“How To Recognize Different Parts Of The Body” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 11/24/1970)
(Available on Amazon.)
Stories have two things: characters and plot. There are people (or beings that take the place of people), and then something happens to them, and then other things happen, and then the end. Ideally, the plot should in someway be a function of character—what happens should be connected to the people it's happening to, or else it should reveal some aspect of them that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. But regardless, that’s the basic equation. It’s true of serious stories and funny stories, and funny stories with some serious bits mixed in (and vice versa). In a way, it’s also true of sketch comedy. The “stories” sketches tell are often slight at best, but a sketch isn’t really a sketch unless it has some identifiable characters in it, and something like a hook. Trade in “premise” for “plot,” and the math holds up. And given the short length of most sketches, there’s a lot more wiggle room in deciding how much of one or the other you want to put in. A movie or a novel needs to get the balance right, or else it risks losing an audience; you can have pure character and little plot, or you can have heavy plot and slight characters, but you have to be really good at what you’re doing to make either of those work.
Sketches, though, aren’t quite so strict. At least, not in the same way. A strong premise is nearly always preferable, because a strong premise allows for clarity—a good central idea is easier to write for, because it sets the course of the script. Like, say, the Verifast Plaine (sic) Company sketch in “How To Recognize Different Parts Of The Body.” The premise is simple: a couple buys a ticket with the absolute worst airline in the world. All the jokes center on Verifast’s awfulness, from Idle’s over-eager attempts to negotiate a ticket price (it starts ridiculously cheap and keeps getting lower), to Jones’ little old lady, to Mr. Kamikaze, the pilot. The material is not subtle, and a lot of the laughs come from Idle, Palin, and Jones’s absurd caricatures. But those caricatures all spring from the same place. They’re all expansions outward from the premise, and the connection between them (which leads eventually to the beach and the next series of sketches) makes each gag funnier than it would be in isolation. A great premise is an idea you want to see explored, prodded, and eventually exhausted. It’s like wanting to know what happens next in a more traditional story, only here, the “suspense” comes from seeing how long the writers can sustain the idea.
Character-based sketches are trickier to pull off, because there’s no obvious reason to keep watching. Without a clear purpose, the material falls back on the strength of the performers, and the depth of the writing in terms of delineating personalities as quickly and intriguingly as possible. Great character sketches create people and a world that’s worth spending time in, and the ability to build laughs out of personality isn’t easy to come by. You could argue that it’s a job requirement for any dedicated comedic performer, and yet anyone who’s watched a dud episode of Saturday Night Live can tell you: sometimes, talent can’t save the folks on the stage. All they can do is grit their teeth, adopt a “funny” accent, and struggle through. There’s an alchemy that needs to happen between the script and the people presenting that script, and the rules of how that works are hard to define; it’s easy to grasp why a premise isn’t working (it’s too complicated, or it’s too simplistic, usually), but a character driven piece? Apart from “Oh god, this is boring,” there’s not much to pin down. Not even Python always got it right, as the next episode will show; for my money, the only troupe to really get a consistently solid grip on the form is (are?) the Kids In The Hall, but that’s an argument for a different essay. (I think it has to do with the obvious fondness to the Kids have for all the odd, pathetic, and goofy people they lampoon. It’s like watching a few minutes of a sitcom that doesn’t exist.)
In terms of Python and character-based sketches, wouldn’t you know it, “How To Recognize Different Parts Of The Body” offers up a terrific example of how to get it right, in my favorite scene in the episode. Cleese and Chapman play two housewives (“Pepperpots,” in Python terminology) spending an afternoon in the living room. First they listen to the radio; then they watch the TV. They a talk a bit. The penguin on the television explodes, and we move on to the next scene.
There’s some stuff going on—the radio program is “The Death Of Mary, Queen Of Scots,” which is mostly just a lot of grunting, screeching, and falling down noises, and the aforementioned penguin on the television is a nice bit of surrealism—but the weight of the sketch rests on Chapman and Cleese. Their shrill voices, vacant expressions, and brusque manner in response to the lunacy around them are the heart of the joke, and it works like gangbusters. It works so well, in fact, that it’s not hard to spot the two actors struggling not to corpse (a British slang term for breaking character, in this case by laughing on camera). And why it works is because of the flat, unimpressed tone both actors adopt throughout the segment. They talk in a screamy falsetto, but their emotional response to any given situation never rises much about mild irritation. “The Death Of Mary, Queen Of Scots” is a gloriously silly conceit, but it wouldn’t work as well without the Pepperpots listening, and having no obvious reaction to the cavalcade of destruction they’re hearing on the radio. (The audio clip pops up on one of the Python comedy albums, and it’s still fun, but it lacks something in isolation.) Nor would the penguin on the television. After all, it’s just a stuffed doll—the visual effect is flat and not as striking as the script implies. But the Pepperpots response makes it click.
The dialogue helps a lot too. While the sequence doesn’t have any real center (apart from, “Gosh, what an odd afternoon,”) Chapman and Cleese’s exchanges are sharply hilarious and charming. My favorite comes midway through a discussion:
Cleese: Why’d you say Burma?
Chapman: I panicked.
That’s just perfect, really. But the perfection reveals the major challenge of character-centric scenes. The dialogue and performances have to be perfect. If they aren’t, there’s nothing to hold on to. The worst character sketches boil down to either the tedium of watching boring people pull boring faces, or else it’s a one-joke cliche repeating their one joke for the seemingly ten thousandth time. In both cases, the fault lies in the shallowness of the material. A great character sketch needs to have personality. The characters need to be more that just jokes; they need to suggest a certain degree of life. Both Cleese and Chapman do that here, and while the Pythons were far more interested in comedy than personality, their best characters are clearly, even relatably, human. Even the idiot Gumbys have something approaching self-awareness. The Pepperpots in this brief scene come across as more than just “ha-ha, it’s men dresses doing silly voices!” They aren’t rich dramatic figures, and I’m not wishing the Pythons had done a full movie about them, but they’re more than just a punchline, and that makes them funny.
It also helps that the rest of the episode is so solid. The “How to recognize different parts of the body” interstitials (which, intentionally or not, feel like a call back to “The Larch” ) help hold the half hour together, and there’s some strong material, like the Bruces sketch, which has Terry Jones starting work at the philosophy department of an Australian university where all the professors call each other “Bruce.” Or the return of Mr. Luxury-Yacht, who consults with a plastic surgeon with an incredibly long nameplate about having some work done on his giant (fake) nose; it’s really just an excuse to go on a camping trip and do some frolicking in the woods. Gilliam’s animation tells the terrifying story of Killer Cars run amok, and the final sketch has Palin as a thoroughly inept police detective questioning an upper-class family about a burglary, no a murder, no a burglary. Which segues nicely into Terry Jones as a singing cop, which in turn slips into a parody of the Eurovision song contest (Idle is the emcee in a darling blonde wig), and ends the episode in one of the show’s more whimsical final bits: Chapman in full dress uniform, standing on a platform speaking in French as the strings swell. There’s a story behind that guy, and Chapman plays him with a stuffy, foolish dignity. It makes no sense, but it makes perfect sense.
- Other sketches I didn’t mention but were also excellent: soldiers camping it up in formation; the return of the Batley Townswomen’s Guild and their re-enactment of the first successful heart transplant; and shows being performed underwater. “And somewhere out in the bay is the first underwater production of Measure For Measure.”
- Gilliam (I think) shows up in blackface in the Bruces sketch. I didn’t want to disappoint you by not mentioning it.
- “Well, what’s on the television then?” “Looks like a penguin!”
- “Penguins don’t come from next door! They come from the arctic!”
- “Oh intercourse the penguin!”
- Late in the episode, Cleese, Chapman, and Cleveland critique one of the transitions as not being up to snuff. (“No, it’s the end of the series, they must be running out of ideas.”) It’s a nice fourth-wall breaking exchange, especially coming at the end of an episode jammed full of ideas. In a strange coincidence, the conversation also happens to come just before the weakest episode in the show to date...
“Scott Of The Antarctic” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 12/1/70)
(Available on Amazon.)
It’s seventeen minutes before the Flying Circus opening credits pop up in “Scott Of The Antarctic.” That in and of itself is not a problem; the show has been playing around with where it places the title animations for a while now, and the longer the wait is, the more off-format the episode becomes. And “off-format” is a place where the Pythons like to live. There is definitely a relief when the Announcer and the It’s Man pop their faces in, a sense that things will finally get started for “real” now, even though that concept is meaningless. Those first 17 minutes (and change) aren’t like the first Terrance and Phillip South Park episode. This isn’t a misdirect, or time spent with a different story than the one we were expecting. From a conceptual standpoint, the first half of “Scott Of The Antarctic” is just as legitimate and in tune with the show’s ethos as the stuff that comes after. Yet there’s something off about the episode, and that delay in the titles seems to underline the offness. There’s nothing wrong with the concept, but the material that surrounds the concept doesn’t work as tightly, or as effectively as it should. So there’s that feeling of “finally” when the Liberty March starts playing. And when the sketch that follows the “finally” turns out to be a drag, it stings.
There are good ideas in here. The episode opens with a parody of the detached foolishness of avant garde cinema (most notably French cinema), which allows the Pythons to show off their erudition while at the same time getting off a bit about an exploding cabbage. It’s a slow segment, though, because the studied pacing is part of the satire; Jones and Cleveland stare out across a landfill, their lines (in French) arriving with leaden, self-conscious portent. Which gets some laughs, and the hushed quality of the “movie” footage generates some tension. But it goes on for quite a while, and once it’s over, we shift to Chapman playing a reporter doing on-the-scene coverage of a new movie, Scott Of The Antarctic. (This is changed to Scott Of The Sahara because of the beach.) There’s a concept here—namely that film productions are full of very silly people—but the segment is heavily dependent on character, and the whole thing is never as cutting, or as batshit, as it needs to be to justify its length. There are moments (Cleveland is chased by a man-eating desk, Jones facing off against a giant penguin), and the performances are fine (Cleese’s relentlessly dumb enthusiasm is always nifty), but the bit goes on and on way past the usual breaking point.
The worst thing a sketch can do is to wear out its welcome (well, I guess it would be more awful if they killed a little kid on screen or something), and that’s what happens here. The Pythons, normally so deft at switching from scene to scene often before set-ups have a chance to completely register, just wallow in an okay, but unexciting, Hollywood parody. Earlier long sketches worked because they had variety and a kind of narrative on their side: The “Science Fiction sketch” and the Piranha brothers were engaging because there was at least some story holding them together. But there’s no story in “Scott Of The Antarctic,” apart from some goony actors and production crew and arguments about trenches. The whole thing just plays as a little tired, a little over done, as though the comment in the previous episode about “running out of material” was more of an in-joke than was immediately apparent. It’s not dire, but it takes more effort to engage with the show than normal. For too long, the Flying Circus seems, well, grounded.
Then it’s the credits, and some relief, because the show finally moves away from “Scott.” There’s some reassuringly ridiculous Gilliam animation (dancing teeth), and then, shockingly, astonishingly, the episode transitions into a sequence that is, though shorter, far more tedious than the movie making sequence. Cleese’s former parrot owner (identifiable by his plastic rain slicker and pinched accent) comes by a government office to buy a license for his pet fish. He eventually finds Michael Palin, and the two argue the necessity of purchasing a fish license, in a conversation including, but not limited to, a discussion of famous fish owners in history. And it just goes on and on. The premise of the sketch isn’t particularly interesting (you don’t need a license to own a fish, and... that’s it), and the argument between the two characters is soporific. The Pythons have done sluggish material before, but having this come on top of the first half of the episode—a half that, while not entirely dire, leaned on a lot of long conversations and pauses—and it just kills everything dead.
The episode never really recovers. Eventually the Mayor shows up at the government office, and there’s an okay sequence as Cleese (in his announcer voice; the parrot owner remains on screen) breathlessly narrates the event. Then the Mayor goes off to a rugby match, there’s a lot of mixing and matching of crazy sports teams, and it’s time to go. The whole thing feels tired, mediocre, and overly intellectual, like a private joke shared between friends that never quite rings true for the rest of us. The downside to the Pythons' willingness to experiment, to constantly deconstruct their best efforts, to refuse to take anything for granted, is that sometimes, the invention isn’t going to hold out. This is true of all sketch shows to an extent; like anthology series, it’s immediately obvious when the writing quality drops off, because there’s no larger story to hold on to. Apart from enjoying the basic aesthetic and perspective of the troupe—which is, admittedly, a selling point for a group as sharp and idiosyncratic as this one—our entertainment lives and dies by the half hour. And when you get a half hour as iffy as this one, you start to wonder a little. I do, anyway. Thankfully, this is only a temporary bump in the road, at least for now. Look at it as a warning, then: This kind of brilliance can’t last forever.
- I do really like the man-eating desk.
- “What scene are we shooting first, Jimmy?” “Yes!” And Cleese’s chipper screenwriter was great too. There bits and pieces of a terrific sketch buried through “Scott Of The Antarctic,” but some key component is missing. Mostly just a matter of timing.
Next week (update): I'm on vacation. Feel free to re-read this review and dream.