Hello, and welcome to the first in a series of ongoing episodic reviews of the beloved comedy television program, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In order to maintain our standards of innovation and consumer convenience here at ReviewCo, you’ll note that this particular review is, in fact, a series of artfully arranged paragraphs examining the final episode of the aforementioned series. This is done intentionally, in order to give our patient and loyal readers a chance to experience firsthand the sort of artful trickery and experimentation by which the comedy troupe known as the Monty Pythons made its name. However, since we here at ReviewCo (please enjoy our wide variety of carefully selected opinion-based products) recognize how valuable time is to the modern consumer, we have also arranged for reviews of each of the previous episodes to be posted in advance of this premiere, for your convenience. You may notice that several of these reviews come pre-loaded with comments designed to fit your specifications and needs. Do not be alarmed.
So, here we are then, eh? Eh, yes, very much eh. The end of it all, the end of—well, the end of something, at any rate. Python would return in various other forms over the years: movies, stage shows, computer games, solo projects, another stage show, various abductions, spree-killings, and the takeover of an obscure third-world country whose descent into anarchy and mass suicide remains a hallmark of humanitarian intervention and diplomacy. “Party Political Broadcast” is not, as conclusions go, exactly definitive. The episode betrays no sense of its status as the end of an era, which is only right. It’s not the best half-hour of the final season, and thankfully, it’s not the worst. It simply is, a recorded event whose importance is only apparent in retrospect.
Which is, again, only right, and entirely in keeping with the Pythons general approach, but it puts me in a bit of a bind. I’ve gone on at some length about season four’s various shortcomings, and those shortcomings are amply on display here, even as the occasional funny moment or clever twist prevents the proceedings from being a total waste of time. No one is asking for repeat of previous theses, regardless of how brilliant those theses were. (And, let’s be honest, they were incredibly brilliant. Forging new frontiers into the world of comedy over-analysis right here, thank you very much.) So instead, I will bid you all a fond adieu, and remember: Keep watch in the night. You never know when an animation directed by Terry Gilliam will creep up behind you, fart, and devour you alive.
No, seriously, leave. Look, I know you can clearly see that the scroll bar goes further down the page, but that scroll bar is a lie. I’ve known him for years, and he’s always padding his space count for extra mouse time. It’s creepy, and it makes me feel weird to have to tell you this, but, well, now you know. Get out before that shifty vertical dash on the right side of your screen uses your index finger to enjoy the perverse pleasures only a graphic browser tool can understand.
All right, fine. Fine. You want more? We’ll do more. We’ll go through the whole bloody thing again. I’m sure that’ll be just super.
“Party Political Broadcast” (season 4, episode 6; originally aired 12/5/1974)
After a title card explaining that what we’re about to see is a “Party Political Broadcast On Behalf Of The Liberal Party,” the episode cuts to the Garibaldis, a loathsome family having a horrible meal in a house that’s falling apart. While the characters don’t really match up, there’s a definite Young Ones-esque vibe to the sequence, at least in the broad particulars: the random, violent acts of destruction, loathsome characters sniping at one another, gross sight gags (Gilliam’s role throughout the scene is to lie on a couch eating baked beans, pouring beans all over himself, and shouting “Beans! Beans!”), and a general sense of barely controlled chaos—the joke is essentially just how nasty and ugly and unpleasant everything is, that raw punkish power that Python had never before embraced quite as fully as it does here.
But while the main ensemble of The Young Ones weren’t people you’d want to have over for tea (or literally any other reason), each member of that household had its own distinctive charm, and the show’s tone always kept on just the right side of the cartoon/reality line. The Garibaldi sketch, on the other hand, is very, very, very shrill. Terry Jones has a long monologue about bowel movements, and that’s really the whole gag right there: He has a whole monologue about bowel movements. There’s a little more to it than that, and the sketch, which goes on for quite some time, isn’t as awful as it could be (Graham Chapman, playing the family’s adult daughter, is pretty funny, and Eric Idle is fine as the quiet, maternal center of the insanity), but far too much of it there is simply to shock the audience with its audacity. Shock for shock’s sake isn’t always a terrible thing, but it shows a shift in Python priorities that’s dispiritingly unambitious and, well, dull.
Things pick up when sketch cuts away and we get a little context: The Giribaldis are actually competitors in the competition for the Most Awful Family In Britain. This is a relief. Suddenly, the previous scene doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s part of a larger, I dunno, satire of… something. Look, the contest means that there’s actually something like a larger story going on here, and while it’s not a very complex story, it gives us something more interesting to hang onto than people shrieking at each other and various props and furniture breaking. As may have come across over the course of these reviews, I’m slightly more sympathetic towards sketches with narrative than I am towards sketches without; both can work well, but the latter is harder to pull off effectively, because it doesn’t offer audiences anything to distract them when the material isn’t working. At least with a story or a hook lurking about, there’s automatic suspense (of the most modest variety imaginable, of course) to help you along. When it’s just odd individuals being odd, that oddness has to be either immediately gripping or endearing or funny—if it isn’t, the tedium sets in, just like it maybe already has with this paragraph.
Michael Palin is the host of the MAFIB contest, which is nice because at least he gets one last chance to do his smarmy emcee routine. There’s a panel of over-qualified judges, a clip of a posh awful family that ends before it wears out its welcome, and a solid finale with the reveal that the actual winner of the contest is so awful that none of their antics can be shown on television. None of this ranks among the show’s absolute best sketches, but it at least feels more like classic Flying Circus material, a sequence that’s been carefully constructed, not just tossed out a window to rot in the street. That’s the worst part of the first scene: not its ugliness (which most a question of taste than anything), but the sense of the troupe just saying “fuck it” and going with the easiest, laziest tripe imaginable.
And then we go back to the Giribaldis for a bit. It’s a little better because there’s a yowling cat puppet stuck in a wall that’s so freakish looking I can’t help but love it; also, Chapman shows up selling Icelandic Honey (it’s imported. To Iceland. Because it’s cold there), and while his whole speech is more than a little like someone pulled some random words out of a bag and decided to see what would happen, it’s at least not actively grating or irritating to watch. Which is sad, I suppose: We’ve come so far that it’s possible to be relieved when a sketch manages to merely exist without offering immediate cause for offense. But maybe that’s the price a group like Python pays for doing what it did. This was never a “safe” troupe. Even when its work wasn’t intended to offend, there was always that perpetual dissatisfaction with the safety of the familiar. The astonishing effect of the group at its best was never something that promised consistency, stability, or the safety of a long-term investment. The fact that Monty Python became as much an institution as it did is something of a minor miracle—the group had “flame out, not fade away” practically embedded in its DNA.
Next is a decent doctor sketch, with Chapman playing an aggressively unhelpful physician who forces a gutshot Jones (who was shot by Chapman’s nurse, played by Carol Cleveland) to fill out a complicated form before he’ll agree to offer any treatment. The scene is mostly notable for the sight of Jones gushing fake blood all over the set as Chapman rambles on; it’s mildly funny, but the special effect dominates the written material and performances, in a way that’s maybe not entirely intentional. Like the fire in “Michael Ellis,” the prominent effects work (which, considering how much red stuff comes spraying out over the course of the sequence, is honestly pretty impressive) becomes the thing we notice first, even before we have a chance to get caught up in the “reality” of the scene itself. It’s a small, but rather telling, creative decision, and it pops up a few times over the course of the half hour. Props collapse, TVs implode, cricketers are speared. There’s been plenty of violence on the series before, but the level of actual physical destruction and gore on display here seem suggestive of a creative team looking for ways to distract both the audience and themselves.
Still, though: It’s not a total loss. There follows a scene of Idle in an officer’s shirt and ballerina’s tutu, dictating a letter to Palin, who is dressed as a bishop. Palin keeps transforming Idle’s words into flowery, exaggerated speech, but the real gag comes when the two men nearly, almost, but not quite confess their love for one another. Joke-wise, it’s not a very sharp scene—that feeling of “oh fuck it, I guess we have to put something on the screen” persists, although since the exchange is being performed by two immensely talented comedic actors, it’s not painful to watch. More, there’s a queer (pun! DO YOU GET THE PUN) sense of almost-seriousness to the moment. Palin looks like he might crack up at any second (Idle’s facade of longing and desperate embarrassment remains impressively consistent throughout), but the emotional intimacy of the moment, however fundamentally absurd, approaches an exchange between actual legitimate characters. It’s a bit funny, but just as important, it’s compelling to watch. There’s a spark to it, an awkward but affecting impression of not knowing exactly what to make of what’s happening that feels more like Python than all the blood-gushing and shrieking.
After some Gilliam animation Chapman gives “An Appeal On Behalf Of Extremely Rich People Who Have Absolutely Nothing Wrong With Them.” (And here I offer a general apology to Gilliam animation fans; I’ve done the man a disservice throughout this coverage, in large part because I’ve never been quite sure how to write about his segments. Out of all the Pythons, his contributions to the group arguably remained the most consistent, and even if I never quite came to love him for his consistency, I can at least respect the integrity of it). This might be the best part of the episode. Chapman is playing a stuffy, though calm and seemingly rational, authority figure, delivering a straight-faced plea on behalf of everyone who is, well, you can just read that title I quoted again. The bit isn’t quite as sharp or pointed as it might be, as it’s less about skewering the pointlessly wealthy and more about underlining the absurdity of a wealthy group making a plea for non-action, but it works. Like Palin getting one last stab (on the show) at his smirking host persona, it’s gratifying to see Chapman doing one of the things he does best.
The rest is a hodge-podge of not-quite-developed concepts (a walking tree, Idle as a man who visits a housewife to help her finish her sentences, actually black men playing a team of African cricketers who murder their opponents mid-game), and it’s fine? It’s fine. At least no one is shrieking at each other. The end credits arrive slightly prematurely as they are wont to do on the series, although here, the effect is less a subversion of expectations than a slightly nostalgic reminder of when that twist used to be surprising. And hey, the very last scene has Cleveland dancing on a desk, which is rather lovely.
That’s it. So, I was wondering, were you doing anything tonight? I mean, if you have plans, that’s fine, but I was just—you have plans. No, I said that’s fine. This was totally spur of the moment. Just because I’m the fancy reviewer man, who has given you minute after minute of richly insightful commentary on one of the most important television comedy series ever produced, that doesn’t mean you owe me anything. No, I am not crying. I’ll just sit here for a bit, quietly. You’ll miss me soon enough, you bastards.