“It’s The Arts (Or: The BBC Entry To The Zinc Stoat of Budapest)” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 11/23/1969)
You could easily make the case that in terms of influence and innovation, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the greatest sketch show ever produced. People would argue the point, but it’s a defensible statement; Flying Circus is hugely important, well-known, and in many ways serves as a dividing line between Old Comedy and New. It’s like saying The Beatles’ Revolver is the best pop album, or that Hamlet is the greatest play. There’s no hard and fast way to prove your point (and any criteria you make up to argue in your favor is going to be highly subjective), but you won’t get laughed off the Internet, or out of the dorm room, or wherever it is people have these sorts of terribly silly debates.
You’d be hard-pressed, though, to argue that Flying Circus was a perfect show, or even all that consistent. Sketch-comedy series are inconsistent almost by design. A narrative show, with regular characters and a plot and emotions and whatnot, has all sorts of nifty ways to hold viewer attention and give the writers something to latch on to. Every new episode has a wealth of history behind it, and history means relationships and ideas to play off and all kinds of toys. You manage to pull an audience in, and they’ll sit through some duller bits just to get to the good stuff. If you read a lot of TV reviews, you’ll find critics talking about “piece moving” episodes, i.e., entries in a serialized narrative that exist largely to get us from point A to point B. Point A was exciting; point B is devastating; the stuff between them, eh—but it’s necessary, so we don’t mind it. Even on non-serialized shows, character and premise is a huge help. Even if this week’s episode isn’t so hot, there are still people we like running around doing things, and we can still tell ourselves it’s important because it’s part of a larger context.
Most sketch shows don’t have that luxury. Most sketch shows live and die on a scene-by-scene basis, and Flying Circus is no exception. This hasn’t really been a problem so far, and won’t be a serious issue until later in the run, but given the Python’s willingness to take risks, experiment, and fling whatever they can think of at the screen, it’s inevitable that sooner or later, they’re going to hit on a dud. For my money, the first serious dud for the group comes in the second half of “It’s The Arts,” and what makes it especially unfortunate is that it’s followed fairly soon after by a slightly better, but still not all that terrific, sketch. The first half of the episode is business as usual, including at least one classic routine as well as a number of effective pieces and some lovely animation. Then Eric Idle appears all made up to look like the Hollywood version of a Native American, and the whole thing dies.
“Indian At The Theater”
Premise: An American Indian straight out of a John Wayne movie sits beside an average British theatergoer. Both men are waiting for a play. The Indian discusses his love of drama in a way that humorously contrasts with his garish appearance and unsophisticated grammar.
Sample line: “She heap good diction and timing. She make part really live for Indian brave.”
Analysis: I don’t want to be overly harsh; I’m sure the sketch has its fans (I assume all of them do?), and it’s not a bad idea. Conceptually, it’s a bit like the law-abiding gang sketch from earlier in the episode. There, a bunch of Pythons dressed up as thugs discuss their plans, the joke being that they aren’t planning on committing any actual crimes; they are, in fact, desperate not to break the law. The joke being (he said pedantically) a comment on our expectations versus reality—we see the costumes and the set, we’re expecting a bunch of baddies plotting a bank job, and then we’re surprised into laughter when we get the opposite. There’s more going on, but that’s the gist of it. “Indian At The Theater” has Eric Idle in a full costume that raises very specific and limited assumptions, and then he talks about how he loves the craft of acting, and how his tribe is getting into show business. There are a few snickers, but it’s just so one-note, and that note isn’t even very good. Once you understand the concept (which takes maybe two lines), you get everything about the sketch, and there’s something frustrating in watching a simple idea playing out so, well, simply. Idle and Chapman (who plays the bemused Brit next to Idle) seem game enough, but their performances fail to transcend the material, and I spent the latter half of the sketch split between trying to decide if this was supposed to be bad, and watching the extra directly behind Idle struggle not to look into the camera.
But hey, this isn’t the worst ever, and it’s funny to watch one of Palin’s emcee characters getting riddled with arrows at the sketch’s conclusion. The main concern is that it robs the show of momentum, and that loss of energy continues to the next major sketch, “20th Century Vole.” There’s some great incidental business before then: Terry Jones as a housewife pulling the name of the next sketch out of a policeman’s hat; the next sketch being “Scotsman On a Horse,” with Cleese as the titular Scotsman racing to Palin’s wedding, only to pick Palin up (instead of the bride) when he gets there; Gilliam animation of a racing baby carriage which is crushed by the ever popular 16 Ton Weight, before segueing into the 20th Century Vole logo. This all works the way the show usually works—it’s fast paced, intermittently disorienting, and if it isn’t all gut-busting, it doesn’t need to be. (Also, Cleese’s grim-faced Scot is a killer.) But then we get to…
“20th Century Vole”
Premise: An arrogant movie-studio executive browbeats and cajoles his writing staff with impossible demands
Sample line: “Splunge!”
Analysis: This one’s better than the Indian sketch, and it’s always great fun to see the entire troupe (along with guest star Ian Davidson) on screen. The energy levels are high, which helps make the scene play better, at least at first. Like the Indian sketch, this is a one-idea bit, and once you realize the structure—Chapman (as the exec) is going to terrorize each member of his staff until they run screaming from the room—some of the fun goes out of the scene. Which isn’t to say that one-idea sketches are inherently problematic or weak. Some of Python’s greatest moments are essentially iterations based around a single concept (“The Dead Parrot Sketch” is the most obvious example, but there are dozens), and wringing the most out of a gag is a time-honored comedy tradition. The only rule: make it funny. And “20th Century Vole” does have its funny moments, including the word “splunge,” a desperate attempt by one writer to avoid expressing praise, disapproval, and indecision all at once. But it goes on too long, and after a while the goofy energy gets a little tiresome, like watching a bunch of guys giggling at a private joke.
It’s a shame, because most of the episode is as great as ever. There’s the usual weirdness in the opening (“THESE CAPTIONS COST 12/6d EACH”), which segues into an arts program (“It’s The Arts,” marking one of the few times the title of the episode was actually relevant to the episode itself), and a discussion about a forgotten composer with an incredibly long last name. Here, to pad out my word count: Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crass-cren-bon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelter-wasser-kurstlich-himble-eisen-bahnwagen-guten-abend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwürstel-gerspurten-mitz-weimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittleraucher-von-Hautkopft of Ulm. (Yes, I copied and pasted that.) The centerpiece of the sketch is Cleese’s interview with the only man alive to have met Johann Etc. Done up in old age makeup and slumped in a chair, Jones looks moments from death, so of course he and Cleese use Johann Etc’s full name every time they mention him, which is often. It’s a perfect example of how suspense can hone a joke; you know Jones’ character is going to die, you just don’t know when.
The other highlight, coincidentally, also features Cleese and Jones in an interview-type situation, only this time, Cleese is a cop who’s understandably miffed at some of the ingredients in Jones’s Whizzo brand of chocolates. It’s largely an excuse for Cleese to list off an increasingly awful “foods” (“lark’s vomit” is about as good a topper to a routine as I’ve ever heard), but it’s well-written, the ingredients are imaginative and convincingly gross, and Cleese and Jones perform it beautifully. Cleese’s cop is offended, but in a muted way, like he can’t quite grasp that Jones could be so dumb; Jones, on the other hand, is blindly proud of each successive horror. If Jones had been trying to cover something up, or if Cleese had gone into a rant, the sketch wouldn’t have worked as well—the tension of the two men with completely different worldviews trying to understand each other adds that extra funniness.
There’s also a fine filmed sequence, “The Dull Life Of A City Stockbroker,” with Palin as an oblivious nerd running through a world of danger and excitement (including a topless lady!) he never sees. “It’s The Arts” is about two-thirds of a great episode, but the final two big sketches throw it off from perfection. I think just one of those sketches would’ve been fine; it would’ve been a lull, no question, but part of enjoying the show (and Monty Python in general) is appreciating the troupe’s willingness to try anything. There’s always gonna be a lull sooner or later. But two at once, and so close together, damages the episode in a way that the show hasn’t been damaged before. It’s human now, for want of a better term, and not just some alien madness beamed in from another galaxy. Maybe that’s for the best; knowing that Python isn’t always brilliant makes me appreciate just how important its myriad successes really are.
Speaking of aliens…
“You’re No Fun Anymore” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 11/30/1969)
We haven’t talked about the show’s laugh track, have we? It’s worth mentioning. The audience response feeds some of the sketches, but it can be hit-or-miss, and there’s a lot of dead air during the “Science Fiction Sketch” which dominates this episode. I’ve read a lot of arguments both for and against laugh tracks in recent years, and I don’t really have a strong opinion on them. If they don’t work, they really don’t work (like in the first season of Sports Night), but comedy reaps huge benefits from a crowd response. Hearing other people laugh just means that you’re more inclined to guffaw if you share their sentiment, and that can help a show hold your interest. Conversely, hearing people laugh when you don’t think something is funny just tends to piss you off, which is one of the biggest objections I’ve heard raised against laugh tracks and the “sweetening” process that amplifies and tweaks pre-recorded reactions. Flying Circus’s laughter, so far as I can tell, isn’t sweetened, which creates a curious effect. At various times throughout this episode (and others), a joke or a line will make me crack up, but only get silence from the folks in the long dead 1969. I honestly feel bad for the Pythons, in a weird, totally nonsensical way. “I get it,” I want to tell them. “I laughed.”
This doesn’t mean much, but it does add to the whole disorientation process: There are sequences of Flying Circus where the audience seems to be lagging three or four minutes behind what’s on the screen. But it still does the work the laugh track is really supposed to do, which is get you in the right frame of mind to snicker and chortle and so on. I’m certain Flying Circus would play fine without the laugh track, because the movies didn’t have recorded audiences, and they did well enough—only, that’s not exactly true, because the first movie, And Now For Something Completely Different, is lifeless at times, and the last movie, Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life, is all over the place. It’s the movies with core narratives that worked the best, and given the different demands of film, that makes sense. But it makes me wonder if the sketch movies (yes, Meaning Of Life has an overarching theme, but that’s different) might not have benefited from an appreciative audience. The more I talk about this show, the more I think that the biggest challenge facing a sketch-comedy troupe is keeping the energy up, and a few nudges to laugh might make all the difference in the world.
Like I said, “Science Fiction Sketch” isn’t wall-to-wall hilarity, but it is easily the longest sustained story the troupe has tried out yet, and, not coincidentally, one of my favorite episodes of the series. “You’re No Fun Anymore” starts off as usual, with the It’s Man and the expected assortment of sketches and skits for the first half. Cleese and Idle do a run on “Camel Spotting,” with Cleese interviewing Idle’s thoroughly unsuccessful (and somewhat confused) spotter; it climaxes with Idle delivering the punchline, “You’re no fun anymore,” which leads into a number of short gags of various characters saying the line in various silly places. The sequence is banal in tone, but increasingly violent in imagery, and it plays like a parody of forced attempts to invent a catchphrase. (Flying Circus has its share of catchphrases, but they fit into the show’s overall use of/obsession with repetition and repetition.) There’s also a sketch about an audit, with Palin as a hapless auditor who informs his employers that they’ve made only a shilling, and that he embezzled a penny. It’s solid material, which in no way prepares you for…
“Science Fiction Sketch”
Premise: Alien blancmanges turn the population of Britain into Scotsman in order to win Wimbledon
Sample dialogue: “Will they stop at nothing?” “I don’t know, will they?”
Analysis: I love ’50s sci-fi movies. The cheesy costumes, the corny speeches, the two-fisted scientist explaining the premise to his fetching assistant/fiancée. They’re at once endearing and incredibly easy to make fun of, as years of Mystery Science Theater 3000 can attest to. The “Science Fiction Sketch” hits my sweet spot, as, while it’s not as pitch-perfect a parody as something like The Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra, it’s close enough to demonstrate that the Pythons knew what they were making fun of. (I’d hesitate to call this an affectionate parody, though; it’s not really mean, but, apart from getting the basic notes right, this doesn’t lead me to assume that any of the Pythons were closet John Agar fans.) There’s Cleese’s grim, bass-profundo narration to start with, sounding like a Carl Sagan impression a decade before Cosmos debuted. There’s the introduction of the perfectly normal couple that usually get killed at the start of an alien-invasion movie—except this couple (Chapman and Idle as Mr. and Mrs. Brainsample) are so normal that the camera cuts away from them to give us a look at the first Londoner transformed into a Scotsman by an alien ray. (And if you were wondering if we get shots of a chintzy flying saucer floating unsteadily over a model of the city, you’re in luck.) Chapman also appears as a square-jawed scientist who just happens to be an expert on what makes people change from one nationality to another. He and his dim-bulb girlfriend (Donna Reading) are humanity’s only hope against invasion, except they aren’t, really, which is probably for the best.
“Science Fiction Sketch” can be broken up fairly easily into its individual sections; the scene where Idle (as a lady tennis player) tries to explain to Cleese’s police officer that she saw a blancmange playing tennis, only for Cleese to fixate on how Idle’s group was playing doubles with five people, is a familiar structure for the show, and it’s not hard to imagine the sketch being re-purposed to play in a different context. Not everything in here works. As much as I love Chapman’s scientist, Reading doesn’t have Carol Cleveland’s sense of timing. But there are enough good ideas in those scenes to keep things moving, and most of the rest of the sketch works well—and even when it’s not immediately hilarious, it’s interesting. This might sound weird to say of an episode of Flying Circus, and I don’t mean to imply that I was invested in the struggle against the blancmange, but when you start telling a story, and that story has a mystery and a conflict, it generates its own inherent suspense. Very small suspense in this case, as the stakes were non-existent, but you want to see who the aliens are, what they’re doing, and who, if anyone, can stop them. And to its credit, “Science Fiction Sketch” plays fair. The aliens have a plan, and that plan has inherent, comedic logic to it. There’s even a twist ending, when Mr. and Mrs. Brainsample save the day by eating the blancmange.
All I’m getting at, really, is that there are different ways to keep an audience interested. Python’s love of digression and stream of consciousness is one, and it works well; sometimes a couple sluggish sketches in a row can drag things down, but there’s still the ever-present curiosity to find out what the hell they’ll do next. A coherent story forgoes some of the randomness in favor of a more specific mystery and suspense. Both have their uses, and both require planning and attention to detail. The best silliness is serious work indeed.
- In The Pythons Autobiography By The Pythons, Terry Jones says that director Ian MacNaughton used to hire different actresses just to get some pretty girls on the set, and that the troupe had to fight to make Cleveland a recurring player. They were smart to do so; both of the non-Cleveland actresses with prominent roles that we’ve seen on the show aren’t as good as she was at fitting in with the group.
- “It’s a fair cop” is another phrase the Pythons will use again.
- I love Palin’s turn as the Scottish kiltmaker Angus Podgorny in “Science Fiction Sketch.” He’s just so damned endearing.
- I’ve never heard that the Scots are considered bad tennis players. Is that a common stereotype? (Lots of Scots jokes in that sketch, unsurprisingly.)
Next week: “Full Frontal Nudity” and “The Ant, An Introduction.” Also, we take a look at one of the key pre-Python series, At Last The 1948 Show.