A digression, just to start things off on the wrong foot. I’m going to get into some big spoilers for the third season of Breaking Bad, so feel free to skip down to the next paragraph if you aren’t caught up on the show. Go on, I’ll wait. Do do do, dah dah dah.
Are they gone? Good—well, since I’m assuming you’ve seen the show, the reason I’m bringing it up here is because I wanted to spend a little bit of time this week on how comedy and drama often work best when they find ways to subvert our expectations. Breaking Bad does this all the frickin’ time, but my favorite example, because it helped create one of my favorite seasons of television, is “The Cousins,” Marco and Leonel. At the beginning of the third season, the writers went to great lengths to convince us that these two cartel guys coming across the border were serious bad news. They want Walter White dead, and they’re willing to kill anyone to get their hands on him. This leads us, as the audience, to assume that at some point, Walt’s going to face off against the twins, and that, given the typical structure of serialized television, that confrontation won’t happen until somewhere close to the end of the season. Which means the writers would need to find plenty of ways to delay the inevitable, which means those of us at home figure we’ve got a rough idea of how the next 10 to 12 episodes will play out. Instead, The Cousins find Walt in episode two; they’re taken off the table in episode seven; and they’re both dead by the end of episode eight. It’s a brilliant, exhilarating artistic choice, partly in the way that it frees up the back half of the season, and partly because it heightens the stakes by taking away the audience’s safety net. All of a sudden, there was no sure thing, and it only took a huge risk (in killing The Cousins, the writers had to find a new threat/conflict to fill the void—and there was Gus Fring, lurking in the wings) to get there.
So, to get out of spoiler territory: In a story, subverting expectations works by inspiring audience assumptions and then faking them out. Comedy works in much the same way, but in far less time, especially when it comes to sketch comedy. Monty Python is, of course, no exception (I ain’t subverting shit this week), and this week, I thought we’d take a look at a couple of sketches that use the audience’s assumptions against them, one effectively, the other less so.
Let’s start with a winner, because I like unhappy endings. “The Vocational Guidance Counsellor” sketch is my pick for Sketch of the Week, a term I just made up. It’s good stuff, a classic two-person scene with Michael Palin as a timid accountant with aspirations, and John Cleese as the helpful titular counsellor trying to steer Palin’s character, Mr. Anchovy, back on track. Palin as always makes a lovable dweeb, someone you can laugh at yet still rather like, and Cleese makes the smart choice to underplay his part of the dialogue. You get the sense that he knows what’s going on and is, deep down, having some fun at Anchovy’s expense, but his calm, measured, and somehow kindly tone drives the humor. The joke isn’t “ha-ha, let’s mock the square”—the joke is that Mr. Anchovy, like all of us, wishes he could have the excitement and danger he sees in the movies (or in the circus), despite being woefully unsuited for such an existence. Thinking you’re missing out on what life is really all about is something anyone can relate to, and a character who foolishly believes he’s been cheated out of a better, more satisfying existence, only to find that the other-side-of-the-fence grass, while potentially greener, is often very sharp indeed, is a common one in fiction. (In fact, that’s one of the underlying themes of Breaking Bad.) It’s impressive how quickly and neatly this sketch covers all the beats of such a character arc: the misguided ambition, the delusions of grandeur, the sudden discovery he’s in over his head, and the panicky, desperate retreat.
Okay, enough of that, we were talking about assumptions. (I bet you assumed I’d get to the point more quickly, eh? HAHAHAHAHA.) “Vocational Guidance Counsellor” uses a series of audience assumptions to continually subvert our expectations. Instead of the usual business speak, Cleese tells Palin he’s a dull fellow, then explains that’s actually a boon in chartered accountancy. It turns out Palin is already a charted accountant, and what he really wants to be is a lion tamer—but when Cleese presses him on the issue, we learn that Palin has mistaken anteaters for lions, and is quite shocked when he learns what an actual lion looks like. Cleese then offers Palin a chance at a much easier transition to banking, and Palin is very excited—but when it comes time for Palin to actually make the change, he panics, and the sketch turns into a plea for sanity against the horrors of chartered accountancy. None of these twists are shocking, but they aren’t supposed to be. Instead, the sketch is designed to keep shifting forward through a series of left turns, milking each new angle for all its humor before shifting again.
On the other side of the coin, in the same episode (these are both in “Untitled,” by the way) there’s “Gorilla Librarian,” a sketch that should work gangbusters but never quite lands. This one has a premise, and a single twist, and that’s about it. A trio of prim and proper administrators (Graham Chapman, who does most of the talking; Terry Jones as a vicar very interested in naughty books; and a woman who doesn’t say anything) are interviewing applicants for the position of head librarian. A nearly unrecognizable Eric Idle pops up in a gorilla suit, and we naturally assume he’s a gorilla, which is funny because normally it’s just the orangutans that get into the bibliographic business. Then Chapman reveals that they’re actually planning on hiring an animal of some sort for the position, and the sketch spends some time getting into just why that’s so beneficial. It’s not bad, but the jokes never build off of each other the way they do in Flying Circus’ best sketches. This is partly because the performers aren’t really playing off each other, and partly because the script never really gets past that initial subversion. The joke is, it’s a gorilla, but they plan on hiring a gorilla, and that’s it. Without the series of twists or turns, the sketch has to fall back on the dialogue alone to make it work, and the writing just isn’t solid enough. It’s not a dead scene, and it does make time for one last twist (Idle in the gorilla suit is actually playing a guy in a gorilla suit), but it’s a punchline instead of something to move the sketch forward, and the use of a live dog in the final moment makes sense but isn’t really all that funny.
“Untitled” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 12/21/1969)
After last week’s double triumph, we’ve got a pair of good, occasionally great, but not really all that exciting episodes, in which a few excellent sketches are mixed up in a lot of high-concept, but not always effective, nonsense. As we near the end of the show’s first season (or “series,” as those nutty Brits call it), the Python’s have settled into their particular grove. The stuttering, syncopated episode structures have gone from revolutionary to, well, not “predictable” exactly, but nowhere near as surprising as they once were. Which is inevitable, really, and Monty Python is strong enough both in writing and performance that it doesn’t need shock value to get laughs. But there’s still that sense of settling in, of realizing this is going to be a long-term relationship between you and a comedy troupe, and wondering what they’ll do once the novelty wears off.
Between the two entries, “Untitled” has the edge in the material department; despite mmea critique of “Gorilla Librarian” above, the half-hour is mostly composed of strong sketches. After a creepy shot of the It’s Man hanging from a meathook, the show opens with Palin as an everyman who gets a letter from the BBC, inviting him to take part in a sketch. It’s a cheery way to start the show, made especially funny by the fact that Cleese and Idle are hanging around a set in full costume (Cleese as a burglar and Idle as a salesman), waiting for Palin to show up so they can start their sketch. Cleese’s quiet irritation is pitch perfect, and the short bit serves to break the fourth wall and strengthen it at the same time, reminding us that we’re just watching a show, while at the same time implying that everything, even the viewers at home, fall under the Python province. (The fact that Palin does a walk-on that’s really just a walk-off is great as well.) The Cleese/Idle scene that “officially” kicks things off is a fun bit about a burglar who accidentally robs a lingerie shop. The concept is clever, but I think the funniest parts of the sketch are the way Cleese walks through the door, the burglar outfit he’s wearing, and the way he holds the gun against Idle’s nose for most of their conversation. Actually, Cleese and Idle’s performances are also terrific—this isn’t the greatest sketch ever written, and it’ll most likely earn chuckles rather than gut laughs, but it demonstrates the way the actors can elevate already good material, and the importance of getting out before a bit gets tired.
Speaking of, your tolerance of “It’s A Tree” will most likely depend on your affection for creepy puppets and bad puns. To me, it’s an energy suck, something that must’ve sounded like a good idea in concept (a parody of gossipy talk shows staring actual trees, and also a piece of plastic), but doesn’t really play on screen. Apart from the surrealism of the visuals, the sketch doesn’t have any place to go, although it does eventually lead into some fun Terry Gilliam animation: a Chippendale writing desk doing impressions, before getting smashed in a performance of a piece by “Harold Splinter.” Gilliam’s animation moves faster than the live action version, and it allows for the sort of flights of fancy that the concept really needs to work.
“Ron Obvious” is another gem, the story of a gullible man who tries to do impossible things until one of them kills him. Terry Jones makes a great Ron, a pleasant, ordinary fellow who just happens to be unbelievably gullible and susceptible to the influence of snazzily dressed Italians. I also like a bit of story in my sketches, and the narrative of Ron’s journey to the grave works nicely. We follow as he first tries to jump the English Channel, then eat a cathedral, then tunnel to Java (without a shovel), then run to Mercury, and then, tragically, split a railway carriage with his nose, all under the watchful and exploitative eye of his agent, Mr. Luigi Vercotti (Palin, as his conman best). The sketch ends with Ron in his grave, as Vercotti promises his client will surely break the record for the longest time underground. It’s a punchline of sorts, but punchlines that are built out of character and narrative work better than forced gags, and this one suits the the sketch to a T. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a bit of voiceover to counteract the surprisingly morbid turn, as a pair of Pepperpots comment on the sadness of the ending.
“Pet Conversions” is a sort of riff on “The Parrot Sketch,” as once again Palin is clerk at a pet shop who may not entirely be on the up and up, and Cleese is his customer. This time, Cleese doesn’t put on a funny accent, and he’s not looking to issue a complaint; he just wants to buy a cat, and when he refuses Palin’s repeated attempts to sell him a terrier instead, Palin offers to convert the poor terrier into a cat through a violent, and painful, mechanical process. Once again, assumptions and expectations play a part in the sketch’s effectiveness, as Palin’s initial descriptions of what they can do to the terrier to make him a cat or a parrot (“I'll lop its back legs off, make good, strip the fur, stick a couple of wings on and staple on a beak of your own choice.”) are so horrific that the immediate response is to assume he’s a conman with a hate-on for small, non-threatening dogs. But while Cleese rejects his initial offers, he doesn’t seem offended or disturbed, and that, combined with the reveal that Graham Chapman is off screen already working on a few other pet conversions, takes the sketch beyond its initial premise and helps keep it funny once the shock wears off.
“Letters To ‘Daily Mirror’” is fun, but not all that exciting to talk about. (It’s something the show has done before, and it works well as a transitional bit, because, like Gilliam’s animation—which it often merges with—the letters can be used to connect any sketch to any other sketch without much trouble.) Which leaves us with the last sketch of the episode, “Strangers In The Night,” which stars Terry Jones as a housewife in bed with her husband (Palin)(presumably not the couple from the beginning of the episode), struggling to stop her various lovers from squabbling over her too loudly. It’s a goofy, silly little scene which reminds me a little of the crowded stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night At The Opera. The punchline is obvious and not all that funny (it seems to be trying to make a joke out of its obviousness, although that may just be my modern interpretation), but I love Palin’s performance as the obtuse husband. Just the way he sits up like a robot makes me laugh every damn time.
“The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes To The Bathroom” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 12/28/69)
While “The Royal Philharmonic” lacks real standout sketches, it is, on average, more consistent than “Untitled.” The structure skips and jerks almost past the point of effectiveness, even though, unlike the previous episode, there is a basic theme to all of the transitional material. “Untitled” used stream of consciousness and Gilliam animation to keep moving along, but “The Royal Philharmonic,” while it does have its fair share of both those things, is largely dominated by a series of bits about undertakers, all of which rely almost entirely on visual humor, not dialogue, to get their point across. On a show as routinely hyper-verbal as Flying Circus, that’s an odd choice, and it doesn’t generate immediate laughs. It does, though, set the mood for the episode, a mood which, in retrospect, I rather enjoyed. The whole thing felt rather strange, and the occasional interjection of Terry Jones as a ghoulish undertaker who looks like he just stepped off a Hammer Films set casts a pall over the entire entry. Here’s where consistent linking material can pay off, I think, because while there’s no “Vocational Guidance Counsellor” or “Pet Conversion” here, every individual piece of the episode feels like a part of a unit. A great Flying Circus episode has both an effective series of transitions and terrific individual scenes, but between “Untitled” and “The Royal Philharmonic,” I’d argue that having one even without the other can still work well enough to keep the show humming along.
Apart from the undertaker sequences, two big sketches dominate the episode: “Agatha Christie” and “Interesting People.” The former reminds me of the courtroom sketch from “How To Recognize Trees From Quite A Long Way Away,” in that it initially doesn’t appear to have a single premise. A group of people are in a drawing room, and, if you’ve ever read an Agatha Christie novel or seen a sketch about a group of people assembled to hear the solution to a mystery, this should look familiar. Cleese enters, introduces himself as Inspector Tiger (“WHERE? WHERE?”), and proceeds to fumble his way through a seemingly endless monologue that might be about a murder, and might not. Then some doctors come in and give him a lobotomy, and he manages to tell the group that he’s looking for a killer. They tell him there’s no body, the lights go out, and when they come back on, Tiger is dead from multiple injuries.
It’s all rather ungainly, although it’s still funny, which is why I thought of the courtroom scene. The difference here is that there is, in fact, a premise; it just takes most of the sketch to get to it. Once Tiger dies, a succession of officers arrive at the scene, each with an increasingly silly name (Theresamanbehindyer is the best). They say they’re there to solve a murder, the lights go out, and then they die. There are variations on the idea: Jones shoots his subordinate in an attempt to solve the case, and the show cuts away from the sketch for another sketch in which Idle interviews Cleese as a very, very dense footballer. (This is hilarious, by the way, in large part due to how Cleese plays stupid; just the way he gets excited when he thinks he’s put something together is worth the whole bit.) But at heart, “Agatha Christie” is really just that one idea, expressed in variety of ways. If the sketch had been done straight through, without interruption and without the weirdness at the beginning, it would’ve been okay, but the scattered delivery and performances make it seem far stranger than it really is.
On the other hand, “Interesting People” really is as strange as it looks, and it doesn’t have much of a premise beyond “Michael Palin hosts a show full of freaks.” This one is a bit like the “Visitors” sketch from last week, because it gives a token nod to structure before just letting the troupe have its way with the maddest people they can invent. There’s Cleese as Ken Dove, who’s interested in shouting, which is all he does. (Oh God, just the bit where he shouts at the little man in the matchbox would be enough to elevate the entire episode up a grade—if I were grading these, which I’m not.) Eric Idle plays a man so boring he’s convinced he’s invisible, because no one pays any attention to him. Graham Chapman throws a cat into a bucket; Terry Jones pops in to hypnotize a brick, although he can’t do it with the first brick Palin gives him because it’s already asleep. Sketches like this make me regret that I spend so much time taking notes on each episode (and the notes I take for Flying Circus are more substantial than the notes I take for any other show), because “Interesting People” works the best when you lose yourself in the madness. We’ve talked about structure, about how sketches get built and about how much art there goes into appearing artless, but honestly, there really are times when it’s best to sit back and not think. And that’s not something I say often, because it would put me out of a job.
There’s more bits and pieces scattered throughout the half hour. The undertaker sequences are (apart from the first, a race between two hearses) a series of riffs on basic idea: a group of undertakers carrying a coffin. There are Gumbys debating history, and an attempt to sexy up a dull history program with the use of, you guessed it, sex. Nothing in the episode feels completely formed, not even the longer sketches—nothing seems to begin or end properly, and the sharp clarity of sketches like those found in “Untitled” is limited to bits that come and go quickly. Like the final gag of the night, the re-enactment of the Battle of Pearl Harbor by the Barley Townswomen’s Guild (led by Idle). It’s a great joke, but it has only one beat: Idle talks about how much they love reenacting history, and then when it comes time to deliver, the ladies just beat on each other in the mud. More than anything else, “The Royal Philharmonic” plays like a lot of disparate ideas smooshed together in order in order to prop up sketches that couldn’t really stand on their own. It’s a neat contrast with something like “Untitled,” which has plenty of scenes that would could easily be lifted out and used elsewhere. Neither of these episodes are among the best the troupe ever put out, but they are both excellent in their way, and proof (like anyone needed it) that Monty Python had legs. And for an extra fiver, we can saw those off, staple on some sticks, paint the lot brown, and have a lovely herd of moose.
- “Bye-bye, and mind you don’t get seduced!” Jones, offering important advice for the world of show business.
- The way Cleese says, “Fine, fine. Fine,” is maybe my favorite part of that sketch.
- Chapman doesn’t get a lot to do in these episodes, but his “David Unction” is nice.
- We should find some way to bring “stroppy” back.
- The Larch makes a brief but triumphant return during “Vocation Guidance Counsellor.” This show is totally serialized!
- “I thought you were the um… I like the police a lot.”
- There’s a lot of self-criticism in “Untitled”; characters keep saying “Oh, I thought that was a bit predictable.” Death to the fourth wall!
- The sort of grammatical stutter Cleese develops in “Agatha Christie” would get a great work out in the guards sketch from Monty Python And The Holy Grail. (“So he’s not to leave the room, even if you come and get him.”)
- Along with “Pet Conversion,” “Interesting People” has a bit about a man (Cleese) who can give a cat influenza. This week was hard on pets.
Next week: We close out the season (which I should’ve been calling “series” this whole time, so I guess that puts the lie that is my illusory scholarship to rest once and for all) and this summer’s coverage of Flying Circus with “The Naked Ant” and “Intermission.”