’m starting a war for peace.”—Idle, doing a credible John Lennon.

“Spam” (season two, episode 12; originally aired 12/15/1970)

(Available on Amazon.)

Word word word word word word word. Word, word word, WORD. Word? Word, word word word word word… word. Word! Word! Word word; word word, word word word word.

Hm. That’s not quite it. How about:

Spam spam spam spam spam spam spam. Spam. Spam. Spam! Spam! SPAM! SPAM SPAM SPAM SPAM SPAM SPAM SPAAAAAAM, GLORIOUS SPAAAAAAAAM and so on and so forth.

It’s an old kid’s game: Pick a word and repeat it as many times as you can. Most of the time, this just means reducing a concept to a collection of sounds, which is a perfectly acceptable use of one’s time. (Try using your name once or twice; what starts off as an exercise in narcissism quickly mutates into an existential spiral of despair.) But every so often, you’ll stumble across a word that only gets funnier the more times you say it. “Spam” is just such a word. Nowadays, it’s used mostly refer to the junk that accumulates in email inboxes: ads for penis enlargers, pleas from Nigerian princes, requests from your parents to attend your grandma’s funeral. But once upon a time, Spam was solely the name of a meat product from Hormel foods, a low-priced source of dinner that came in a tin can with a key on the top. It’s that usage that drives the “Spam” sketch in the “Spam” episode of Flying Circus. The actual meaning of the word is what gives the sketch context: Chapman is a housewife at a dinner whose entire menu consists of dishes with Spam in them. Chapman doesn’t like Spam. Wackiness ensues.

But while specificity is as important as ever, the real secret to what makes this sketch funny is the most obvious one: “Spam” is a silly word. The more you say it, the sillier it sounds. “Low-cost meat product” is a goofy concept (the “product” is what makes it), but just the collection of consonants and vowels is enough to make “Spam” a word worthy of having a sketch built around it. It helps that everything in the sketch is pitched to 11, especially Chapman; he shrieks his objection to every potential offering like he’s trying to break the windows, until the Vikings show up and everyone erupts into song. If for some reason you’ve never seen this episode (or this scene) before, there’s still a decent chance you’ve heard the song; it’s one of Python’s contributions to pop culture, and it’s so easy to remember that most geeks have chanted it out at some point in their lives to an uncomprehending audience. And unlike plenty of other Python quotes (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”) there really is nothing more to the sketch than just saying “SPAM!” in a high, shrill voice. This isn’t high concept, or brilliant writing (well, it’s brilliant in knowing what works, at least). It’s not the Pythons using their gifts to break down preconceived notions about sketch comedy. It’s just shouting and foolishness. And it works.

The rest of the episode gives us a little more to unpack. (Although hey, I got three paragraphs out of that last bit, which isn’t bad). For one, the cold open runs one of the more straight-faced long cons the show has ever done. The title credits show up a lot earlier than “Scott Of The Antarctic,” but where that episode was still up front about its true nature (in that we see Python cast members almost immediately), “Spam” pretends to be something else for what feels like a very long time. It’s not, not really—just a couple of minutes, in fact—but the opening credits of a movie called The Black Eagle, the screen crawl that sets up the historical context, and the use of non-Python actors in the opening scene, are all unusual enough to make those minutes seem very long indeed. Watching this on DVD, it’s easy enough not to be tricked, but you have to wonder if folks seeing the show back when it originally aired started frantically thumbing through the TV listings in the newspaper to make sure they weren’t missing something. It’s possible some of them even changed the channel, although I’d guess the Announcer shows up just before the gag gets out of hand.

Once things get going, we see some of the usual signifiers: there’s the perilous difficulty of communication, represented by Cleese’s Hungarian tourist and his hilariously fraudulent phrase book; there’s a courtroom scene (“I wish to plead incompetence”) that takes a surreal turn into photography; and there’s a quiz program, this time in the form of Idle asking famous historical figures various questions about sports. (This leads to a lovely bit about Che Guevara and Karl Marx hooking up. They make a darling couple.) And then, just because everything’s been a little too traditional, we get the opening of a maudlin wartime scene that’s immediately broken up with director Terry Jones realizes there are too many extras wandering around in the background in inappropriate costume. That sketch will come back in a bit, but first it’s off to the museum for some paintings going on strike.

The museum sketch is delightful, which isn’t a word that always fits with the Flying Circus. The effects are minimal, but they’re clever enough that they work, like something out of an older episode of Doctor Who; Jones, dressed up as the farmer from The Hay Wain by John Constable, pays a visit Chapman’s Solomon, sliding down off a Titian canvas, his movement suggested by the removal of a cardboard cut-out from inside the simulated painting. Eventually the whole thing moves into Gilliam animation, which is fine, as his style is well-suited to the concept, but it wouldn’t really work without that live-action segment. It’s playful and charming, like something that could easily have popped up in the children’s program Do Not Adjust Your Set (on which Idle, Jones, and Palin worked, pre-Python). Unsurprisingly, great care is given to getting all the names right.

I’m not sure what the best sketch of the episode is—the Spam scene earns the right to the title on influence alone—but my favorite is the return to the men in the trenches of World War I, moping about the girl they left behind, and also the two arms that Cleese used to have. Chapman plays his standard, gruff-general role, only this time, he also happens to be tremendously cowardly, and when it becomes clear that someone is going to have to sacrifice his life in order to save the rest of the group (low rations and whatnot), Chapman keeps working to contrive a way to get out of the responsibility. He insists that everyone draw straws for the suicide run, and manages to pull the short straw both times. Then he tries for a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, arguing that his scissors are vastly superior to everyone else’s rock. It’s not revolutionary or anything, but the shots fired at authority, combined with Chapman’s barely submerged embarrassment about his cowardice, are terrifically funny. The whole thing climaxes with Chapman ordering everyone to raise their hands, which, of course, Cleese’s chaplain can’t actually do. The audience catches on to this, and their laughter nearly drives Cleese to break character; otherwise, the sketch is played extremely straight, as a big part of the gag comes from all the other men being utterly unwilling (or unaware enough) to call Chapman on his behavior.

It’s all terribly, terribly, terribly British, and even with Chapman’s questionable behavior, the brief span of the sketch feels like an oasis of quiet in the chaos. As soon as it’s over, we’re off to the races again, as the episode quickly devolves into utter nonsense. The hospital for over-actors (Chapman takes a walk through the Richard III ward) is the last clearly recognizable sketch in the half hour, and once that ends, it’s all Spam, Spam, glorious Spam. Not a penis enlargement ad in sight, which is probably for the best.

Stray observations:

  • Cleese’s Hungarian tourist (who returns briefly in the Spam diner, only to get arrested again) is a great quote source. “My hovercraft is full of eels!” is nifty, especially the way Cleese hits the “h” and “ee” sounds.
  • There’s a fart joke in the courtroom sequence. Trying to remember if that’s the first fart joke in the show’s run. It’s fine; I’m not a huge fan of the form, but they don’t linger on it.
  • “I’m not a complete man anymore.” “You lost both your arms as well.” Maybe a riff on the “war injury” in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that left the hero impotent? Or maybe not.
  • We end with a shot of Che and Marx in bed together, as God intended.

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