The Kids didn’t always deal with dark material, but when they did, they had an expert handle on how to present the sketch in the best possible light. A sketch about French trappers canoeing through an office building and killing cubicle workers is light with just enough bite to give it an edge. A drawn out monologue about a cow is filmed like a Lynchian horror movie, rich with intent and foreboding that only makes the final reveal more hilariously pragmatic.
And then there’s the sketch linked to above, with Dave Foley as the world’s friendliest ax murderer. (He murders people with an ax. He doesn’t kill axes. It’s an important distinction.) The genius of the sketch is how it walks the fine line between a legitimately unsettling scenario—a helpless old woman accosted in the middle of the night by a serial killer looking for a favor—and a completely absurd one. As the helpless old woman, Kevin McDonald is mildly concerned, but not particularly frightened or worried; and while Foley’s manic grin and blood stained clothes prevent him from being completely harmless, he’s also relentlessly polite and respectful about the whole thing.
The joke works because the performances are smart, and because of great writing, but also because how all of this (plus the direction—the sketch is filmed the same way all of the kitchen-sink sketches on the show are, and while that could be a function of budget as much as anything, it helps contextualize the scene as something familiar and non-threatening) walks a very fine line. Too silly, and the threat would dissipate, removing any stakes and rendering the scene formless. To serious, and legitimate concern would overwhelm the humor. We’re watching two actors pretend to be people behaving in a way that no one in the real world would behave; at the same time, that behavior has to be consistent and believable.
It’s a neat trick, and one a lot of sketch shows fail at. I remember several episodes of MadTV that reveled in so much mean-spirited carnage that eventually it was less a comedy than some sort of conceptual art project designed to make its audience despise anything they remembered from their childhood, anything resembling a joke, and, ultimately, humanity itself. It’s possible to do dark humor well (and hell, it’s not like even MadTV was always terrible), but the more mean-spirited a sketch becomes, the funnier it needs to be to for the cruelty not to overwhelm the comedy. Unless you’re into cruelty. Which, hey, whatever works for you, and I’m just going to sidle casually out of the room without making eye contact.
What’s great about the Kids In The Hall is—wait, what? [checks title of review] Seriously? I’m stilling talking about this bloody nons—no, you’re right, totally my fault, I definitely want to make sure that check clears. Ha ha. Can’t imagine what came over me.
“Whicker’s World (or Njorl’s Saga)” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 10/19/1972)
What’s great about Monty Python is that tone is rarely an issue for them. Their approach to character and narrative are largely consistent throughout the run of the show, even in some of the longer-form sketches. Unlike the Kids, we’re never invited to care about any of these people, not the man with the dead parrot or the smarmy talk show host or the dweeb whose wife is cheating on him with his marriage counselor. Which means there’s rarely much of a sense of stakes in the sketches, outside of basic suspense concerns (ie, we’re interested in seeing what happens next, but we’re rarely emotionally invested in the outcome), but it allows for tremendous flexibility and playfulness. The point is always, and I know I’ve said this before but they’re paying me for the word and they don’t seem to mind much if I repeat myself hello Mother I promise I’ll call this weekend and yes the rash is healing up nicely, the point is always to make you laugh.
That’s not to say other sketch shows aren’t trying for laughs, or even that Python was incapable of creating a sustained, recognizable character (their two best movies, Holy Grail and Life Of Brian do just that; Brian even manages the neat trick of having the structure of a sketch comedy but the spine of a narrative film). But where a show like Kids In The Hall is defined, in part, by the warmth the cast obviously feels towards the world of oddballs, freaks, and losers they’ve created, Flying Circus is defined by its relentless curiosity. Most great sketch shows poke at the fabric of comedy in compelling, inventive ways, but that constant desire to upend accepted ideas and see what happens next is the primary Python goal. It’s part of why Life Of Brian is such an unexpectedly great movie, I think; after all that meta commentary and trickery, to make a movie that has a legitimate beginning, middle, and end, and one that encourages you to care about its protagonist, feels revolutionary in its conventionality.
But we’ll get to that later (maybe this summer, fingers crossed). Right now, we’re dealing with “Whicker’s World,” and the episode’s first proper sketch is what set me off on this tangent in the first place. It’s a courtroom sketch, and the premise is simple enough: Eric Idle plays a man accused of mass (and I do mean mass) murder, and in his final word for himself before the sentencing, he proceeds to apologize thoroughly and sincerely to every person in the courtroom, from the judge, to the arresting officers (all of them in full body casts) to the prosecutor on down to the jury.
There’s the usual Python obsession with lists (there are lists all over these two episodes; they’re undeniably silly and well-constructed lists, but I rarely find them as amusing as Python’s clearly do. I expect this will become a concern when we get to the Cheese Shop sketch), as the judge (Jones) reads out the roster of names of them what Idle done away with. This goes on a very long time, and there are some amusing names in there, but the real point of the recitation is to set up Idle’s apology later on. Apart from the bandaged police officers, there’s no carnage in this sketch, and no obvious way to recognize that he’s killed a great number of people. There’s no blood on his clothes, and Idle’s performance is as straightforward and friendly a one as he’s ever done, without even the slightest hint of psychosis. Which is why it’s important to establish that he really has done something monstrous, to make it funny when he starts saying how sorry he is.
The joke being, he’s a killer, but his apologies are so thorough, and so seemingly well-meant, that nobody has the heart to punish him for his crimes. It’s a good bit, but what I find interesting (in a way that hopefully illuminates the long digression above) is how there is absolutely no sense of menace at any point in the entire sketch. In order for this to work, you have to accept that Idle is a killer; otherwise, it’s just a long series of “I’m sorry”s. But it’s possible to both accept his guilt and not be creeped out at the possibility that he’s going to get away with murder. It’s easy to imagine another show ending the scene with Idle killing someone mid-speech (and still getting let off), or else throwing out a creepy grin as a punchline. Instead, it’s all very straightforward. It’s not the best sketch ever, but it works because it fits with the Python’s usual tone: playful, conceptual, a bit cheeky, and constantly inventive. “Realism,” at least in this instance, isn’t a pressing concern, and it’s almost as though we’re being invited to laugh along with the writers’ and performers themselves—like, everyone’s fully acknowledging the utter fictionality of what’s being presented, so we’re all in on the same gag.
“Realism” does enter into things soon after, though, as the episode long sketch circling around “Njorl’s Saga” requires a Njorl (Jones) dressed up in some convincing Icelandic garb standing in front of a reasonably convincing Icelandic house, on a big open let’s just say it’s an Icelandic plain. Also, there’s a horse. None of this lasts very long, but it’s necessary for the rest of the episode for “Njorl’s Saga” to play like an epic story that’s constantly in the process of beginning, only to be disrupted by wandering narrators, sudden anachronisms, and the predations of the North Malden Icelandic Society. If you squint a bit, the whole thing plays like a dry run for Holy Grail, at least in terms of the constant clash of authentic-seeming period trappings and modern concerns.
“Njorl’s Saga” weaves in and out of the rest of the episode, through a series of sketches involving a silly stock exchange report (“Rubber hardened, and string remained confident.”), another court case, this one involving Njorl in a full-body cast as the officers of the court struggle to find a way to swear him in, and the introduction of Mrs. Premise (Cleese) and Mrs. Conclusion (Chapman), a pair of Pepperpots with an impressive fluency in the classics. After chatting about their daily routines (“I just spent four hours burying the cat.”), the two hit upon a disagreement over true message of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Roads To Freedom,’ a trilogy of books known in English as The Age Of Reason, The Reprieve, and Troubled Sleep. Mrs. Premise believes the books are “an allegory of man’s search for commitment.” Mrs. Conclusion degrees. To resolve the issue, they decide to take their argument to the man himself, because Mrs. Premise met him and his wife on holiday last year.
All right, y’know how I spent all that time saying the Python’s don’t really give a damn about their characters? Well, I stand by that for the most part (although I don’t mean this in a sloppy, “who gives a fuck” kind of way; more that they treat character as a means to an end, and not as an end in and of itself), but I do think that part of why this sketch works is that Cleese and Chapman do a fine job of mocking the Pepperpot type while still being fundamentally likable. If their falsetto voices and debates were shrill or unpleasant to watch, the sketch would quickly become insufferable. As is, it’s still a little long (the whole episode is sluggish in spots, especially the second courtroom scene), but it never entirely wears out its welcome. The Pythons are always eager for an opportunity to show off their schooling, but it works well in this context, as there’s something delightful about a pair of gossiping busy-bodies deciding that there’s little point in debating anything if they can just get the answer straight from the author. It turns literary critique into verbal plumbing.
“Mr. And Mrs. Brian Norris’ Ford Popular” (season 3, episode 2; originally aired 10/26/1972)
Yes, I know there’s a whole ‘nother sketch in the previous episode. Yes I know that sketch actually gives the episode one of its two names. Yes, you’re terribly clever to point all this out. But look, this write-up is already too long as it is, and it’ll never get done if I keep talking about every little thing, so just—look, I’ll put the gun down if you agree to be reasonable this. Okay? Okay.
“Mr. And Mrs. Brian Norris’ Ford Popular” is, I think, a stronger, more consistent episode than “Whicker’s World” (BANG!); it’s more conventional, at least as far as this show ever gets, but the sketches are more defined, starting with the sequence that gives the episode its title. It’s the saga of Mr. and Mrs. Brian Norris’s attempt to prove that the people of one moderately posh British city are descendants of people who had traveled there from another moderately posh British city. As the opening shot indicates, the story is a riff on the story of the Kon-Tiki, a boat built in 1947 by Thor Heyerdahl, which he sailed from South America to Polynesia in order to prove that South Americans from pre-Columbian times were capable of the trip.
Which makes the joke obvious enough: once again, we are watching the immensely difficult and important translated into the mundane, the self-serious, and the somewhat adorably pompous. Palin, who plays Mr. Norris, is the master of this. With Jones in the role, he would’ve got the stuffiness down, but not sweetness. I’m not sure if Palin’s likability makes the sketch play better or not, but there is something charming about watching him and Chapman [as Mrs. Norris] struggle through their epic quest. She made sandwiches!
As with Njorl and his saga, and with most every documentary parody the show does, what makes this work (apart from the inherent greatness of the premise which is, honestly, pretty great) is the authenticity throughout. There’s Idle as the narrator, talking us through Norris’s history and charting the expedition via maps and snapshots Mrs. Norris takes on the way. There are visual aids. And there’s a fundamental seriousness throughout the bit; not somber, but if you happened on it while flipping channels, had never heard of the Pythons, and didn’t stay long enough to recognize the joke, you could theoretically take this as legitimate. It’s always impressive when the Pythons do this kind of work, because it throws their more chaotic, experimental flights of fancy into greater relief. They weren’t fucking around because they couldn’t do any better; they just wanted to try every approach possible.
After the Norris sketch, we get the opening credits (this season, it’s a trio: the naked man at the organ, the announcer, and the It’s man before we hit the animated credits themselves), and then there’s a delightful quick scene about a group of incredibly overqualified schoolboys called into the headmaster’s office on account of running a series of “massive stock exchange deals.” After which is a somewhat unpleasant bit with Jones and Palin as older ladies, one of whom explodes, and then there’s some Gilliam animation, a sketch about The Life Of Tchaikovsky (as presented by The Farming Club), and… and…
Okay, we should probably back up a bit. I don’t really want to talk about this, but I’ll give it a paragraph, and that’ll be enough. (I mean, feel free to whatever in the comments, although please be respectful, except when you’re talking about me, because let’s face it, I deserve what I get.) Palin is playing a character named “Mrs. Nigger-Baiter,” and while I don’t know how this was supposed to play at the time, as is, it’s an ugly line with no real point other than to shock. There’s no context, no build, no punchline. It’s just a mean, vile word tossed out without any apparent consideration. I don’t think challenging or hateful language needs to be banned, because that never gets us anywhere we want to go. But when you’re going to use a word like this, it needs some reason beyond itself to be there.
Okay then. The Trim-Jeans sketch! Trim-Jeans were, it turns out, an actual thing—one of those patently goofy weight-loss gimmicks put out by companies looking to exploit our inherent desire to improve ourselves and our reflexive dislike of anything involving effort. It’s oddly fitting, then, that these ridiculous pants (which look like yellow life-preservers for your crotch and thighs) now exist entirely as the punchline of this sketch. It’s not the most innovative work the Pythons ever did: once you realize that it’s just people doing serious things wearing those incredibly goofy looking pants, you pretty much have the gist. (There are also several mentions of how the pants are helping the performers burn calories as they work.) But it’s still funny, because like any good bit, it just gets more and more ridiculous as it goes on.
Then we have what might be the most utterly perfect moment of pure, unbridled silliness (I keep using that word today) in the entire Python canon: the fish-slapping dance. It’s—well, like I said, it’s perfect. It’s so perfect that I don’t really want to analyze it. Oh sure, it’s impressive how they manage to boil down an entire sketch into basically thirty seconds, and how even in that thirty seconds, it’s not just absurdity. The sketch does, after all, have beginning, a middle, and an end.
But let’s just leave it at that. I love digging into these things and pretending like I have any idea what I’m talking about, but sometimes, it’s better to let something stand on its own. So just enjoy the fish-slapping dance in all its joyous nonsensical inanity.
There’s more stuff here, including a sketch that led to a Mystery Science Theater 3000 riff that it took me years to pick up on. (“Women, children, red Indians, spacemen, and sort of idealized versions of the complete Renaissance men first!”) And the gags about the cheapness of the BBC—extras aren’t allowed to speak because it cost more money to pay them if they have lines—aren’t something that ever get old; it’s especially great how it builds slowly but surely until the entire set is being deconstructed, and we learn that the BBC is filming all its programming in a middle-aged couples’ house.
But I think my favorite sketch of the entire episode comes at the very end, after the hand-written credits. At first it looks like we’re getting intro-ed into a new show, some kind of celebrity chat show with comfy couches and bright lights; Ringo Starr is one of the guests, along the singer Lulu (best know for “To Sir With Love,” I think). But then you notice the sign on the wall reads “IT’S,” and the announcer introduces the It’s Man. Apparently, he has a job hosting a talk show when he isn’t starving to death or introducing Flying Circus. How nice for him. It looks like so much fun. He opens his mouth to begin, says “It’s-” and the Sousa march kicks in. It’s a complete shock. Ringo starts to leave, the It’s Man tries to hold him back, and the whole friendly vibe is completely destroyed.
The pathos in that is just marvelous. I love how utterly horrified Palin looks; like he honestly had no idea this would happen, and now this curse that follows him around is going to get in the way of him talking with some very famous and attractive people. It’s maybe the only time during either of these episodes I found myself feeling legitimately sorry for someone on-screen. And in this case, that just made me laugh harder.
- Welcome back to Monty Python’s Flying Circus coverage! I promise to waste as much of your otherwise productive Thursdays as I possibly can this summer. We might even get to the rest of the movies.
- All right, so “Whicker’s World” is a sketch that has all of the Python’s impersonating Alan Whicker, who at the time these episodes aired, was the host of a long running documentary series called, you guessed it, Whicker’s World. I’m not familiar enough with the man’s work to judge if the impersonations are any good, but they are all very similar, and the whole bit is well-orchestrated.
- The North Malden stuff in the first episode is really top notch. I especially like the climactic fight scene full of knights waving placards advertising the city’s services.
- In the Mrs. Premise/Mrs. Conclusion sketch, Mrs. Conclusion has the last word.
- Gilliam animation this week includes a heated chase inside a wanted man, and a smarmy announcer whose mouth decides to secede.
- There’s a moment during the second courtroom sequence in “Njorl’s Saga” when the entire audience starts cracking up, way out of proportion to anything that’s happening on screen. A couple of the performers start to corpse, but because of the camera angle, we can’t actually see what’s happening. It’s surreal to watch, because you keep waiting for the camera to turn or cut away to whatever went wrong, and it doesn’t, and then the moment passes.
- “Exploding is a perfectly normal medical phenomenon.”