“The Naked Ant” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 1/4/1970)
There’s a line fairly early in this episode that made me wince. John Cleese, dressed up as Adolf Hitler (or, as he would tell you, “Mr. Hilter”), ranting around a friendly bed and breakfast, suddenly shrieks, in response to something or other, “If he opens his mouth again, it’s lampshade time!” Mr. Hilter has been ranting about something for roughly two-thirds of the sketch, and when he isn’t making forced chit-chat, or utterly failing to hide his true identity, his compatriots (Michael Palin as “Heimlich Bimmler”, Graham Chapman as “Ron Vibbentrop”) are doing much the same. As always with Python, the whole thing is immensely silly, and there doesn’t seem much more beyond the silliness; the premise is simply that the three Nazi stooges, having somehow escaped the end of the war, are hiding out and plotting their next move in a small English town. Their subterfuge would fail to pass muster on an episode of Super Friends, and that is, of course, entirely the point. Rendering a trio of history’s great monsters as cartoon cretins is all in good fun, and the juxtaposition makes fine comic sense.
Then Cleese has to mention the lampshades.
This isn’t a tremendously controversial joke, and I don’t mean to treat it as such; I doubt anyone was picketing the BBC after the episode aired. But it’s weird, right? It’s pushing a line, and while Monty Python never shied away from edgy material, the troupe never made that sort of material its primary goal. Flying Circus (and the movies it led to) could use shock value (most memorably in the Mr. Creosote sketch in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life), but it was simply a tool in the arsenal. The closest thing to a consistent satirical points you could ever draw from the series is, “Stuffy people are stuffy,” “dumb people are hilarious,” and maybe something about television announcers. There are themes here—the absurdity of convention, the pomposity of broadcasting, the rich are assholes—but the sum and total of it all, if you strip everything away, is: Did that make you laugh? Good. If not, fuck it.
What gives me pause is that the lampshade line is this sudden, and no doubt intentional, reminder of the real world context of the sketch. The initial shock of Mr. Hilter and friends wears off fairly quickly, and the sketch soon settles into a comfortable rhythm of beating its central joke into the ground. This isn’t a criticism; while subtlety has its place, the Python’s go-for-broke, “we will make you laugh, dammit” aesthetic is one of Flying Circus’ great charms. While their ability to mine all the laughs out of a concept sometimes leads to draggy material, it’s generally thrilling to watch, and the group rarely gets trapped in the sort of hellish wastelands of dead space that some sketch shows often wander into. (I’m thinking here of those scenes on Saturday Night Live when it’s clear the actors, the live audience, and even the writers responsible all know they’re in a bad spot, but they’re going to keep hacking away because those minutes won’t fill themselves, dammit.) And “Mr. Hilter,” for the most part, works; the energy of Cleese, Palin, and Chapman, contrasted against the low-key, polite but disinterested small-town folks around them, is reliably entertaining, even when the sketch takes to the street.
And it certainly isn’t as though that damn lampshade line derails this. I just find it fascinating, because unintentionally or not, it’s really the only moment in the entire sketch that acknowledges, however briefly, that Hitler and his cronies weren’t one-note villains from a floating skull fortress—their exploits caused serious and horrifying damage to the world. It could be there are other lines in the bit that reference the Holocaust more explicitly, but this one stuck out, and its isolation works for the scene on the whole. That sudden shock (“Wait, did he say lampshades? Didn’t they make those out of—oh God, what am I laughing at here?”) gives the sketch added clarity, honing the jokes to a nervous edge. It’s a mercenary tool, using real-life tragedy (however distant) to create tension, which sharpens the humor. But it’s also representative of why this is funny in the first place. Humor’s greatest advantage over the real-life monsters of history is in reduction. While “Mr. Hilter” certainly isn’t striving for some monumental treatise on inhumanity and genocide, it’s taking the piss out of a figure whose iconic status and monstrous acts make him seem somehow larger than life. He wasn’t, though, and Python thumbs their noses at Adolph Hitler by using him as just another garden-variety stooge for their grinder.
Unexpectedly subversive thought it may be, “Mr. Hilter” isn’t the best sketch in “The Naked Ant.” It’s not even the second best—I’d say that honor goes to “Silly Voices At The Police Station,” a sketch I’d completely forgotten until rewatching the episode for review. Terry Jones is trying to report a robbery to a cop played by John Cleese. Cleese has trouble hearing what Jones says, and what starts out normally enough turns into a scene that’s reminiscent of the mattress sketch from a few episodes ago. It’s not that Jones isn’t speaking clearly, or that Cleese is hard of hearing. Cleese can only hear it when people speak to him in a high-pitched voice, and the delight of his and Jones’ conversation is how long it takes them to arrive at this point through a series logical, but delayed, calibrations. Then Graham Chapman shows up as Cleese’s co-worker and speaks in a high-pitched voice (meaning that he, at least, already knows Cleese’s affliction, so why did Cleese have to put Jones through the whole rigamarole?), starting his shift just as Jones finally finds a way to communicate with the now departing Cleese. Chapman, of course, can only hear things when they’re spoken in a low-pitched voice, and later Eric Idle appears as a detective who can only hear it when people speakveryfast. I may be a sucker for this kind of humor, writing that’s both utterly absurd but still operating on its own skewed sense, but while the sketch never hits the heights of “Buying A Mattress,” it’s still effective and memorable.
On the whole, this is a good-to-great episode. We’ll get to the greatness in just a moment, but I wanted to talk briefly about “Falling from building,” the sketch which opens the half-hour. Idle and Cleese are office-mates who happen to see people falling past their window to their deaths. It’s not a scene that needs to be examined in great detail, but apart from the fine premise, and great performance by both actors (Cleese is restrained, even in arguments; Idle has normal reactions, until he starts betting on who’s failing next), what makes it work is that it doesn’t last a second longer than it needs too. There’s a small, efficient story, and then it ends. Flying Circus had a place for sequences like “Mr. Hilter” that squeeze every ounce of funny from an idea, overstaying their welcome until their persistence was part of the joke; and it also had a place for sketches that worked off their clarity and closure.
There’s also a fine news-show parody in “Spectrum,” which has Michael Palin urgently questioning the nature of reality, and a fun scene with Palin as the disgusting Ken Shabby, whose somehow managed to win the affections of the lovely Connie Booth. But for my money, the best sketch in the episode is “Upperclass Twit Of The Year,” a filmed competition in which a bunch of rich morons vie for the title of being the richest and most moronic of them all.
As always, there’s plenty of reasons why the sketch is so memorable and funny (Cleese’s excited-to-the-point-of-apoplexy announcer is a highlight), but I think the specificity of the concept is really what’s key here. I called them “rich morons” in the previous paragraph, but that’s not precisely true. “Upperclass twit” means a certain kind of rich moron, a kind of stupidity based on privilege that isn’t just crassness, but bordering on village-idiothood. The fact that all the Pythons in the sketch wear the same outfits, and the way their performances all spring from the same character type, adds a level to the joke that wouldn’t have been there had this merely been a sketch about an idiot marathon. In a way, you could tie this back to ol’ “Mr. Hilter” and his horrifying lampshades, because while “Upperclass Twit Of The Year” has no interest in shocking us, both sketches need to be about something. That’s a loaded phrase, to be sure, but all it really means is that a joke about a vague notion—like, say, generic bad guys hiding out in a nice bed and breakfast, or generic dolts failing at a variety of simple tasks—is never going to be as funny as a joke with a target, whatever that target may be.
“It’s the Arts (Or: Intermission)” (season 1, episode 13; originally aired 1/11/1970)
And so here we are, at the end of the first season. A lot of people thought we wouldn’t make it this far! Like me, for instance. I was completely convinced this was a bad, bad, very bad idea, and now that we’re at the end, I have to say, I was probably right. I mean, sure, there haven’t been any fires (this time), and Eric Idle has stopped leaving threatening messages on my answering machine (because I sold it), but after seven essays of varying lengths, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve basically touched the surface of all there is to say. There are the other pre-Python shows to look at—Do Not Adjust Your Set, How To Irritate People, Beyond The Fringe (which had no members of Python in it, but is still hugely influential on the group’s formation), and The Goon Show (see previous parenthetical) among them—not to mention closer looks at the various group members themselves. I’d still like to get around to talking about Gilliam’s animation more closely, although I find the task daunting, which is probably why I put it off for so long. Thankfully, this is only a temporary hiatus; we still have three seasons and four movies to get through. (I’d considered tacking And Now For Something Completely Different to the end of this run as a bonus, but since the movie takes sketches from the first and second seasons, I thought it was best to wait.)
But before we leave off until next year, I suppose we should say a bit about the season finale, “It’s The Arts.” Interestingly, the show acknowledges its own status in the series’ run, as there are a few comments in the episode in regard to it being the last episode before the next season. None of them are exactly distracting, but given how routinely and aggressively Python goes after the fourth wall in Flying Circus, it’s startling just how, well, startling it is to hear them say something which is for the most part true. I would’ve been more prepared for talk of a finale sometime earlier in the season, anywhere, really, except for near the end of the episode it’s actually describing. Sure, Cleese’s announcer promises, “When this series returns it will be put out on Monday mornings as a test card and will be described by Radio Times as a history of Irish agriculture,” which isn’t exactly hardcore truthery. But it’s a comment on how audiences adapt to the unexpected that I found the joke, while funny, to be a bit predictable. Like, oh, that old saw again, as though the fact that this really was a TV show and it really was arranged the way other shows of the time were arranged, was somehow a let-down.
Maybe it’s more that this episode on the whole isn’t one of my favorites. Even at its worst, the first season barely gets as low as “pretty good,” but “It’s The Arts” has trouble cohering, never quite hitting the sweet spot between surreal interference and coherent setpieces. Watching this first season more closely than usual has led me to believe there really is a difference between “good” and “great” entries in the show, and that difference rests mostly on balance. With Flying Circus, Python was trying to do something that ripped down assumptions in what a sketch show could be, and while the troupe had antecedents, that still meant that by and large, it was working without a net. This gives the show a tremendous vitality that informs it from beginning to end, even the weaker bits carrying the gleeful sense that someone is definitely getting away with something here, but it also makes it very difficult to know exactly what the “ideal” episode truly is. I’ve got my notion of it (I’m a fan of “Full Frontal Nudity,” but then we all knew that), you probably have yours, but since I’m the writer here, I can say that “It’s The Arts” is too scattershot, and you just have to deal with it, you silly English-type person.
The whole thing starts well enough, with a return of last week’s undertakers segueing (after some animation) into “Restaurant Abuse,” a messy sketch which, like “Interesting People” and “Courtroom” before it, combines a bunch of funny buffoons into a setting and lets them have at it. Idle’s perpetually negative housewife fits the show’s love of characters who won’t ever seem to shut up, and Cleese’s calm but largely hateful husband plays off her well. I’m also a fan of the reveal that the restaurant uses human meat, which leads to a lovely bit where Terry Jones offers himself up to Idle and Cleese for supper. There’s energy to the sequence, but it moves in fits and starts, typical of shaggy-dog-type sketches; what it needs for a follow up is something quick, but sharp and to the point.
Which, thankfully, is what we get: attractive women shilling cars, and John Cleese selling albatross. It’s Cleese’s utter contempt for his sole customer (Jones), combined with Jones slow but utterly un-phased reaction to the large, dead bird that brings this one together. I’ll never tire of Cleese being pissy, or Jones turning the absurd into the banal. The “Quiz Show” sketch, which features famous figures from history doing their impersonations of show-biz personalities, is fine, and “Come Back To My place,” a short chat between Palin and Cleese that ends with Palin unexpectedly inviting Cleese (playing a police officer) back home, and Cleese even more unexpectedly accepting, adds a small but key punchline to Python lore.
Where does the episode go off the rails? Well, it doesn’t exactly, but it does lose a bit of ground early on with Idle in “Me Doctor,” a wordplay sketch that never finds the necessary level of child-logic that’s needed for that kind of bit to land. I like the idea behind “PROBEAROUND,” an investigative show looking into the ways in which law enforcement uses the occult to catch criminals, but I like it mostly because of the premise: It could be the setup for a promising but ultimately disappointing SyFy series. The episode’s weakest sketch, though, doesn’t come until very near the end, with a pair of psychiatrist’s offices and some open-heart surgery that seems more like a gag from Laugh-In than a bit that belongs on Flying Circus. Palin plays Mr. Notlob, who hears songs from time to time. He visits Cleese, a psychiatrist, but Cleese is unable to help him and sends him to Chapman, another psychiatrist (the joke here, that Chapman’s office is just Cleese’s office with some minor re-arranging, doesn’t quite work—it’s the sort of concept humor that needs to be clustered with a lot of other concept humor so that everything can play off of everything else), and then Chapman operates on Palin and finds he has hippies (like Idle) living in his stomach.
Comedy is, as ever, a question of taste, but while nothing in “It’s The Arts” comes near the “Native American At The Theater” sketch in terms of momentum killing, nothing in the episode finds a way to build up speed. It’s the sort of episode where I enjoy it, get a little bored by the end, but am still utterly surprised when the It’s Man shows up for the closing credits, because it hardly seemed like the episode even started. That’s one of the benefits of the Pythons’ style, actually; there’s rarely a chance to get sick of what’s going on, because in a few minutes it’s going to be something else. Besides, there are always elements to appreciate even when the overall picture isn’t ideal. Like Jones as a man who thinks he’s Napoleon criticizing a sketch for being too predictable. Or Cleese as a soft-spoken psychiatrist. Or Palin as Cardinal Richelieu doing his best Petula Clark impersonation. Not Palin as a religious figure singing romantic pop songs—it’s Cardinal Richelieu, doing Petula Clark. Details matter.
- Cleese’s great reading of “Fine, fine, fine,” makes a come back in the “falling from building” sketch. Never gets old. (And I like the idea of certain phrases and performance choices being part of a show’s essential grammar, the way characters and mythology figures into serialized shows.)
- Cleese, delivering one of the fundamental truths: “I think it’s too early to tell.”
- Idle’s extensive traffic monologue in “Mr. Hilter” is another example of the show’s love of excessive, droning, monotone verbiage, the way some people can, when they’ve hit on a concept that really speaks to them, or else one on which they feel they can hold forth about for as long as the breath carries them, just launch into a speech which in no way takes into consideration the needs or attention span or even patience of the wearied, and trapped, listener.
- “You wouldn’t have had much fun in Stalingrad, eh?” Jones, needling Hitler.
- Oh, I totally left out the “minister falls through the earth’s crust” sketch in “The Naked Ant”! I like how weird it is.
- Notlob is a funny word, isn’t it?
- It’s been exciting, everyone.
Not next week, but soon: And now for something completely different: We return to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Eventually.