Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to speak with you, if I may. I would like to discuss an important topic. It’s something that matters to all of us, in our daily lives, at home and on the job. It’s a problem we all face, a crisis we all share, a Marmaduke we all want put down. There is no escaping it; it is, in fact, happening right now. The subject I am referring to is, of course [Trumpet fanfare.] TRANSITIONS! [Trumpet explodes. The computer explodes. Your mother calls and asks about the penguin. EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE.]
Stay with me here (because if you go, I’ll have to start shouting): Transitioning between ideas is tricky business, and how a writer chooses to approach the process can make or break their work. For example, right now, I’m doing my “beginning transition,” which is a term I just made up to describe the introductory paragraphs of this review. I have one specific goal: review two episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But while I could just jump straight in, I’d rather open with something that will grab a reader’s interest, as well as provide me with a general theme to organize my subsequent thoughts. So: Transitions, or the art of getting from point A to, um, this other, ah, I had it in my notes somewhere…
Anyway, so far so good. Once I get that beginning transition out of the way (nothing to something in no seconds flat), all I really have to do is keep up a steady stream of semi-insightful commentary that adheres to the spine of whatever I’m talking about. Once you’ve been reviewing long enough, you develop a certain rhythm and feel for how to approach the process. Sometimes you get hung up on certain phrases (Free drinking game: take a shot every time a sentence begins with the phrase “Part of the problem is”), but once you know to look out for them, it’s not that hard to swap something else in. The truth is—[GET ON WITH IT!] it’s easy for me, because as soon as I sense my audience’s attention wandering, all I have to do is type
“Sex And Violence” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 10/12/1969)
And we’re off and running.
Which brings us to (TRANSITION!) Monty Python, and one of the big decisions facing any sketch comedy show: How do you bridge the gap between sketches? A sitcom or a drama connects scenes through plot and character, which is obvious enough. When you watch an episode of Community, you don’t question when a conversation between Joel McHale and Danny Pudi cuts to Donald Glover and Alison Brie chatting in a different room, because you understand you’re being told a story, and that even if these two sequences aren’t directly relevant to each other, they’re part of an overall narrative. That’s the deal the writers make with their audience: All of this put together means something. But with a show like Flying Circus, there are no hard and fast rules. The content of each episode comes in discrete chunks, and there’s no reason to think that the John Cleese character interviewing a man with three buttocks has any relation to the John Cleese character with a fetish for mouse role-play. The trick, then, is deciding how you want these disparate bits to fit together.
The simplest answer being: you don’t. A show like Saturday Night Live or Not Only… But Also throws a bunch of material at the viewer with little attention to thematic cohesion or rhythm; occasionally a host or emcee will pop in between scenes to remind the viewer what program they’re watching, but more often, the commercial break is the only separation between one bit and the next. On the other side, you have a series like SCTV or Upright Citizens Brigade, which attempt to create a consistent world for all the sketches to inhabit at once. So what difference does it make? When done poorly, a transition is nothing more than a distraction, wasting the audience’s time before actual content comes along. But when done well, a transition can transform a loose collection of scenes into something more than the sum of their parts.
“Sex And Violence” opens (after a scene with the It’s Man running across a shore) with a businessman (Terry Jones) and a farmer (Graham Chapman) watching a group of sheep who think they’re birds. It’s a funny sketch, using suggestion and sound effects to imply action without showing it, and it unfolds in a linear, familiar fashion: Jones is curious, and Chapman doles out information about the situation piece by piece, until we get to the punchline, where it’s revealed that Chapman is allowing the ringleader of the sheep, Harold, to stay alive because of the “enormous commercial possibilities” of flying sheep. All very open and shut. Suddenly, Eric Idle’s announcer cuts in, informing us that we’re about learn more about those mysterious commercial possibilities, and we cut to Cleese and Michael Palin in lab coats and berets, standing in front of a diagram of a sheep. Where the first scene was a sketch in the classical mode, Cleese and Palin are just, well, silly. They have a single fake mustache between them, and whoever wears the mustache hectors us in heavily accented French. (Palin corpses—i.e., laughs mid-scene—during one of the mustache swaps.) This goes on for a while, and then, taking the accents as a jumping off point, we cut to a group of Pepperpots (male Pythons dressed up as middle-aged housewives) in a grocery store, talking about how smart the French are. From there, it’s a brief snippet of Terry Gilliam animation with “I think, therefore I am,” before we run straight into Idle’s announcer and the debut of the key phrase, “And now for something completely different.”
These first 10(ish) minutes are, in their way, a microcosm of the Python approach to transitions. The jumps are all essentially stream of conscious, cueing off of lines or ideas in what came before to serve as jumping-off points to what to do next. Apart from the Non-Flying Sheep, none of these scenes are developed enough to stand on their own as full-fledged sketches. The sense of connection, the suggestion that each bit flows to the next and to the next and so on, bolsters each sketch in turn, and makes it all somehow feel like one big joke. But even that isn’t enough for Python. Even stream of consciousness becomes predictable over time, as the audience starts to anticipate what will happen next, which makes “And now for something completely different” such a key tool in the troupe’s approach to comedy. The phrase is, essentially, permission to do anything and still have it appear related to what came before it. Idle’s announcer gives way to Cleese interviewing Jones’s Man With Three Buttocks. (Which, by the way, is just another iteration of the “jerk interviewer torments his guest” sketch we saw last week.) No sheep are involved, or Frenchmen, or thinking, but it all feels a part of a whole. Then Idle’s announcer comes back, says “And now for something completely different,” introduces the Man With Three Buttocks again, and the sketch restarts. Flying Circus is full of repetition, recursions, and circular gestures. At times, the show almost feels like a remix of itself, layering down ideas and deconstructing punchlines until all that’s left is a beat.
Put that to one side, though (TRANSITION!), and it’s impressive just how much classic material the group is generating right from the beginning; while these initial episodes have a few dead spots, there are sketches here that rank among Python’s best known work. “Sex And Violence” has, in addition to the excellent Non-Flying Sheep, the “Marriage Guidance Counselor” sketch, in which Palin brings his wife (played by Carol Cleveland, her first appearance on the show) to Idle’s counselor, explaining their problems while Idle proceeds to seduce and screw the very willing Cleveland; the coal miner sketch, with Idle playing a rebellious young man who’s taken up coal mining against the wishes of his salt-of-the-earth playwright father (Chapman); and “The Mouse Problem,” a news report about a popular new trend where young men dress up and pretend to be homosexuals—I mean mice. The detail on this last segment, between Cleese’s humbled, embarrassed confession and the rough “live footage” of an actual mouse party, is pitch perfect.
The closest thing to a dud in the bunch is the wrestling match between religion and science, a clever concept that never really gets past the initial idea, but it’s funny enough that it doesn’t slow down the rest of the episode. As usual, there are the additional Python touches; Cleese appears as a parody of Clint Eastood’s Man With No Name in the “Marriage Guidance Counselor” to tell Palin to buck up; Palin falls, and the Pathos Knight comes out and hits him on the head with a rubber chicken. Chapman plays an expert in “Mouse Problem” who also happens to be a magician, which could be seen as a satire on the illusory qualifications of most TV experts (where it’s more important to look like you know what you’re doing than to actually know), but is more likely just some added silly business in the Python style. And “Sex And Violence” isn’t quite done with sheep, as Harold makes a guest appearance in one of Gilliam’s animated spots. Oh, and Palin shoots a flying sheep in the end, bringing the story to its tragic but inevitable conclusion. (Did I mention that the episode start with two slides? “Part 2” and “Sheep.” I didn’t mention that. Well, pretend I did. It’s weird, right? Makes you feel like you missed the end of the last episode, as though there was some cliffhanger in which Harold gave up meth and saw his first bird, and everybody was really hoping he’d pull things together.) In the Flying Circus, nothing goes away, not forever, creating a perpetual sensation of déjà vu. In the Flying Circus, nothing goes away, not forever, creating a perpetual sensation of déjà vu.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to speak with you, if I may. I would like to discuss—[WE ALREADY DID THAT!]
“How To Recognise Different Types Of Trees From Quite A Long Way Away” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 10/19/1969)
Sometimes a transition doesn’t need to be between sketches—sometimes it can happen inside the sketch itself. So far, while we’ve seen plenty of odd bits and non sequiturs, the bulk of the Pythons’ work has been centered on recognizable comedy sketches. This will be true for much of the show’s run—like the Beatles and ballads, Python never completely lost the knack for writing good tunes—but they weren’t afraid to experiment, and the opening of “How To Recognize Different Types Of Trees From Quite A Long Way Away” is a good example. After the It’s Man has his say (this time in the forest, while he’s being tracked by a lion’s roar), Cleese reads the title and gives us our first lesson:
No. 1: The Larch.
Cut to Mr. Larch (Eric Idle) defending his right to freedom in court with a long, strident and deeply poetic monologue on the subject, before the Judge (Terry Jones) reminds him he’s just in on a parking ticket. Sensible enough, but the courtroom sketch doesn’t play by any regular rules. For one, it has no central premise. The “story” is that Cleese, as Idle’s lawyer, calls in a variety of ludicrous witnesses for the defense, before Inspector Dim (Chapman) pops in, sings a song, and, well, that’s it. But the sketch feels loose, formless, and everything that happens in it is more random than what came before. It lacks the pent-up energy that the group’s more focused segments achieved, and because there’s no sense of building the joke, Dim’s appearance isn’t so much a pay-off as an aside that somehow gets our full attention. Each section of the scene, from Idle’s speech to the three witnesses (Mrs. Fiona Lewis, a babbling Pepperpot; the late Arthur Aldridge, who comes in his own coffin; and Palin as a smarmy Cardinal Richelieu) to Dim, could be a scene in its own right, as if the writers pulled together a handful of short pieces and crammed them all together to see what happened. But it works, and while the sketch isn’t always outright hilarious, it has a loopy charm all its own. Cleese interviewing a coffin is a fine conceptual gag, especially the way the knocking inside the coffin stops as soon as the barrister asks the person inside to confirm he is the late Aldridge. Palin does great smarm, and Chapman’s song is delightful (as is Cleese’s unsuccessful attempt to add his own verse). It’s all a bunch of scribbling in the margins, really, but clumped together it gives an interesting perspective on the Python view of the world: a tea party full of Mad Hatters, waiting for an Alice.
And now—the Larch.
“How To Recognise” uses occasional tree slides and announcers to move us along, and the sketches are of the same high quality as “Sex And Violence.” Probably the most famous of the bunch is Idle and Jones doing the “Nudge Nudge,” as Idle forces insinuation after insinuation on the polite but uncomprehending Jones. It’s a fun exchange whose popularity probably has a good deal to do with its quotability; unlike, say, “Bicycle Repair Man,” “Nudge, Nudge” doesn’t require any visual cues, and just throwing “A nudge is as good as wink to a blind bat” at someone with a manic leer is a good way to make friends. But while repeated performance has dulled much of the scene’s charms for me, it’s a good chance to see Jones’ strength as a straight man. Chapman is the troupe’s go-to for stuffy authority figures, but Jones brings an inherent likeability to parts like this one. He comes off as someone’s dad: older, and not really getting what all these loud young people are on about, but friendly enough. The sketch, with its punchline that turns the joke back on Idle’s obsession, is oddly sweet; Python humor is usually too nutty to be actively cruel, but this seems positively friendly.
The Bicycle Repair Man sketch is also a cheery one, playing off a simple idea: In a world of Supermen, the real superhero is the man who can do what no one else can, i.e., fix a bike. The best part of this one is Palin’s performance as Repair Man, and the announcer’s promise that our hero will be there “wherever bicycles are broken or menaced by communists!” (Naturally this leads to a brief scene of Cleese as the announcer, shrieking about the Red Menace before going inside meekly for tea.) Less friendly is “Restaurant Sketch,” which has Chapman making a polite, but ill-advised complaint about cutlery to the waitstaff at a restaurant. Since we were talking about transitions (TRANSITIONS!), note how “Restaurant Sketch” isn’t just thrown into the show; it’s presented, via Palin’s slimy emcee, and at the end of the scene we get a title card announcing the punchline before Chapman delivers it. As a rule, Python was never afraid to end a sketch without a proper sting, but here, given the corniness of the final line (“Lucky we didn’t say anything about the dirty knife!”), the joke is that the “joke” is terrible.
No. 1: The Larch.
The Larch. The Larch.
Throughout the episode, sketches are punctuated by the repetition of the “Larch” slide show. The gag is simple—we’re being taught how to recognize trees, only we keep getting shown the same tree over and over again—but it’s not immediately surreal. What’s surreal is that it keeps coming up again and again, and each time, Cleese repeats the same information in the same calm voice. There is no obvious indication that this is going somewhere, and no real context for what’s happening. But, as is so often the case on Flying Circus, these transitions serve a purpose. Each interjection creates a kind of suspense: Is this going to pay off somehow? Are going to be tested on this material? Don’t I know that Larch from somewhere? Until, finally: And now, No. 1—The Larch. The Larch. The Larch.
And now, No. 3: The Larch.
And now: The Horse Chestnut. [Wild applause.]
There isn’t enough information in this to create a sentence, let along a joke, but it is a joke. The tension that comes from Cleese’s “The Larch” helps to pull together the material around it, and when he finally busts out with “The Horse Chestnut,” it’s immensely satisfying. Monty Python worked to break down humor into its smallest possible elements, until what was up on the screen often made no rational sense, but still made you laugh.
- In “Seduced Milkman,” I like that there’s a window right behind the trapped dairy deliverers. They couldn’t possibly escape!
- “How To Recognise” also has Idle reading from an irrepressibly filthy children’s book, if you’re into that sort of thing, you pervert.
- “A sheep is not a creature of the air. It has enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perching.”
- “You know what he’s like after a few novels.”
- The Larch. The Larch. The Larch.