In praise of Python

by Michael Monkhouse

Describing Monty Python in a single article is rather like trying to summarise the complete works of Shakespeare in a media-friendly soundbite or spending three days in the lap of the gods and then writing a letter about it to the Reader’s Digest. So I’m not gonna do it.

Instead, I want to backtrack a couple of months to an enjoyable and informative evening with Terry Gilliam. A sort of open conference, if you will. And while most of the talk was dedicated to his time as the bad boy of directing, there came that inevitable moment when he was asked about the Pythons... He shrugged and said he was amazed people still spoke about it to such an extent: after all, most of it was just six lads throwing silly ideas around at each other. It certainly wasn’t meant to be watched by future generations, discussed, even – ugh – analysed. But hey, it’s nice to be appreciated and it hasn’t done the bank balance any harm. (And I don’t think this was false modesty. I reckon he meant it.)

Cue question from the audience: ‘What’s your current relationship with the other Pythons?’ Terry chuckles. ‘It’s no longer sexual – we’re too old now – but we do bump into each other sometimes.’ There’s no chance of a reunion and there’d be no point anyway, it was very much a part of that time.

Mr Gilliam is both wondrously charming and refreshingly confident. A guy whose directing career has been so up and down, being so blase about the one moment that was most definitely up. And yet, he has a point.

Watching a rerun of Flying Circus is akin to going back to the outbreak of punk and seeing what it was really like. Sure, there were the Pistols and the Clash, but there was also Anti-Pasti and Peter And The Test Tube Babies. In fact I remember John Cleese himself saying that the whole thing really was a mixed bag. A curate’s egg. ‘After all, there were six of us, so if you tried something and it didn’t work you could always blame it on the others... When I wrote Fawlty Towers I felt the onus was on me so I worked much harder to make it as funny as possible.

It isn’t just the patchiness of the overall shows that irks you now, it’s the sheer length of the individual sketches. Hell, they make French and Saunders skits look like quickies. Try ‘The larch… the larch… the larch.’ Even the much-loved dead parrot routine is just one joke spread over several years. And the cheese-shop-that-doesn’t-sell-any-cheesething drags too. Now I know Python passionates will wag their fingers at me and smirk into their Pernods that that’s the point you blasphemer... And I agree. But almost 30 years after Not The Nine O’Clock News’pioneered the quickie format, this kind of comedy is difficult to stomach.

Another problem is sexism. The women are either crabby old housewives or just plain naked. To quote Cleese again, the team was – Gilliam aside – straight out of private schools and Oxbridge educations, so women were still something of a mystery.

So why do we still watch Monty Python?

Because they’re heroes. Because they’re the Sex Pistols and the Clash all rolled into one, with a bit of the Damned thrown in for good measure. Because like punk, Python has to be seen in the context of its time. A time where comedy meant glittery suits and glistening teeth and Bob Monkhouse’s mother-in-law. A time when the rudest comedy ever got was Benny Hill. A time when comedy was desperately in need of a good kick up its metaphorical bottom. A kick these fellows were more than happy to provide.

For as we yawn through some of the team’s off moments, it’s easy to forget just how influential they were. And remain. You can love ‘em or hate ‘em, what you can’t do is ignore ‘em. There’d been nothing like it before (with the possible exception of the Goons, and the Pythons have always been generous with their compliments towards Spike Milligan in particular); and – don’t let lesser comics try to persuade you otherwise – there’s never been anything like it since.

Even The Young Ones suffered exploding doors and exploding ovens and exploding fridges, but never an exploding restaurant-client. And while Vyv may’ve got his head knocked off by a train, he never got splayed across the living-room table to have his liver removed. Michael Palin boasts that over the years, in which comedy’s become more and more repulsive, no one’s ever managed to make something quite so repulsive as Mr Creosote. He’s right. And he’s right to be proud of that.

If you think the telly shows are a bit hit and miss - and they are – have a gander at the films. I know the first one was called And Now For Something Completely Different and that was pretty stupid really seeing as all they were doing was repeating Flying Circus sketches. And I know The Holy Grail’s ultimately a sketch show too, it just happens to feature recurrent characters, but the humour gains from the cumulative synergy. The Black Knight scene (‘Tis but a scratch’) is just hilarious. Then there’s Life of Brian, and if you think that’s blasphemous you’re missing the point, the point is it’s funny. And then there’s The Meaning of Life, the nuttiest, gutsiest of the lot. Every Sperm Is Sacred, sex education (classic), a Seventh Seal parody that I only understood ten years later when studying Bergman. And, one of the wickedest scenes of the movie – Martin Luther getting excited over frothy mediaeval maidens – was cut because Terry Jones thought that however strong in itself, it upset the overall rhythm of the film. And there we were thinking they were too haphazard. No, there’s method in their madness…

So we can look down our noses at them now. But they happened. And in my humble, Gilliam-loving opinion, all I can say is the world’s a better place for it.

The Cheese Shop sketch:

The Black Knight scene:

Mr Creosote:

Published: 12 Dec 2007

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