Of all the members of Monty Python, Graham Chapman is the only one who’s dead. Chapman passed away in 1989, permanently curtailing the possibility of a Python reunion, and linking the writer and performer to the group in a way that other Pythonites have managed to eschew. John Cleese has had his own show (Fawlty Towers, arguably the best pure sitcom ever made), as well as any number of roles on film and television; Terry Gilliam is better known as a director than as an animator; Michael Palin, like Cleese, is a well-established character actor, and has done a number of popular travel shows; Eric Idle has done voice and television work; and Terry Jones co-wrote the comedy series Ripping Yarns with Palin and has written books and produced television shows about medieval and Roman history. All of these men are still connected with Monty Python, and if (god forbid) any of them should shuffle off this mortal coil, their obituary will inevitably mention the group Flying Circus and the movies somewhere after “dragged screaming into the night.” But apart from Chapman (with the exception of Idle, who has spent the last decade and change milking every last bit of creative and financial juice out of old projects), the Pythonites have had good fortune building up their own small niches in the entertainment industry. Their artistic careers don’t appear to end immediately following the end credits of Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life.
That’s unfair to Chapman, a Cambridge graduate who kept working steadily after the troupe went its separate ways. It’s just that none of his projects ever quite took off; his biggest, the film Yellowbeard which he wrote and starred in, opened to middling critical reviews and tepid box office. Chapman also did a lecture series in the US in the mid-80s, several of which were recorded and edited together for Looks Like A Brown Trouser Job, a sort of greatest-hits DVD. It’s worth the time if you're a fan, as Chapman is personable, open, and knows his way around an anecdote. Plus, whatever success he did or didn’t find post-Python, he lived one hell of a life. Chapman was a severe alcoholic who spent much of his time filming and writing Flying Circus drunk or drinking; according to other members of the group, he suffered from stage fright and was terrified he would forget his lines, which led to vodka and gin to calm his nerves, which led, inevitably, to actually forgetting his lines. He was a member of the Dangerous Sports Club later in life, the group that brought bungee jumping to the masses. He was close friends with Keith Moon, for god’s sake. If that doesn’t make you shiver, you’ve been reading the wrong biographies.
Sometimes it’s possible to spot Chapman’s off-screen antics on screen—he might appear distracted in this bit, or flushed in that. (According to Jones, there was one scene where Chapman forgot his lines so many times the audience actually cheered when he finally got them right, and the cheers made it into the final cut.) But what makes him so terrific on the series, and so essential to the troupe, is how normal he seems. Behind the scenes, Chapman’s skewed sensibilities brought a surreal edge to Cleese’s writing. On camera, there’s a reason Chapman played the lead role in the two Python films with anything approaching a narrative (Holy Grail and Life Of Brian): while each member of the group had his strengths, Chapman made for the best straight man of the bunch. (He was gay, by the way, so enjoy the pun. Or the irony. Or the coincidence.) By and large, the others of the group played caricatures—Chapman, at his best, played characters. The parts he took on were often ridiculous, but just as often that ridiculousness was forced on them unwillingly, an endless series of Sam the Eagles struggling through Muppet Hell. He never expected the Spanish Inquisition, no matter how many times they arrived on his door. Chapman the actor was perpetually put-upon, but unlike Jones, he never seemed wounded or hurt by it. Just confused, occasionally astonished, and more than a little miffed. He didn’t wink at the audience, and that made him perfect for roles like The Colonel, introduced in:
“Owl Stretching Time” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 10/26/1969)*
And did those feet: As always with Python, the idea of “over-arching story” is more than a little sketchy (ha), but the connective tissue of “Owl Stretching Time” actually follows a kind of logic; it has an introduction, rising action, and, dare we say it, a punchline, albeit a punchline that doesn’t punch so much as suddenly deflate. After the It’s Man falls off a cliff, there are the usual opening credits, and this week’s opening slides: “Episode Arthur, Part 7, Teeth.” Eric Idle comes in singing and playing the Emcee, to lead into:
Art gallery: Cleese and Chapman as Pepperpots (Janet and Maud respectively), enjoying the sites at the museum, and repeatedly slapping the heads of their unseen, and extremely twerpy, spawn. By the end, they’re nibbling on the paintings. Cleese and Chapman make a good Pepperpot pair, and I love how the sketch doesn’t have a single obvious premise. It’s just these two ladies going off about all the destruction their brats have caused (giving the writers a chance to show off their knowledge of the art world); the edible masterpieces is just an inspired tag to the scene. But it’s funny because of the two women’s easy camaraderie and their casual approach to child abuse. It also helps that the sketch doesn’t wear out its welcome, jumping relatively quickly into:
Art critic: Michael Palin extols the virtues of edible art, notable for the entrance of Katya Wyeth as his wife. Palin complains of indigestion, Wyeth says, “Watteau, dear?” (A pun on “water” and the French painter Antoine Watteau; the line gets buried by audience reaction to Palin’s earlier bit, which happens from time to time on the show’s live material.) When Palin groans, Wyeth whines, “But it’s my only line!”, the first bit of fourth-wall “breaking” we’ve had all episode, which brings us to:
It’s a man’s life in the modern army: Back to Idle’s troubadour; as he sings, Wyeth starts groping him, and the tagline, “IT’S A MAN’S LIFE IN THE CARDIFF ROOMS, LIBYA” pops up. Here’s where we get the “plot,” as it were. Chapman’s Colonel pops up, and starts complaining about the show using the army’s actual advertising slogan in such a ridiculous context. The Colonel is an iconic figure for the show, the perfect symbol of British authority and general not-getting-it-ness. He warns that if the show continues to misuse the slogan, he’ll put an end to the episode. Which is the plot I mentioned; we now know that at some point, someone will push the Colonel too far, and everything will come crashing to a halt. It’s like a more straightforward version of “The Larch” segments from last week—we’re building toward something. We just don’t know exactly what. Whereas another Python would’ve made the character more overtly threatening, or softened him a bit, Chapman is no-nonsense, determined, and a bit uncomfortable to be closely associated with all this foolishness. As the episode goes on, the “It’s a man’s life” will pop up a number of times in different context, and each time, the Colonel will appear to warn everybody off, before finally shutting the show down entirely.
Undressing in public: Here’s a format switch—a silent sketch starring Terry Jones as a beach-goer struggling to find a safe spot to change out of his unmentionables and into a swimming suit. The sequence, with its slapstick routines and Jones’ mute and perpetually beleaguered protagonist, pays homage to Jacque Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), and is the rare Python sequence that largely lacks both wordplay and surrealist touches. Jones struggles public indecency, occupied changing booths, overly friendly doormen, and at one point hides behind a view-scope and gives an elderly couple an inadvertent show. The sketch is charming, funny, and a good showcase for the group’s ability to fit themselves into just about any comic style. The Pythons put their own twist on the material in the end, when Jones stumbles into a burlesque show and overcomes his shyness with a triumphant striptease. It’s a cute bit, but Jones’ disrobing goes on longer than the joke can support it.
Self-defence: I almost wrote about John Cleese this week instead of Chapman, but the debut of the Colonel made Chapman seem the better intro. Still, if you want a good example of what Cleese brings to the group, you could do worse than to contrast his performance in “Self-defence” against his work in “Secret Service dentists.” In the former, he’s an instructor psychotically determined to protect himself against the dangers of an assailant armed with fresh fruit. The silliness of the premise is good enough, but Cleese’s furious, hectoring lead elevates it, making it less about the goofiness of defending against a banana (and maybe there’s some sort of subtext there, I’m sure I don’t know), and more about a non-particularly bright gym teacher and his fixations. Nobody in Monty Python—and quite possibly nobody anywhere—could do outrage like Cleese. He spits and raves and shrieks, and it’s the contrast between his tightly wound presence and those sudden explosions that make him so effective. Contrast that with his performance in:
Secret Service dentists: I’m not the first person to make a lot out of Cleese’s rants, but he’s just as good at playing small. Cleese’s desk clerk isn’t exactly the main character in this sketch—that’s probably Eric Idle, although it’s a big enough sketch that it rarely centers on any one person for long—but the way he plays the opening with Idle is a study in distraction. Idle comes in looking for a book, which just happens to be a code phrase, although Idle acts like he’s unaware of it, and Cleese spends the first half of the scene trying to get him out of the store. He’s polite but rushed; there’s a sense of stakes to the conversation almost immediately, and that makes it funnier. We know, as Idle repeatedly states, that “there is something going on,” and the sketch builds off that, throwing out goofy double-cross after double-cross, until Chapman’s fey Bond villain bursts in just in time for lunch. Idle does a tag explained that he’s “Arthur Lemming of the BDA,” which means it’s time for “It’s a man’s life in the British Dental Association,” which means it’s also time for the Colonel to show up and end the program. Which he does, without any fanfare at all.
*Was it funny? Yes.
“Man’s Crisis Of Identity In The Latter Half Of The Twentieth Century” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 11/16/1969)**
Confuse-A-Cat: I love this sketch. I love it because it’s hilarious, but also because something happens in my brain when I watch it. There’s a sense of, I dunno, solidity to it; you hear writers and artists talking sometimes about how they don’t create so much as excavate, discovering their work and refining it down to its essence, and that’s what a great sketch feels like, something that had always been there, just waiting to be written down. It had never occurred to me before watching this that cats could get bored; that people might get worried that their cat was bored; that the only way to save a bored cat was to confuse it; and that, to top everything off, there’s a very serious and dedicated group of professionals one can hire to do just that. The fact that this is an unusual premise is why the sketch is funny; the fact that each step follows the other with mad logic is why it’s entertaining to watch.
But it’s satisfying too, in a way that not every Python sketch—not even the funny ones—always is. There’s a sense of completion to it, like someone somewhere just checked off a box on list of concepts waited to be fulfilled. Python is devoted to making you laugh until you can’t breath anymore, and then maybe to steal your wallet (or your pants). But those moments when they do hit on something that clicks, something that finds a way to tell a joke that no one has ever told before, it stays with me. While you probably aren’t going to walk away from “Confuse-A-Cat” with a greater understanding of the human condition, there’s still the immensely powerful sense of seeing something singular and new. Yeah, it’s fucking funny, and that’s what matters the most, but part of the reason it’s so funny is that it’s surprising and new and well-built. There are the expected Python touches: Chapman’s vet is a loony, and I hadn’t noticed before how Terry Jones’ housewife is constantly shushing her husband (Palin). The show the Confuse-A-Cat team puts on for the cat in question is great. But there’s no effort to dilute the premise or wander off in the middle of a scene; the group was more than willing to undercut and distract, but it also knew how to make the most of a good concept.
There are other good concepts in this episode. Smuggler has Palin as an incredibly inept smuggler trying to get past a seemingly suspicious customs officer played by Cleese; when Palin confesses, Cleese refuses to believe him because he’s so obviously bad at his job. There’s the surrealism of Newsreader arrested, in which Eric Idle plays a newsreader reading about how the police are looking for a newsreader who happens to look exactly like him, and is in fact his double in the screen behind his desk, only when the police arrest the double they realize they have the wrong man and come back for Idle instead, which is all less complicated than it sounds, but mostly more clever than laugh-out-loud hilarious. Erotic film has Terry Jones getting lost in suggestive stock footage while Carol Cleveland waits impatiently for sex, a one note bit that wouldn’t be out of place on Benny Hill (which isn't an insult; again the Pythons can do a wide range of humor). John Cleese’s sadistic turn in Silly job interview, tormenting a hapless Chapman with bell-ringing and circular questions, is a highpoint, before we end with Palin as the bitter head of the Career Advisory Board, who introduces the brief Burglar/Encyclopedia Salesman sketch that SNL totally ripped of for its land shark sketch.
All of it’s worthwhile material, but none of it quite crystallizes the way “Confuse-A-Cat” does. Which isn’t to say it’s a weak episode; it feels a little sloppy at times (the Police Raid sketch barely even exists), but with Python, it’s often hard to tell how much is intentional, and how much is just the group figuring things out. By the fifth episode, the anarchy has become more familiar, and what Python does is not longer quite as impressive as how they do it. The linking in “Man’s Crisis” is stream of consciousness, and there’s the usual run of oddities; Terry Jones interviews a duck, a lizard, and a cat at one point (all stuffed). The best episodes all seem to build up to some larger form of mayhem—not a theme, necessarily, but a motif repeated throughout the half hour until it finally lands. Without that connective tissue, “Man’s Crisis” is still a good, and often great, entry, but it lacks cumulative effect. Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe it's another grand experiment in messing with our expectations. In either case, it gets the job done. Like the cat, we’re bored and looking for distraction; and if nothing else, this is some damn fine distraction.
**Was it funny? Yes.
- Terry Jones’ bazooka-wielding dentist is great. He’s just so affably determined to murder everyone.
- “Next, you eat the banana, thus disarming him!” Cleese basically yells the entire sketch.
- I do plan on focusing more on Gilliam’s animation at some point in the future, but it’s difficult to talk about his sketches without just describing what happens even more than I already do. (Which is, admittedly, quite a lot.) I was never a huge fan of the animation on Flying Circus, but the more I watch the show, the more I appreciate how it helps set the tone. Gilliam cuts up old-fashioned images and rearranges them in ridiculous ways, which is pretty much the Python modus operandi.
- I wonder if Wyeth and Idle were hooking up behind the scenes. I get the feeling Idle probably did quite well the with the ladies. (It would explain her appearance here; she’s fine in what little she has to do, but Cleveland would’ve done just as well.)
- That smuggler sketch with Palin and Cleese—it works, but I wonder if it could have been tighter. I love Palin, but he doesn’t really come across as believably nervous; his performance doesn’t turn authentic until the very end, when he’s shocked (and offended) to find out Cleese is letting him go. I’m nitpicking, and I’m not sure the sketch would’ve been better with, say, Chapman in Palin’s role. But there’s something fascinating about watching a group like Python do a scene, and see them not quite nail it, and remember they’re human. It’s like the behind the scenes stuff on the Beatles' Let It Be, only without the hate.
- On the other hand, Chapman and Cleese are absolutely perfect in the interview. Chapman’s horrified, “Oh dear we’re back to that again,” is genius.
- In the interest of transparency: I’m still figuring these reviews out as a I go. I plan to write a bit more on Python precursors like At Last The 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set; I’d like to spotlight each troupe member at some point; and beyond that, my main goal is to not be boring. We’ll see how that goes.
Next week: “It’s The Arts” and “You’re No Fun Anymore.”