Is it possible to overthink a joke?
Well, yes, of course it is, and I’m sure most of us are well aware of this fact, but if we just stop there, I don’t think my editors will be very pleased. But nothing pleases my editors. They’re just big, terrifying, monolithic entities of absolutely no pleasure whatsoever, whose only satisfaction in life is finding every small glimmer of joy or humor in a piece of writing, smashing it into bland paste, and calling that “house style.” (This is simply not true. We are perfectly reasonable human beings, who enjoy puppies, puns, and long walks on the beach. We are certainly not trying to crush the life out of our subjects in order that we may reshape them in a form of our choosing. -Ed.) (Please disregard the previous note. This was an ill-advised attempt at humor. The responsible parties have been fed to rabid wolves. Sacked. We mean they have been sacked. -Editor One) So press on we will, and maybe try and get to the bottom of one of Monty Python’s major weaknesses. Their Achilles Heel, as it were, if Achilles was a man who continually poked arrows into his own foot because he just couldn’t help himself.
The preceding paragraph was overwritten. Maybe that worked for you. Maybe it did not. Humor is so subjective that any attempt to make a uniform criticism is going to have its outliers sitting in the stands shouting “But I got a laugh out of it!” But to my mind, that paragraph is a bit much. It’s too cluttered, too straining, too desperate to be silly, and that makes it more tiring than amusing.
The Pythons never really seemed desperate in their work, not even in their worst sketches. There’s a reassuring thread of confidence throughout; they were young, well-educated, clearly high on their gifts, and oh yeah, they were geniuses. But that doesn’t mean they were perfect, and both of this week’s episodes have good examples of the troupe fumbling in the execution. For us normal folks, when we cram too many gags into one bit, it reeks of trying-too-hard, which is death to laughter. For the Pythons, an overly elaborate gag reads more like a smart mind outdoing itself, throwing out so many concepts and ideas at once that the initial, basic power of the joke is lost.
Let’s look at a gag from the first major sketch in this week’s first episode. It’s-
No, wait, that’s not right.
First the naked organ man (Jones) comes out, only he’s wearing a rumpled suit. He sits down that the organ, and when he plays the opening chord, his clothes are ripped away. We pan right, and see the rest of the Pythons, naked, wearing fright wigs, and grinning over their own instruments. What’s nice here is that up until this point, Jones being naked and grinning like a loon as he plays the organ was the entire joke; unlike the “It’s-” Man and Cleese’s Announcer, there was never any larger context. But now there is. It’s not a lot of context, and it doesn’t create anything so fancy as a narrative for the character, but it’s something. And because we’re so used to seeing the naked organ man in just a brief glimpse (I think he originally played the soundtrack for one of the game show parodies?), there’s automatic tension in seeing him clothed, and a better pay-off when we see he has friends.
And now it’s
“Salad Days” (season 3, episode 7; originally aired 11/20/1972)
The first proper sketch has Chapman as Biggles, the popular fictional pilot seen here doing some unpopular things. (He’s snippy, insults his secretary, and shoots his sidekick Algy for being gay.) All very subversive and what not, although I expect it plays a bit differently if you grew up with Biggles as your childhood hero, as opposed to growing up and only hearing about the character when he’s referenced in British satire. Chapman’s frustration throughout is fun to watch, although the woman playing his secretary (Nicki Howorth) is clearly out of her depth. To an extent, that’s intentional; Biggles is frustrated because his dimbulb, hottie secretary keeps taking his instructions too literally, and the actress’s awkwardness adds a certain authenticity to the scene. But she’s also distracting, as it’s clear that she’s only a heartbeat or two away from dropping her lines; her delivery is shaky and lacks confidence. It’s the sort of work that really helps you to appreciate how important Carol Cleveland was to the show.
Putting all of that aside (also putting aside Terry Gilliam’s outfit which sure is something), what I’d like to focus on here is the bit with the antlers. The set-up is that Biggles is struggling to find a way to effectively communicate to his secretary when he’s giving dictation, and when he isn’t. In order to get around the comical misunderstandings this complicated situation inspires, Biggles takes a set of antlers down from the wall, and tells his secretary that when he’s wearing the antlers, he’s dictating; when he takes the antlers off, he’s just talking.
This is a good set-up. It’s a clever, overly elaborate solution to a silly problem, the sort of solution that can potentially generate other problems down the line (which, for writers, is the best kind of solution), and it creates a solid visual gag. The problem is that the episode immediately throws the joke overboard by reversing it. For the rest of the sketch, the secretary only types when Biggles isn’t wearing the antlers, and Biggles doesn’t act as though this is in any way a mistake.
Okay, so admittedly: this isn’t the worst example of the Python’s over-thinking a joke. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, and you could make the argument that it really only punishes people who were playing close attention to the material. Watching the episode, I wasn’t even sure I was reading the scene correctly, so I went and checked the script afterwards.
Still, even taking all of that into account, and also taking into account the group’s love of subverting expectations and refusing to settle for obvious punchlines, this doesn’t work. It’s confusing in a way that doesn’t go anywhere; instead of a deliberate, surreal aside (lemon curry?), this is a reversal that’s too soft to grab one’s immediate attention, and too pervasive to work as a kind of Easter Egg. There’s no humor in it, or if there is, it requires the viewer to pay attention to the initial explanation, to note the discrepancy, and trust that this discrepancy actually happened, and is something that is intentional, and not just a mistake that the actors have made in the performance. (To confirm, I checked the script multiple times, have even checked it again before writing this sentence, just to make sure I’m not making a horrible mistake.)
Laughter can come from complex material, but a great joke needs an underlying directness, both in its concept and in its execution. There’s a only certain amount of explaining one can do before the humor is lost. This isn’t because of audience intelligence levels—I think it’s safe to assume that most people watching Flying Circus were and are smart enough to grasp complex concepts. It’s more that the best laughter is a reflexive response, one inspired by an absurdity that we recognize almost before the conscious mind can process it.
There are levels. Getting hit in the face with a pie, and playing the Questions game from Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead are two very different concepts, and both are more than capable of earning an appreciative guffaw. But a joke that needs to be processed (like the Questions game) has to have some sort of underlying, immediately graspable idea holding it together to make it effective (with Questions, that’s “it’s a competition”), and the audience needs to feel rewarded on some level when they figure it out (with Questions, the thrill and amusement is in understanding the rules of the competition; you feel smart for picking it up and the game itself is a delightful, silly concept).
There’s no “reward” to figuring out that Biggles and the secretary have switched things around. It’s a change that doesn’t illuminate anything, and doesn’t alter the nature of the scene in any way. It’s as though two characters began a sketch referring to each other as “Jim” and “Bob,” and halfway through, for no reason whatsoever, “Jim” became “Bob” and “Bob” “Jim.” (Come to think, that sounds like something the Pythons would do.) Last week we talked about the troupe’s restless need embellish every sketch, and that’s an important part of what makes Python so distinctive; by throwing in plenty of distraction and white noise, the group is constantly disrupting the audience’s idea of what sketch comedy should be. But that isn’t something that always works, and for me, bits like the Biggles’ reversal are evidence of writers mistaking meaningless confusion for effective disruption. It’s an intellectual device, and while Python brains are a big part of what makes Flying Circus so singular, those brains also make it easier to get bored, and to make changes on top of changes not for improvement, but because you lose sight of what made the original material work.
This sort of writing is probably season three’s greatest weakness; while Python hasn’t completely lost its touch, they have been stretching out material in ways that material doesn’t really justify. Part of this may be creative exhaustion, but there’s also the unavoidable fact that once you make a name for yourself by shaking the foundations of comedy and offering the unexpected at every turn, it becomes increasingly difficult to live up to that name. Setting the standard for innovation means inevitable decreasing returns when you settle into the entertaining but fundamentally predictable rut of your later years; and while going into a third season isn’t the Bataan Death March, it is probably about as far as a group like Monty Python can go in television without the cracks starting to appear. Other groups lasted longer, but few can match Python’s self-destructive genius. They burned hot, bright, and fast, and it’s honestly impressive that as much of season three holds up as it does.
Speaking of—I’m going to skim the rest of this half-hour, which by and large struck me as a good one, mostly for reasons we’ve already talked about in other reviews. (“Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days” is a bit that needs no particular dissection, unless you’re unfamiliar with the ultra-violent films about desperately masculine men with which Peckinpah made his name; if you are unfamiliar with those films, well, get on that.) But I’d be remiss if I let “Cheese Shop” pass without comment, as it is one of Python’s most famous sketches, and I guess I have certain standards of professionalism I’m supposed to live up to or something.
I never much cared for “Cheese Shop” in the past. It’s barely a sketch at all really, and mostly exists as an excuse for John Cleese to rattle off a list of bizarre (but mostly real) names of various cheeses. The premise: Cleese (whose character is named “Mousebender” in the script) comes into a cheese shop. Palin is the shopkeeper. Cleese asks if various cheeses are available for purchase. Palin says no to each one. Intermittently, he offers explanations as to way such-and-such cheese is not available (lemon curry?), but the conversation never rises to the level of debate of, say, the “Parrot Sketch.” Eventually, frustrated Cleese asks Palin twice if there is any cheese in the shop. The first time, Palin says “Yes.” The second time, after Cleese warns that he will shoot Palin in the head if Palin says, “No,” Palin says, “No.” Cleese shoots him in the head.
There’s a bit more to it than that (like the bouzouki musician and dancers off to one side, who Cleese eventually screams at), but nothing that substantially changes the trajectory of the scene. John Cleese ranting names of obscure (and occasionally fictitious) cheeses either works for you, or it doesn’t. This time it worked for me, I think because I didn’t waste time expecting anything else. It’s just silly. And, okay, on a basic mechanical level it’s a little more than just a list; it’s also the increasing absurdity of knowing what Palin’s response is going to be each time, and the way Mousebender clearly realizes that he’s never getting any damn cheese, but he keeps asking. This isn’t the first time Cleese and Palin have squared off against each other, as disgruntled customer and unphasable clerk, and it probably won’t be the last. Perhaps we’re just getting glimpses of a special kind of Hell: one where the places change and the details vary, but the fundamental problem remains constant.
- My favorite cheese is “Norwegian Jarlsberg.” What’s yours?
- Mind you, I’ve never had Jarlsberg before, Norwegian or otherwise.
- I’m not much of one for fancy cheeses.
- I don’t object to them. They have their place. But I believe they can be overused. Fetishized, even. When you get invited to one of these fancy parties, with their dress codes and their limousines and their guest-lists with half a dozen famous names on them only none of the actually famous people show up, of course they don’t, they’re busy off doing things that actually matter, so you end up stuck with a bunch of strangers in rented tuxedos, and every time you make eye contact you realize you aren’t looking at another person, you’re really just looking at a reflection of your own desperate need, but you make the best of things and you drink too much wine and pretend you’re savoring the smell although you don’t really know wines, do you, and the sweat beads on the small of your back and between your thighs and you shift in your chair with an audible squish, and you cough to try and cover for yourself, but you cough too loud and now everyone is staring, the reflections turned hostile, marking you as the impostor, as the fool who didn’t learn all the proper rules before trying to rise above his station, and it’s at that moment, that exact moment, when a waiter comes by and offers you a slice of, jesus, what is that, the name comes out of her mouth and you almost laugh because it couldn’t possibly be words, all gnarled and lumped up and somehow flowing, and the slice, it’s, well, it’s these colors that no edible object is really supposed to have, and is that hair, is that hair on the side, is it hair that’s supposed to be there or is it misplaced, and the eyes are still on you and everyone has gone so quiet and so you have to take a bite, you really have to take a bite, it’s the only way around this, so you open your mouth, and you see that there’s something squirming, something under the surface of the cheese is squirming, and you want to scream but you don’t know that’s the damnable thing, you don’t know if this is supposed to happen, that name went by so fast and maybe this is just how cheeses are, the really fancy ones, all colorful and hairy and squirming, and the only thing left is to go through with it, to bite off a piece and chew and swallow and hope that will be enough, and as your teeth come down, that’s when you realize that it’s weird to talk so much about yourself in second person.
- I am also fond of cheddar.
“The Cycling Tour” (season 3, episode 8; originally aired 12/7/1972)
In which Mr. Palin takes a trip…
It was inevitable, really. Given how much of Flying Circus has been given over to attempts to deconstruct, undermine, and dissect the sketch show structure, it makes sense that the troupe would one day attempt to pull off an entire episode devoted to a single sketch. I doubt that was the only reason for “The Cycling Tour”; in fact, it may not even have been a conscious reason at all. According to Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Complete And Annotated…All The Bits, edited by Luke Dempsey, the script was originally written by Palin and Jones for a different project, but the group decided to film it for the third season when they found themselves short of material. That makes sense. While the concept of one single through storyline is arguably necessary for the troupe’s on-going exploration of the possibilities and restrictions of sketch comedy, the actual episode itself is just a bit off. Not bad, for the most part, but it plays almost like a stealth pilot for some other series—a spin-off snuck in under cover of Python.
“The Cycling Tour” also has the great rarity of a troupe member playing a single role for an entire sketch. Michael Palin stars as Pither, a cyclist with more goodwill and then good sense; initially, the episode gets laughs out of watching Pither run into various strangers who absolutely do not give a shit about him. Palin expertly captures a mixture of blithe, largely oblivious cheeriness, playing the sort of man who can’t seem to grasp the idea that the world around him might not be fascinated by his stories about sandwiches, bike pumps, and trouser legs. The first few scenes (which mix shots of Palin riding through the countryside between his encounters with the locals) are striking, and not only because they go on so long without ever introducing the show’s main titles. (We never get the main titles, actually.) It’s striking because watching Pither run afoul of indifference falls into the more traditional comedy pattern of “normal people” and “weirdo,” a pattern that Python regularly avoids.
Take, for instance, Pither’s run-in with John Cleese and Carol Cleveland. They’re sitting in a pub having lunch, and Pither decides to have a chat with Cleese, who is in the midst of some very touch-and-go (literally!) negotiations with Cleveland. The joke is, Cleese and Cleveland have been having an affair (Cleese is made up to look older and stuffier than Cleveland), and Cleese isn’t sure he can go on with it; Pither’s oblivious interruptions serve to make the situation even more uncomfortable, until Cleveland finally storms off to sob in the parking lot. If this were a typical Flying Circus sketch, Cleese and Cleveland would be, well, weirder. Maybe Chapman would be playing Cleveland’s part, maybe it would turn out they were doing something much sillier than just fucking on the side, maybe the whole bit would unfold the same, but take a sudden left turn halfway through.
Here, though, it’s surprisingly conventional. That doesn’t mean it isn’t funny—this half hour would be dire indeed if it wasn’t generally pretty amusing. But the conventionality, not just in story but in how that story is told, adds to the weird, persistent feeling of oddness that dogs the entire episode. I wish I could remember what it was like the first time I watched this, before I realized what was going on. Given how routinely the Pythons played around with placing the titles and end credits, there’s an automatic, low-running suspense throughout that this whole pretense of a storyline is a gag, that it simply has to be setting us up for some final, shocking reveal. It isn’t, though. And that’s both a feature and a bug. Putting the conventional in the unconventional makes it seem fresh at first, but that only goes so far. Eventually the material has to stand on its own.
Like I said, “The Cycling Tour” is pretty amusing. There’s one dire sequence with Chapman and Cleese in yellowface that goes on forever, and is both offensive and painfully unfunny, but apart from that, the whole thing goes down easy enough. The novelty of the Python’s trying to tell an actual story—or at least pretending to tell an actual story for as long as it suits them—carries things along, and Palin makes a credible center. Things get more interesting when he runs into Jones as Mr. Gulliver, possibly the only man in the world able to withstand, and even appreciate Pither’s ramblings. The two men run afoul of an automobile accident, and Mr. Gulliver wakes up believing that he’s the Irish singer Clodagh Rodgers. Later, he gets confused and decides he’s Trotsky, which leads to this whole thing with Russia, since apparently Pither’s cycling trip (lemon curry?) encompasses nearly all of Europe.
As mentioned, there’s a story here, but not much in the way of actual plot; things just sort of happen, and then they happen some more. Gulliver’s antics as Trotsky attract the attention of the secret police, and Pither finds himself in a Russian prison while Gulliver preaches to the masses. In my favorite joke of the episode, the Russians repeatedly attempt to execute Pither by firing squad, but find themselves incapable of actually shooting him; it’s silly, but Cleese’s growing exasperation makes it the funny kind of silly. Gulliver finally remembers his real identity, rushes to Pither’s rescue just in time to find himself in front of the firing squad along with his old friend, and then [REVIEW MISSING]
- Wow, that was some great writing. I mean, really, I think I outdid myself this week, especially in those last couple of paragraphs. I wasn’t sure that reference to Beckettian archetypes was going to read out organically, especially not with all that talk about Muppets, but I really think I pulled it off.
- A couple other great gags: The title card “Forgive me if I continue in English to save time,” and the bit with a soldier running up to Pither’s execution to deliver a note, and then, “It says, ‘Carry on with the execution.’”
- This episode is the closest Flying Circus has come since the Science Fiction Sketch (ie, the one with the deadly alien blancmange) to doing an overt homage to The Goon Show.
- “The Cycling Tour” is an interesting footnote to the series, but it fails to make the most of its one-off status. As the movies would demonstrate, actual stories need to be populated by characters, and characters are not one of Flying Circus’s strong points; here, only Pither is truly well-realized, as Gulliver spends most of the episode flipping randomly back and forth between identities, and the rest of troupe just plays a variety of thinly realized cliches. In sketches, there would be no problem with this, as a cliche with an objective is all you really need. But even though we rarely spend much time with the people Pither runs into (apart from Chapman in yellow face which is just awful), their cumulative lack of depth means that the story never becomes particularly interesting. Without a story, you just need to fall back on the jokes, and there just aren’t enough here to carry the weight. And even the few twists (like, say, throwing in a “[SCENE MISSING]” at the episode’s nominal climax) seem more lazy than surprising.
- There’s nothing else to say. Sorry, this one ran short. There aren’t anymore jokes.
- <the waves crash onto the shore>
- (My favorite joke this week comes at the end of “Salad Days,” in which Cleese, dressed as a Spaniard, explains to the audience that there’s no show left. It’s great because it reminds the audience that something they take for granted—that shows are fill a certain length of time on a schedule—isn’t something that happens on automatically. A Python sketch that finds humor in questioning our basic assumptions? Now that’s something.)