Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “The Attila The Hun Show”/“Archaeology Today”

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “The Attila The Hun Show”/“Archaeology Today”

“The Attila the Hun Show” (season 2, episode 7; originally aired 11/10/70)

(Available on Amazon.)

The best sketch in this episode is the “Village Idiot” sequence; and that one’s probably the most conventional of the bunch, which is either proof that the Pythons can do classic material as well as the next insanely talented comedy troupe, or else that the cubist approach to comedy writing is starting to wear a little thin. Actually, that’s a false choice: this is a great half hour, and the fluidity of the material is, as ever, one of the high points. Plus, that flexibility, that weird “Wait, is that a joke?” feeling, is part of the goal of Flying Circus. Too many beginning-middle-end sketches, and you lose a good portion of what makes the series so memorable and revolutionary.

And yet the river of nonsense needs moments of clarity in order to come into focus. Too many unfinished ideas, and the feeling of incompletion starts to blur, like an elastic band stretched too tight. I apologize if I’ve made this metaphor before, but I always think of the “Shave And A Haircut” scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The tension isn’t exactly the same, but ideally, the audience should be like Roger, hidden in a backroom, freaking out while the Judge Doom-esque Pythons walk around outside, tapping out the first part of the familiar rhythm but refusing to finish it. In the movie, the experience drives the cartoon hero out of his mind; in real life, it’s a pleasantly unnerving experience, one that generates uneasy laughter that, at best, builds and builds looking for release. The danger is that we’re not cartoon characters (I assume); things drag out too long, and we stop caring.

Which is where something like “Village Idiot” comes in. It’s not like there aren’t other sketches in the episode. The whole thing opens with the titular sequence, a spoof of sitcom opening sequences (specifically, the short-lived The Debbie Reynolds Show) starring the fearsome, smiling Attila the Hun and his beaming brood. Then there’s a quick trip to the hospital to leer at Carol Cleveland, a bit about a couple troubled by mice that turn out to be murderous sheep, then some news for various animals, and so on. Boil each sequence down to its most pertinent idea, and you have a handful of decent, if not earth-shattering, premises. Yet none of them feel exactly like sketches. They’re more a collection of gags held together by concepts, with lines and visual puns and weird, self-referential moments tossed out in rapid succession. Not all of them work, and many are more intellectually amusing than gut-busting. I’m thinking of stuff like when Idle, playing a scientist looking into the killer sheep problem (shades of the blancmange sketch), says, “What a strange line.” He sees it twice, and the line is clearly supposed to be a comment on his own dialogue, but it’s such a heady concept that it takes a second to register. So by the time you get it, another joke is already landing. It’s disorienting, and leads to laughs coming up in unexpected places.

It also means that when something classical comes along, we’re more than ready for it. The “Village Idiot” sketch is not entirely new to Python: It’s another of the parodies of BBC-style documentaries, this one focusing primarily on Cleese as a surprisingly well-spoken young man who makes his living (somehow) as a professional village idiot. It’s not a particularly deep concept—the village idiot is the kind of social role that no longer really exists, and all the men we see in the profession are articulate and educated when they aren’t being complete loons. Once you grasp that, you get the joke. This isn’t a criticism. (And yes, it feels super weird to “explain” the gag.) The best jokes require a certain level of directness to work. The more complicated an idea is, the more time it takes to parse out, and the more difficult it is to generate laughs. The phrase “village idiot” is funny; Cleese in costume is funny; Cleese making silly faces and nonsense noises is funny; and Cleese also being able to talk in a clear, articulate voice about what he views as the crucial importance of his role in society, is, well, funny. None of these are concepts that take any real brain power to grasp. Even trying to summarize them here seems a bit ridiculous, because the joke is so perfectly formed.

This may be reading too far between the lines, but if you wanted to dig a little, you could even say the sketch is a chance for the Pythons to mock/mythologize themselves. Because the village idiots we see are all smart people who are working very hard, and very conscientiously, towards achieving being very, very silly. That’s not that far off from what the Pythons do every week, and Idle, playing a grumpy old idiot who feels like modern idioting is getting away from the sort of good, quality foolishness he knew in his time, could be seen as a parody of the Establishment take on Flying Circus and its ilk. Or not. There’s rarely any real sense of the personal on the show. While the Pythons were more than willing to tweak modern British conventions and popular culture, there’s no sense, as there is some sketch comedies, of peaking behind the mask, even if that peak is as carefully constructed as the mask is. In retrospect, we can praise Idle’s smarm, Palin’s likability, Jones’ Everyman quality, Chapman’s stiff authority, Cleese’s goony malevolence, and even recognize those traits as each episode unfolds, yet there’s no clear effort made by the troupe to make sure each performer has an established identity. Some would gravitate towards certain roles because that was the kind of part they were good at, but the core identities were never inherently coherent. In a sense, the flood of gags depends on a certain sense of anonymity. The Pythons feel somehow larger than themselves; not simply a group of men writing and performing funny material, but a kind of anarchic force—by refusing to allow the audience to connect to the performers, the disconcerting sense that anything might happen is enhanced.

All of which is to say that while it’s an interesting meta reading to wonder if “Village Idiot” sprang out of some conscious or unconscious desire for self-commentary, that doesn’t reflect on what happens on the screen. The most striking aspect of the segment is how traditionally it plays out. There’s an occasional off the cuff, non-connected bit of weirdness (most notably when Chapman’s banker—named “Brando”—gets a call from Hollywood), but for the most part, this is as formal as a Python sketch ever gets. We start with Cleese’s character and the narrator (Idle) introducing the premise, then we explore the premise completely, doing a bit on Cleese’s morning routine, other idiots, the bank where the idiots store their payment (twigs, string, dead birds), Idle’s complainer, a college course for idiots, and finally, an honest to god punchline. The narrator asks about the love life of the village idiot, and we see Cleese smiling in bed with two beautiful women. “Well, I may be an idiot, but I’m no fool,” Cleese tells us. That wouldn’t be out of place in a Benny Hill routine.

But then, Benny Hill wouldn’t’ve segued into a series of man-on-street interviews that start off about idiots living in the city, before moving onto a riff on cricket, with Cleese at his most manic leading a trio of announcers covering an increasingly ludicrous game. (“Extremely well not-played there,” Cleese describes one play, before the players turn into furniture, and then the furniture starts racing.) The point being, as ever, that the Python isn’t about completely throwing away the old rules; it’s more about resisting the assumption that the old rules are the only rules. The ability to jump between subversive sketches like “The Attila The Hun” show, which ends before the shock wears off (although not before featuring Idle in blackface, a bit that echoes later in the episode when Cleese appears briefly as a West Indies cricket player; Cleese’s make-up is sloppy, probably due to the speed of costume changes), delightfully dumb bits like the nervous couple facing off against the armed, bank-robbing sheep, the “Village Idiot” sketch, and the rest, is what makes the show unique.

Also unique: the final sketch, with Cleese at full smirk hosting a game show, and Terry Jones playing his horrible old lady contestant. (She looks like she just stepped out of a Roald Dahl book, a Quentin Blake illustration brought to hunched, hacking life.) There’s some premise here—the game show offers prizes like “a blow to the head,” and the questions are all highly intellectual, some of which the old lady answers easily, others she struggles with—but it’s more about mood than concept. Which, okay, isn’t really that unique, but suggests a great deal of confidence on the part of the troupe. They’re willing to offer something like this that relies on performance and unease to work, and they’ve earned that willingness. It’s a scene that suggests a whole world just in the way Cleese laughs too hard at Jones’ grumbling. Like, what were those other prizes? If a “blow to the head” is the best, what’s the worst? And you laugh, because it’s funny, and part of why it’s funny is that you don’t trust any of them, and who knows what could happen.

Stray observations:

  • So, about that blackface... Look, this is a subject too complex to get into in a stray observation (which is why I put it here), and the way blackface fits into British culture is something I, quite honestly, don’t understand, apart from being pretty creeped out by it. In this specific instance, the Pythons are clearly satirizing the practice—”Uncle Tom”—and yet it’s still clunky, underlining the troupe’s inherent whiteness in a way the show rarely does. Loaded, potentially offensive humor is a risk-reward kind of situation: The greater the possibility of upsetting people, the greater the potential pay-off. But at some point, the relationship between the two starts to blur, and that theoretical dream of huge laughs becomes inextricably tainted with the muck you had to crawl through to reach it.
  • That said, Chapman in a coconut bra is hilarious.
  • There are a couple of delightfully awful “Hun” puns that show up: “Attila the Nun” is great, but I laughed hardest at “Attila the Bun.”
  • Great sight gag: Palin in housewife garb stuffing a turkey (chicken?) on the couch with wild abandon.
  • “Wainscotting” is a weird word. And the cutaways to “Wains Scotting” (“We’ve been mentioned on the telly!”) are fantastic.
  • “Good evening. Here is the news for parrots.” You could also write a whole essay about how this sketch reflects the way our view of the world is shaped by our species, and our race, and it would be a very pretentious essay, and you’d probably paste on a copy of that Far Side cartoon about the duck getting sucked into the plane engine.
  • “I’m a completely self-taught idiot.”

“Archaeology Today” (season 2, episode 8; originally aired 11/17/70)

(Available on Amazon.)

Here’s another episode that starts with a kind of cold open—Eric Idle as an announcer running down a list of what’s coming up on the BBC, including some word play (“And for those who like variety, there’s Variety!”) and British in-jokes (“And for those who don’t like television, there’s David Coleman!”; Coleman was a sports commentator known for screwing up at his job). The show has done this kind of material before, and by now in the run, we’ve settled into a certain basic familiarity of the troupe’s main obsessions. Television programming runs high on the list; after Idle finishes his monologue, and the opening credits do their usual thing, we segue into another Flying Circus staple, the in-studio interview in which the host is significantly crazier than his guests. Here it’s Palin talking to archaeologists played by Cleese and Jones respectively, and Palin is completely fixated on the concept of height. It’s a bit like the host who badgers Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson so relentlessly in the first season, although here, Palin’s contempt is aimed at Jones for being short, while he is in complete awe of Cleese’s tallness. But the dynamic is essentially the same, right up to Jones’ desperate plea for attention.

Which isn’t to say that the sketch is a repeat, or some kind of recurring character piece. But there is a kind of recurring character in the group overall, buried under all that delightful white noise. I said in the previous review that Python wasn’t a group given to revealing itself too readily, and that’s true; but it’s fascinating to parse out the kinds of sketches the writers were most in love with, and the material that kept drawing them back. Housewives engaged in complicated discussions about philosophy; “proper” gentlemen revealing themselves as campy sexual creatures, sometimes engaging in striptease while delivering tedious lectures on public policy (okay, that was literally just a sketch in the previous episode I’d forgotten to mention, but Python did love to get Jones to take off his clothes); BBC documentaries about absurd subjects; and so on and so forth. This is a function of the fact that a relatively small group of men sat down and churned out a significant amount of material without having regular characters or established dramatic tension to build from, but it’s almost charming to recognize the patterns, like seeing the ghost peek out from inside the machine. Plus, it’s another tool to organize the chaos. Ah, now we’re back at the TV studio. This is familiar ground.

Also familiar ground: the delay before the opening credits. And yet those delays are so inconsistent, sometimes lasting a few scenes, sometimes not happening at all, that even the familiarity isn’t really trustworthy. The Announcer and the It’s Man show up most of the time, but sometimes they don’t. Inconsistency isn’t always the best choice for art, whatever Ralph Waldo Emerson said about it, because art needs some kind of form to function, even when that form is about breaking down the idea of form. By occasionally throwing a bone towards conventionality, the Pythons make the unconventionality all the more striking.

The comfort of the studio interview doesn’t last for long. After Jones breaks down, Cleese upsets Palin, and Palin swears revenge, which gets us into a movie parody (of sorts), with Cleese and Carol Cleveland at an archaeological dig, both singing in rapture at the joy of what they’ve discovered, before Palin tracks them down and they engage in a silly slap fight. That fight is made even more silly by the fact that its between two stacks of people, desperately vying for the high ground. It’s that weird internal logic—everything is utterly ridiculous, but it all springs from Palin’s initial fixation on height. Then Chapman gives a speech about the importance of helping sane people become insane, which you could say is a kind of Python mission statement, but honestly, that feels kind of stretching it. The troupe may embrace and even love the full measure of strangeness there is in the world, but proselytizing isn’t very funny, so why bother? Besides, if everybody was crazy, it’d be easy to get laughs, and easy is for suckers.

Then things get really odd. Idle does a speech in drag that just sort of goes on for a bit, and when we finally get to an actual solid sketch—Idle out of drag, looking to exchange his wife for a new one—that sketch gets interrupted before anyone can do a punchline, with Cleese busting in as a referee to break things up. It’s a curiously meta moment, and if one is to engage in speculation (as one does when one has space to fill), one might wonder if this was a kind of Kaufman-esque way to deal with material that wasn’t working properly. Writing material can have its moments of intense inspiration (that bit where McCartney says he got the tune for “Yesterday” in a dream must kill composers the world over), but it’s often a frustrating, even tedious process of figuring out what’s effective, and then trying to figure out what’s wrong with the bits that aren’t. Perseverance hopefully generates usable material, but it will also generate scenes like this one, which if you think about it, isn’t really that fantastic a premise. Idle wanting to trade in his wife only has one real level of joke, in that he’s looking to get a hot young model (this time an actual woman, not played by Cleveland) to replace his presumably not quite as hot current wife. Have Terry Jones’ minister get in a few shocked looks, make a joke about an actual store return policy, and you’ve about done the whole thing up.

The same is true for the sketch immediately following this one, which has Palin as a doctor who can’t seem to get Chapman’s name (“Dr. Watson”) correct. There’s some fun wordplay, but as a premise for an entire scene, there’s really no center. Normally, this is the kind of opening that the Pythons would graft onto another sketch idea, but instead, we get an even more aggressively meta moment with a caption reading “This sketch has been abandoned.” The impression is of a writing team experimenting with trying to recycle unfinished, or unfinishable, pieces just to see what they can get away with. You could argue that’s too overtly self-conscious, and in other hands it might be, but the shifting, mercurial nature of the Flying Circus means that the audience is always prepared to be unprepared for things. In my notes for this episode, when Cleese breaks up the wedding sketch, I actually wrote down “What the hell is going on?” (I rarely get that cute in note-taking), so I’d say the record scratch was maybe a little too loud for once. And yet once the “This sketch has been abandoned” pops up, the whole thing snaps into focus, and becomes funny.

Besides, just in case we were doubting them, the Pythons knock it out of the park with the next two sketches: a party goer struggling to handle the disconcerting friendliness of the Git family (A Snivelling Little Rat-Faced Git, Dreary Fat Boring Old Git, and their children Dirty Lying Little Two-Faced Git and Ghastly Spotty Horrible Vicious Little Git), and a documentary on hunters Chapman and Idle in their efforts to slaughter a mosquito with heavy artillery. The former has the feel of an Idle sketch, with its accumulation of increasingly outlandish verbiage, and it ends with a “let’s draw attention to the jokes” joke which features a “clean” version of the sketch that’s essentially meaningless. The hunter sketch is a feast of visual gags, and features a lot of wonderful explosions and loud noises. It also features a shot of the mighty hunter’s living room, where he keeps all his trophies—which are just a bunch of plaques with small animal and insect heads mounted on.

The Pythons never met an authority figure they couldn’t undermine with aggressive camp. Last episode, it was a government official stripping, and this time out, we get Idle and Palin as a pair of judges who turn out to be (gasp) flaming gay stereotypes. It’s not the first time the troupe has used homosexuality as a punchline, and I’m open to discussion as to whether or not its as offensive in its way as Idle in blackface, but there’s something so enthusiastic about the way Idle and Palin do the material that it never feels mean-spirited. (Idle’s “Uncle Tom” kind of does.) Presumably Chapman’s presence had an effect on how this was presented, and the whole thing ultimately seems like an excuse to do some silly puns about gavels and make those stuffy judges in their absurd wigs seem like a fun time at the party.

Then things get messy and shrill again, with a Pepperpot (housewife) discussion that fades into a flashback about Beethoven’s (Cleese) attempts to compose the Fifth Symphony, said attempts being repeatedly interrupted by his wife (Chapman) and her nagging and housework. It’s a screechy scene that depends a lot on how amused you are by Cleese and Chapman yelling at each other, before it devolves into a quick look at other famous artists struggling with the housework, and Mozart insisting that his son will become a ratcatcher. It’s an odd sequence that works mostly due to surprise; the climax has Colin Mozart (Palin) blasting away at the rats on Beethoven’s piano, which isn’t something you see very often. Then it’s back to the judges, who are still chatting away in the robing room (here they seem to be going back on shift, since Idle has his robes on again), discussing various crush objects as the credits role. And in a funny gag that only works in the imagination, the judges end by talking about how sexy they find the BBC announcer voices, the ones who say what’s on next after the program’s over. In the past, that announcer would’ve presumably cut in as soon as the episode ended, but in the present, we must content ourselves with a cut to black, and wonder if the joke’s on us.

Stray observations:

  • Spiny Norman the hedgehog has a quick cameo during an animation sequence. Glad to see he’s doing all right.
  • “I love animals, that’s why I like to kill them.”
  • “There’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded mosquito.”
  • “Where there is a challenge, Hank and Roy Spim will be there ready to carry on the primordial struggle between man and inoffensive insects.”
  • “Have you been shopping?” “No, I’ve been shopping.”
  • “I know what they mean by a really well-hung jury.”

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