Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start.
Geek obsession: Monty Python
Why it’s daunting: The six-member comedy troupe (Brits Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones, plus lone American Terry Gilliam) has done TV shows, movies, concerts, and albums. Even discounting all the reused sketches and blatant money-grabs, there’s a lot of material out there. The group’s original claim to fame, the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus, ran four seasons (or “series,” in Brit-speak), for a total of 45 episodes. None of these are outright horrid, but the quality varies, especially in the latter half, when the writing loses steam and some sketches of questionable humor get stretched longer than necessary. The movies range from passable to excellent, but even the best of the lot doesn’t entirely capture the wild, experimental feel of the TV show. Monty Python wasn’t simply a sketch-based comedy troupe, it was an approach to comedy that embraced the anarchy of the form in a way that seems fresh and vital even today. It’s possible to watch, say, And Now For Something Completely Different and walk away largely satisfied, but that means missing out on what made the Pythons so hugely important in their day, and why their influence is still being felt even now.
There’s another factor that doesn’t often come up in Gateways, but it’s arguably one of the reasons this column exists: Geeks, for all their wheezing and watery gazes, can make for a dishearteningly rabid fan base. (Second only to teenage-girls. The Twilight craze is the closest mainstream culture has come to replicating the madness of that dude who made his own Tron costume.) Spend some time with social outcasts, and eventually, Python will come up. And when it does, the quoting begins, and once that starts, God help you. There’s nothing wrong with sharing funny lines with friends, but by frequenting conventions or comic-book stores, someone could have the entire screenplay of Monty Python And The Holy Grail memorized without ever seeing the movie. Becoming a fan means developing a personal connection with a work of art, and when that art has been regurgitated ad nauseam, the trick isn’t just finding a representative example of the troupe’s work, but finding one that hasn’t been exposed to death.
Why: Admittedly, the Spanish Inquisition sketch, which features Michael Palin as a red-suited cardinal unable to finish a rant without losing track of himself, isn’t exactly unknown. The sketch’s most famous refrain (“I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition!” “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”) is a modern “shave and a haircut” call-and-response where it’s hard not to finish the gag even if you aren’t familiar with where it came from. But in this case, that familiarity is part of the point. In the original sketch, which comes just after the episode’s opening titles, Graham Chapman and Carol Cleveland—the Pythons generally dressed up as women themselves unless a sketch called for an attractive lady, at which point they called on Cleveland—play straight man and woman to Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam’s deranged (and completely ineffectual) threats. The trio of Inquisitors disappear soon after, only to pop up again at the midway point of the episode, and then once more near the end, racing against the end credits to make their final cue. The joke gets better the more expected it becomes, reaching its apex when the setup is delivered without the follow-through. The Pythons were well aware of how to manage their audiences, so here, knowing the punchline isn’t a tragedy.
The rest of the episode is a solid mix of wordplay, silly sight gags, off-color humor, and self-commentary, all crucial elements to the show’s success. Getting into them too heavily would be to defeat the entire purpose of suggesting “The Spanish Inquisition” in the first place, but keep an eye on the way the troupe manages to move from sketch to sketch by giving an illusion of cohesion that never entirely gels into the real thing. (This is helped considerably by Terry Gilliam’s photoplay-style animation, which has become inextricably linked with the group and serves as Gilliam’s most important contribution to Python.) While the episode is on, everything seems to come naturally from everything else, or else the connection is so jarringly unnatural that the transition becomes part of the humor, as in Chapman’s exit from the opening with a nice man from the television network. Once it’s over, though, it’s next to impossible to remember exactly which bit came when, which gives Flying Circus a tremendous re-watchability, and also gives the show its singular feel: the fantasy of a mind so deliriously skewed, it can’t bear to stay in any one place for too long.
“The Spanish Inquisition” is only one potential starting point. (In fact, the previous episode, “Face The Press (Or: Dinsdale)” is terrific, too, with one of the group’s best long-form pieces, “Piranha Brothers,” and one of the few famous sketches that can’t ever be hurt by over-quoting, “The Ministry Of Silly Walks.”) After an exciting but overcrowded start, Flying Circus’ first two series become a high point in sketch-comedy television. Though the third and fourth series grow increasingly hit-or-miss (with John Cleese actually sitting out of the fourth series almost entirely), there isn’t really a complete dud in the whole lot. Given the number of episodes, it can be overwhelming to jump blindly in. If “Inquisition” works as an appetizer, the show proper is an excellent first course, and a must for fans of terrible, wonderful silliness.
Next steps: Of the four Python films, Life Of Brian is the best movie, with a mostly satisfying plot and a likeable protagonist, while Monty Python And The Holy Grail, with its looser tone, is funnier, and closer to the style of the TV show. Of all of the group’s output, Grail suffers the worst from overexposure, and it can be hard to listen to Michael Palin screeching “Ni!” without wanting to punch someone in the face. But it’s worth seeing, and inarguably essential. Brian fares better, and its more focused approach to storytelling has made it more difficult to break down into component parts. (Although it’s doubtful anyone could get through college without hearing “Always Look On the Bright Side Of Life” several times over.)
As for the group’s other features, And Now For Something Completely Different is a watered-down greatest-hits package, full of sketches from Flying Circus re-filmed and jumbled together in pleasant but muted fashion. The low budget, familiar routines, and lack of the television show’s spontaneity make this inessential. Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life is trickier. While it works in roughly the same sketch-based format, the visual style is harsher, and the comedy is sometimes buried by distracting production values and a general sense of exhaustion. Still, any movie with “Every Sperm Is Sacred” can’t be all bad, even though much of Life demonstrates what happens when talented people try to keep doing the same thing long after the excitement has faded.
Where not to start: Eric Idle was once a very funny man, but it’s a good idea to avoid anything he’s done with the Monty Python name on it in the last decade or so.