The final episode of Do Not Adjust Your Set, the British children’s comedy program that ran for two seasons starting in 1967, was also its best. This isn’t a tragedy; for 27 episodes, the show was pleasant, energetic, and frequently funny diversion, but it was time to move on. The cast (which includes Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones, in case you were wondering) seems to realize it, and that’s part of what makes the finale so striking. Over the course of it’s run, Do Not Adjust Your Set was often cheeky and whimsical, and it occasionally commented on itself, but never quite as fully and repeatedly as it did in episode 27. Much of the half hour is taken up with Michael Palin in an office, sitting at a desk in front of a chaotic mess of humans and paperwork, and announcing as the series counts down to its final moments. There are the usual assortment of sketches, some a few minutes, some lasting only for visual gag to kick in; there’s music, and hearty audience applause. But what makes it really click, in a way the rest of the series rarely did, was the clear sense of consciousness guiding everything. There was intent behind the anarchy, the open and repeated acknowledgement that this was a TV show, and it was nearly over; there’s a connection with the audience which heretofore had gone largely unremarked. Once the connection is made, the rules have changed. Anything can happen.
As with At Last The 1948 Show, much of what’s striking to modern eyes about Do Not Adjust Your Set is how it blends the future of comedy with the past. It’s a perfectly fine piece of work, with its own rhythms and distinct personality, but there’s no getting around the fact that a good number of the gags are, well, old; and while time does that to everything, you get the impression that part of the appeal of the material is that it’s always been old. Fresh comedy is exciting and can yield more memorable results, but it’s also harder to pull off, and, just as importantly, can challenge the viewers in ways that don’t want to be challenged. There’s something reassuring about the regular pattern of set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline, over and over, world without end. Most of these punchlines can be seen coming from several miles distance, and, again like At Last The 1948 Show, they often to serve to deflate the humor as much as enhance it.
Yet there’s something tantalizingly “almost” about Do Not Adjust Your Set; it’s easy to see Palin, Idle, and Jones’s comic voices taking shape, just as it’s easy to see why John Cleese and Graham Chapman were professed fans. The sketches tend to remain distinct, but there’s a flow to them that would eventually serve as a springboard for Monty Python’s approach to structure, a willingness to not force a sketch to last longer than it absolutely had to. The pacing isn’t perfect, but the overall impression is a bit loopier, a bit less controlled than more traditional sketch comedy. This comes in most obviously with the musical numbers performed by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The band’s history is too long to get into here (mostly because I’m lazy, and that is one thorough Wikipedia page), but in the context of the show, Neil Innes (who would later go on to write songs for Python, as well as play Ron Nasty in Idle’s The Rutles) and his cohorts have a shaggy, unorthodox style that helps give the show a more avant garde feel. The songs are catchy, but they’re also sly, and Innes’ low key charisma contrasts against the rest of the series relentless eagerness to please.
This isn’t the only contrast. Palin, Jones, and Idle all seem to be acting on a different show from their co-stars David Jason and Denise Coffey. Coffey and Jason are both quite good, but as with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman, they’re good in a way that relies on an established persona. Coffey is self-effacing and sweet, while Jason is goofball with a slight tendency towards mugging (he also looks like Dudley Moore). Both fit the show quite well, especially in the not exactly funny but still pretty delightful “Captain Fantastic” sketches (an ongoing adventure serial that’s almost but not quite a parody; think Rocky And Bullwinkle, but with fewer jokes), but put them against the proto-Pythons, and the difference is startling. Palin, Jones, and Idle aren’t quite as polished as the other two, but their lack of definition allows them to blend in better with the material. This would be one of the hallmarks of the Python approach: The script always mattered more than the actors. When Jason over plays a bit of physical comedy on Do Not Adjust Your Set, it’s funny, but it draws the focus to him in a way that’s at odds with the material itself. When, say, John Cleese does a silly walk, or Chapman does a general or Palin plays a shopkeeper, any attempt to break the reality of what’s happening is based off the directions from the sketch itself. This is why the Pythons were always greater than the sum of their parts: Regardless of ego, the focus was always on the whole.
“Royal Episode 13” (season two, episode 13; originally aired 12/22/70)
(Available on Amazon.)
Season finales are most useful as a way to provide a topic for the first sentence of an episodic review. In practice, though, they’re not always that interesting. There’s no real reason for Flying Circus to put much effort into a finale; the show would be coming back for a third season the following year, and, more importantly, as a sketch show, there wasn’t any use for cliffhangers or dramatic reveals or Terry Jones getting assimilated by the Borg. Yet “Royal Episode 13” seems very consciously aware of where it falls in the schedule, due to the sketch that gives the episode its title. The Announcer appears at the start of the show; he stands and says, in a very quiet, very serious voice (Cleese hits a note of utterly straight-faced awe) that they’ve been informed that the Queen will be tuning to watch part of that evening’s broadcast. He assures us the show will continue in its usual manner, before introducing the credits, which are, hilariously, a super classy bit of Gilliam animation. (It’s still crushed by a foot, though.)
Technically speaking, this idea doesn’t affect much more than five minutes of the show all told, but colors everything that follows, and is all the funnier because the episode is coming at the end of the season. Finales are important regardless of whether or not their acknowledged by the show’s creators, because they’re a kind of conclusion, temporary or not. The suggestion that the Queen herself might be watching is the sort of thing that would happen only at the most dramatic possible moment. Which is why it’s so funny—while the Pythons never suggest for a moment that being witnessed by Her Majesty’s eyes isn’t the most remarkable thing that’s ever happened to them, we know differently. For one, it’s pretty clear the Queen isn’t watching (unless it was a common occurrence for her to announce her television intentions ahead of time). For another, the idea that such a relentless subversive group would be this excited about royalty is ridiculous, at least in the context of the Flying Circus. And the two times the “Queen” does actually watch, it is as deflating and short-lived as you’d expect. As ever, the Pythons have their cake (in that it’s a finale that implicitly acknowledges its heightened status) and eat it too (in that they’re mocking the whole idea of “heightened status”).
Despite falling where it does in the season, there’s no sense of flagging inspiration in “Royal Episode 13”; even without the Queen sketch, this would still be top-notch. There’s the Miner’s sketch, in which filthy coal-miners argue the minute particularities of British history and culture with the attention to detail that can only come from writers with very fancy degrees; Terry Jones as a man who steals bird-watcher’s eggs (this one fits in well with the “sketches not lasting longer than they need to” idea); great Gilliam animation with a sad dragon whose love-life is improved when he switches to Crelm toothpaste; a longer piece about critically injured patients being forced (while in full body casts) to improve the comfort and care of the doctors on hospital staff; and a bit about Pepperpots in a submarine that works mostly because Palin’s perpetual knitting is somehow hilarious. This is a creative team working at the height of its powers, and more, it’s a creative team who are receiving the acknowledgement and success they so richly deserve. As proof, check out the brief cut-away to an actual newscaster, Reginald Bosanquet, sitting at his desk to do the News At 10. It’s a short bit (the Queen, after briefly sampling “the Life Insurance Sketch,” changes over to the news, and the episode follows her), but shocks out a laugh because it’s clever and utterly unexpected. Non-Pythons have appeared in the background of sketches, but this is the first time a recognizable media personality (at least, recognizable in his day; he’s mentioned by name in the script) has stopped by to lampoon himself.
I’ve left out several of the episode’s best sketches in order to go into them more deeply, but now that I have the chance, I’m not sure what to say. How can you explain the wonderfulness of a sketch about an interviewer talking to various people with extremely rare and specific speech impediments? It’s the kind of clever wordplay that Python excels at, something that’s knotty and tricky and probably took a devil of a long time to write out properly (especially the Man Who Can Only Say The Middle Of Words), yet never slows down to make sure the audience appreciates the cleverness. I have no doubt it would be possible to translate every mangled line in the sketch, and that knowledge is part of the joke, much the same way the miners’ historical references are undoubtedly true; the serious attention to detail that hardly anyone will bother to confirm provides the specificity to make the humor stand out.
For those who love the Pythons’ deconstructionism, there’s the Lifeboat Sketch, which has roughly half a dozen false starts before it really digs into the premise. Having Palin say “How long is it?” and Chapman reply “That’s a rather personal question, sir,” is funny enough; having Palin complain that Chapman’s ruined the mood and they’ll have to start over is funnier; and then having Chapman, Palin, and then eventually Jones (everyone’s in the lifeboat except Gilliam) keep forcing do over after do over after do over is first even funnier, then a little tedious, and then hilarious again. The fact that there’s actually a sketch that follows this, and that it’s a good one, is just icing on the cake. It’s telling how much the repeated first takes don’t do anything to disrupt the reality of the sketch itself; Palin, Chapman, and Jones are all in character when they disrupt the action, as though this were a reality in which people often restarted their conversations when something went wrong at the start. The final gag—the meat of the sketch is about sailors trying to decide who they’ll eat first, only it turns out they have more than enough food on hand and then Carol Cleveland shows up as a waitress—fits in with the absurdity, but the strangest thing of all about the sequence of false starts is how normal they seem. The Pythons never draw attention to the bizarre. They simply present it, as though much of what we see is beamed in from an alternate reality where all of this is perfectly natural.
Speaking of cannibalism, there’s the episode’s final sketch. If I’m remembering my lore correctly, it’s a bit that Chapman and Cleese first wrote out straight, and then decided there was no way they could get away with airing it free of commentary. The end result is arguably compromised, and yet I’m not sure the original sketch would’ve worked on its own; not because it’s offensive, but because much of the humor comes from the studio audience’s outraged response. Chapman plays a funeral home owner, Cleese a potential customer; Cleese’s mother just died, and Chapman keeps suggesting increasingly unsavory ways to deal with the body, much to Cleese’s polite (but not offended) surprise. This is all more goofy than actively offensive, even when Chapman gets down to it and proposes cooking Mum in the oven they keep ‘round back. Yet as the sketch goes on, the boos and groans start to pop up amid the audience laughter, growing angrier and angrier until finally the crowd snaps and charges the stage. I’d be curious how this was received at the time; it doesn’t seem exactly dangerous, or as if Cleese and Chapman are really being threatened, yet this is such an unexpected direction for the show to take. Apart from the laugh track, there’s been little to no interaction with the audience, and the boos take a believably long time to build into actual action that it’s conceivable someone might’ve been taken in by this.
Then the Queen changes the channel again, and the rioters immediately stand at frozen attention. It’s a happy ending. Or close enough.
- If you’re at all curious, you should check out Do Not Adjust Your Set. It’s got its own distinct pleasures. (Also, the musical sequences are clear inspirations for The Mighty Boosh, which is nifty.)
- David Jason would go on to appear in a lot of stuff, most notably the series Only Fools And Horses; he played Derek “Del-Boy” Trotter:
- Random trivia you probably already know: Death Cab For Cutie got their name from a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song. It surprised the heck out of me when the song popped up on the show.
- Cleese as the boss in the sketch, with his Upperclass Twit expression and “Frightfully Important” sign, is a glorious sight gag.
- The Life Insurance Sketch is built around Idle needing to bring Cleese 12 gallons of… something. It’s biological. Almost certainly icky.
Next week: To close out the summer, we take a look at Monty Python’s first feature film, And Now For Something Completely Different.