Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Michael Ellis”/“The Light Entertainment War”
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Michael Palin
Michael Palin

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Michael Ellis”/“The Light Entertainment War”

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Monty Python’s Flying Circus

"The Light Entertainment War"

Season 4, Episode 3

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Monty Python’s Flying Circus

"Michael Ellis"

Season 4, Episode 2

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“Michael Ellis” (season 4, episode 2; originally aired 11/7/74)

Stray observations:

  • So, new opening credits! And while they still use the Sousa march, there’s a strange compromise when it comes to showing the actual title. The start of the sequence has a coin dropping in a slot, and then a box in the upper left corner of the screen slowly filling in to reveal two naked ladies standing in front of a rather small “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Then the music (which had been tinny before) blasts to full volume, and a more robust sequence ensues, ending with a simple “Monty Python.” It feels like a compromise—an attempt to hold onto the previous aesthetic of the show while trying to do something new. But as admirable as that is, it’s awkward. This is the show’s fourth season. While the first three had offered different sorts of credit sequences (as well as the accumulation of the triptych that would introduce those sequences), the title stayed the same. To change it now is disconcerting, and not in the sort of intentionally disruptive way the Python’s usually traffic in. It makes the season feel even more like an outlier than it already does. Maybe that’s just hindsight, though.

  • “You don’t feed them at all.” “What do they live on?” “They don’t, they die.” (re: ants)

  • With Cleese gone, Gilliam has been popping up more and more on screen. He’s done sketches before, but he’s best used as a not-normal person; every time he tries to put on a regular face, it doesn’t quite work. (And he makes a poor poet.)

  • All those nose bandages—a plastic surgery joke, I assume? Not that I’d know. I still have the face I was born with. Mother complained when I left home, but I insisted, and they’re doing amazing things with hot glue these days.

This episode is on fire.

You see, that’s a pun, but I’ll explain it for the members of the audience who don’t appreciate intelligence-based humor. There is a considerable amount of fire in “Michael Ellis.” Maybe not as much fire as one might find in a show about firefighters, or a show set on planet Inflammatoria, where each character is a distinct form of combustion, from matchstick to candle to hearth to a big pile of Beatles records. But still, there is more fire in this episode than the show typically has. And most of it comes up in the “live” segments of the program, the scenes that were filmed in front of a studio audience. In one sketch, there’s so much fire that the smoke makes it difficult to see the actors.

I suppose it sounds like I’m building up to some kind of metaphor here, but I don’t think I am. It’s just odd. Flying Circus has never been shy about trying various tricks and structural oddities to keep the audience on its toes, but those tricks tend to be mostly conceptual. The Pythons aren’t above filling a sitting room with water should the circumstance require, and it’s not a question of good taste or decency or crossing some sort of line into valuing audience titillation over actual gags. Titillation can be pretty damn funny in and of itself, after all. (Titillation. There, now I get the free calendar.)

It’s just that, well, there’s something about fire, about actual burning things, that doesn’t seem entirely under the performers’ control. I’m sure every precaution was made, and that no one was ever in any serious danger. It’s possible that the smoke that fills the scene in the Complaints Dept. was exaggerated for effect. But it’s distracting, and it’s distracting in part because it creates a fear that something could go wrong. Obviously nothing did, or else I would’ve started this review with a very serious paragraph about how sad it is that so and so was burned alive in the name of comedy. But knowing intellectually that nothing went wrong, and being comfortable while people walk around on screen half covered in flame, are two very different things.

Plus, there’s a live tiger. That’s a bit odd, isn’t it? The gag is that Idle’s character keeps bringing strange pets home (today he bought an ant; last week it was a sperm whale), and having an actual tiger brings home the joke pretty well,  but it also serves as a, okay I’ve used the word “distraction” already, haven’t I. But it’s that. Even through the tiger is in a cage, and even though the animal looks pretty low-key and relaxed about its situation, its still a living beast, and a living beast that isn’t completely under the control of the Pythons. Same thing with fire—it’s not alive, but it isn’t entirely predictable. It won’t obey stage directions.

These are elements that go beyond the comedy; they briefly break the spell of the show by making us wonder how the effect was produced, or if the animal’s trainer is standing by. Disruption is important, but only if it’s a controlled disruption; the Pythons are always striving for a specific effect, even if they don’t always achieve it.  But the fire and the tiger, in addition to being the title of a very depressing short story, have an impact beyond their intended effect. Behind the Flying Circus’s seeming chaos is a clear mania for precision; that precision ensures that even the most baffling tangents seem like part of a plan, even if the plan is something we, in the audience, can never grasp. This inspires confidence, and confidence is a key part of humor—we need to believe the Pythons know what they’re doing before we’ll relax enough to laugh. But it’s possible to use effects that can shatter that strain that confidence, even when they work well.

Thankfully there are no disasters, and even better, the episode is pretty good. Both of this week’s entries are perfectly acceptable, and often inspired. Which feels a bit weird to say after all that doom-crying last week, but it appears the asteroid has missed us for the nonce, so you may want to put your pants back on and apologize to that mailbox. Both episodes work at longer stories and connecting themes, and both episodes have plenty of familiar signposts. There’s Jones dressed as a housewife playing Idle’s mom, slopping food into plates and tranquilizing the tiger (or trying to); their house is stuffed full of TV sets, some of them pouring out into the lawn, and the messy ugly manic feel of the whole place is very much a Python staple. There are jokes tweaking authority (a poetry reading where famous poets read their most famous verse, although here that verse has been altered to be ant-centric; Palin shows up as Queen Victoria, struggling to overcome her German side), and a more than healthy dose of absurdism.

In fact, at this point, trying to determine what’s “off” about the whole thing in this post-Cleese world would be more arbitrary than these reviews even usually are. (I don’t know my own blood type. I think it’s the universal donor, but I’m not sure, and I don’t know how to check; I keep asking friends to drink me, but no takers yet.) Yet there are subtle hints. Take the first proper sketch, when Idle arrives at a counter and wants to speak to a clerk. He engages in some on-going ridiculousness, first with Chapman, then with Palin, then with Jones, then back to Palin. It’s amusing, although it doesn’t get really funny until we find out that Idle is at the store to buy an ant.

Before than, it’s okay, but a bit undercooked. Chapman isn’t well cast as the first clerk. He’s not bad (Gilliam would’ve been worse), but he’s overly obsequious in a way that dampens the humor. The clerks at the store are engaged in a bit of mindfuckery (Jones claims it’s “Rag Week,” a week when UK university students would traditionally wear silly costumes and masks to raise money for charity, in a way that I’m sure makes sense but would require me doing research to explain further, and we all know that isn’t happening), and that’s not a bad start, but there need to be just a hint of malevolence behind the behavior to make it a joke.

Chapman acts like he legitimately wants to help, and that he’s just kind of daffy. The role would’ve been better suited to Cleese; he could’ve made calling Idle “Michael Ellis” (not the character’s real name, but a runner that lasts through the rest of the half hour) into as much a taunt as it is a misunderstanding, and kept a certain, indefinable air of snooty menace running throughout the exchange. Chapman is best when he’s playing people who don’t quite understand what’s going on. Sometimes that means being a general who decides everything is nonsense and uses his authority to shut it down; sometimes it means playing a hapless sap who really just wants everyone to get along, with inevitably disastrous results. But here, Idle’s playing the nominal straight man of the piece, and because Chapman doesn’t have a specific character to ape, he flounders.

It doesn’t help that the material starts a bit wishy-washy. Idle and Chapman are stranded in a scenario where their objectives don’t give them anything to play. Chapman calls Idle “Michael Ellis,” and when Idle demands an explanation, and insists that he knows this “Ellis” person, Chapman dodges, and it all feels forced; Idle’s determination to find out about Michael Ellis doesn’t make a lot of sense, and Chapman’s dodging doesn’t really come across either. It’s more like a tepid improv scene, one where the actors realized they were in a fix, but decided to push forward anyway. There are Michael Ellis references throughout the half hour, and the more divorced the become from their original context (and the more you realize they aren’t ever going to pay off, unless the short man who accompanies Chapman during the poetry reading sketch is supposed to be an unidentified Ellis) the more amusing they get, but that doesn’t retroactively make this scene work. There’s a spark missing.

Still, there are good ideas here, ideas that seem to strike on a vein that the Pythons haven’t explored before. The idea of the department store as a kind of giant hodge-podge of middle-to-upper-class insanity allows room for several different quick gags, and the fact that Idle’s character leaves the shop and comes back reinforces the idea of the place as a persistent world. (Narratively speaking, it’s rarely a good idea for people to loop back to an old location like this, but the narrative isn’t pressing in this case; we have a basic sense of Idle trying to find a replacement for his ant, Marcus, who is short a few legs and has a fake eye, and that’s enough of an excuse for everything else to happen.) The episode tells another more-or-less unified story, and while that story is just an excuse to hang a handful of sketches and concepts on, it works okay. There’s even a sketch about man with bad toupees, which is at once one of the oldest jokes in the damn book, and enough to make me laugh.

So yeah, this didn’t kill me or anything. But there is a certain lack of confidence at this point that’s hard to let go of. The group is still clearly trying—hence all that fire and that live tiger and hey, the writing didn’t suddenly turn terrible. But take the Poetry Reading sketch. It’s silly, which is excellent, and Chapman’s turn as a society matron who’s presumably too drunk to speak clearly is a good start. But the joke itself is just various poets reading famous work, only it turns out to have ants in it. That’s not really inspired; worse, after the first recitation, it becomes predictable, more like a bad college sketch where the writers are so amused by their own cheekiness that they can’t move on from a premise. Palin’s arrival as the Queen livens things up, but that impression of going through certain familiar motions remains. This is understandable. Once any show hits its fourth season, it’s settled into a groove, and “ant poetry” certainly sounds like the sort of thing that would fit in the Python’s oeuvre. It can be hard to see the difference between a groove and a rut. Maybe the problem here isn’t an absence so much as an inevitability.

“The Light Entertainment War” (season 4, episode 3; originally aired 11/14/1974)

Something else “Michael Ellis” lacked: a good target. “The Light Entertainment War” more than picks up the slack in that regard, opening with a spoof of TV comedy that features a pair of drunken bums strolling around town looking for their next drink. (The specific show they’re referencing is the original Sanford & Son, as mentioned in the episode’s script.) It’s not that the parody lasts very long—there’s a build up before the first sketch makes its premise entirely clear, but apart from hitting the more obvious notes (Jones and Palin in their comical, bumming “poverty;” finding booze in the most unlikely of places), it’s not like it’s a cutting indictment of anything. But it’s still something to bounce off of, and the bounce helps make the wild run through a number of different characters, each one more tangentially connected than the last, work as a gag. By pretending as though the sketch is going to focus on one subject (thanks to the Palin’s cheery narration), it gets funnier and funnier that this subject keeps changing. A target doesn’t need to be a source of rage—it just needs to provide a starting point, a recognizable element of sanity that makes the madness unique.

Where “Michael Ellis” was largely content to revel in various forms of weirdness (to varying degrees of success), this episode keeps finding things worth aiming at. The opening segment eventually segues into a World War II Air Force bunker, as a pair of pilots try and make themselves understood through increasingly laughable slang terms; these terms start off real enough, but quickly segue into utter nonsense, in an obvious, but still entertaining bit. But the main theme of the episode really kicks off when the scene moves to a meeting of the heads of the army. Chapman, back in his general’s uniform (strange how satisfying it is to see him in the get-up; like a quick check in with an old friend), learns that the Germans aren’t taking the war seriously.

This is a fantastic concept, the sort of idea that allows for a lot of small gags to poke up their heads and futz around. The episode never entirely settles into a long-running story about war and seriousness, but it uses the concept as an excuse to to throw out a ton of stuff mocking the stolidity of military films and stuffy soldiers and, hell, there’s even a sketch about the adventures of an impossibly upper-crust family and their love affair/horror of language. (“Gorrrrn. That’s a good, woody sort of word.”) The moment where Chapman stands up and says that Germany isn’t taking the war seriously enough is like a statement of intent; from then on, it is the job of the episode to make sure absolutely nothing is taken seriously—not that this is exactly a change of plans from usual operations.

Still, the military makes for a promising contrast to Python silliness than the department store in “Michael Ellis.” There, the clerks’ behavior and the store’s impressively broad (and curiously specific) selection of goods served as an exaggeration of a typical consumer paradise. Here, army procedure and stodgy conviction runs right smack into the wall of absurdism—there’s not much exaggeration, at least not that we can see. One of the reasons Chapman’s general has always been so effective is that it’s not difficult to imagine him in a more conventional war picture, shouting orders at cowering subordinates and letting his voice waver a bit in private moments when he thinks of everything his “boys” have sacrificed; while Jones’s turn as the head of a military tribunal doesn’t have quite the same level of conviction, he’s still playing a seemingly level-headed, hidebound authority figure.

Which makes Palin’s turn as prosecutor Colonel Fawcett all the more delightful. If you think I’m going to turn this review into yet another excuse to praise Michael Palin, well, you are very much correct. Because he’s terrific, y’know? And dreamy. I wonder if he’s seeing anyone. Not that, ha-ha, not that I’d be interested. I mean, he’s terribly old now, terribly old, and he’s so rich and famous, and—Oh, that’s right, I’m not into men, that too. But still. I hope he’s happy. Sometimes I dream about him. We’re just walking along a path together, and we’re not holding hands, but we’re doing it in that way that’s really just like you’re about to hold hands, and then he smiles at me all bashful and sort of cheeky, and, well…

Ahem. Look, putting aside my (deeply personal and somewhat embarrassing but oh so sincerely meant) feelings about Mr. Palin, there’s no denying that he’s one of the troupe’s standout performers; and with Cleese gone, his importance to the show, at least on screen, becomes all the more evident. He has a distinct energy that every other remaining Python lacks—Chapman is more grounded, Jones is more plodding, Idle is slyer. Palin pops, and his presence offers variety in a show that quite often needs it.

In his big scene in “The Light Entertainment War,” he plays a military prosecutor attempting to take Idle’s private to task of “carrying the war by other than warlike means—to wit, that you did on April 16, 1942-”

Actually, hold up, just want to interrupt myself here and moment and mention how smart it is that the Python’s have chosen World War II for the context of most of the war-themed gags (and even the sketch about the posh people) in this episode. I’m not sure how conscious a decision this was, as the second world war was, or so I’ve heard, a pretty big deal; and the fact that it happened only about thirty years before this episode aired means that it would still weigh heavy on the minds of the populace at large. So maybe it just happened this way automatically. Still: they could’ve gone with World War I. But WWII is a more daring target, one more relevant to popular culture, and one whose dignity and nobility is supposed to go without question. This may be another case of hindsight helping to add sauce to the goose (see? I CAN USE BRITISH IDIOMS), but there’s something more shocking about making fun of the “good guys” in WWII. Most wars tend to be murkier; people fighting for territory or religious reasons or hey, we’ve got missiles that’ll go bad if we don’t use them on something. WWII is pretty much heroes vs. villains, at least in broad strokes (one good thing about the Nazis: you have to work really, really hard to be seen as evil in comparison), and that creates a subversive frisson whenever the Pythons start tweaking the Allied forces. That doesn’t mean the group forces us to see the war in a new light, but the reminder that any war, even one that is necessary in terms of stopping a hideous super-power from taking over Europe and possibly the world, is ridiculous, is a good and valuable thing. Humor can rob a subject of its power to awe us. That can be extremely necessary.

Anyway, Idle did some silly things, and Palin (as Colonel Fawcett) is tasked with proving the case against him. Which is fails to do, but in such a twisty, digressive fashion that it’s quite entertaining to watch. To be fair to poor Fawcett, he has some help in failing; Jones keeps interrupting the prosecutor’s speeches to ask him questions on various points. At first, in fact, it seems like Jones is going to be the source of comedy for the scene, as his determination to figure out just which Basingstoke Palin is referring to suggests he’s a minutiae-fixated nutter of the highest order. But then Palin reveals that the map he’s been using was made by Cole Porter—not the Cole Porter who wrote “Kiss Me Kate,” but the Cole Porter who wrote “Anything Goes.” Which leads in turn to Palin singing a new version of “Anything Goes” in front of the court: “AnyTHING goes in, anyTHING goes out! Fish, bananas, old pyjamas, mutton! Beef! and Trout!”

Taking a popular song title from a well-known composer and just making up a completely different song to replace it is a wonderfully, magnificently stupid idea. And Palin’s commitment to the bit (he sings like he’s slightly miffed about the whole thing, even as he could very well be bluffing) sells it. It makes you wish the rest of the sketch was just him making up bad versions of other popular song titles. Maybe that’s the sign of great Python sketch: there are a dozen other ways it could go than the one it did, and so you’re always left wanting a little bit more, even as you laugh.

Stray observations:

  • Having knocked Chapman a bit in the “Michael Ellis” review, let me use this space to say he does a bang-up job in this episode. I especially enjoyed him as word-obsessed patriarch of the really really rich family; his love of “woody” words is especially keen. (And maybe a sly in-joke? Because he’s gay, and “woody” is slang for “erection.” I’m not sure if you caught that. It’s okay, I’m here to help.)

  • “Get the Prime Minster!” (Idle opens a door.) “NOT THAT QUICKLY!”

  • I love the Gilliam animation sequence about a guy trying to sleep while the world builds tomorrow outside his house. 

  • Neil Innes makes an appearance near the end of the episode as a pilot serenading his somewhat disinterested lady love. The sketch is notable for not having any obvious laughs; even the woman who keeps turning away could just be an attempt to match the “coy” look of similar serenades. The scene exists as something ostensibly straight for the end credits to roll over, but given the goofiness of the previous half-hour, the straightness (pun!) seems funny in and of itself.

  • SKETCH THAT I MISSED: I liked about the horse jumping over various musical performances. But you don’t ever see them jump.

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