Thursday, November 5, 2009

Looking back at 40 years of Python

2009 marks the 40th anniversary of Monty Python's Flying Circus (the sketch comedy series that ran from 1969 to 1974). In honor of this milestone, IFC has been running a 6-hour documentary entitled Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut). I totally have not been watching that, but I am somewhat curious. It's supposedly chock full of all sorts of things you didn't know about the show and the Python crew. Maybe I'll have to netflix it, but -- then again -- do I really want to spend 6 hours of my life learning about Monty Python (6 hours that I could spend watching reality television)?

I have, however, listened to an episode of the Slate culture podcast (episode #57 dated Oct 21, 2009) in which they discuss the Python anniversary. I thought this raised an interesting question. Looking back on Monty Python's Flying Circus, 40 years later, how do we feel about the series? Is it still funny? Still relevant? Dated? Silly? Gendered? I really wanted to weigh in with my opinions, and I'm anxious to hear what everyone else thinks.

The Basics

For anyone who doesn't know, Monty Python is a 6-man comedy troupe comprised of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. With the exception of Gilliam -- who is American (did you know that?) and went to Occidental College in California --, all the Python boys are Oxbridge educated Brits who got involved in the performing arts at university. Together they created, wrote and starred in the Flying Circus as well as the later Python movies (the big three are the Holy Grail, the Life of Brian and the Meaning of Life).

It's also interesting to see what the Python crew has been up to since the Meaning of Life came out in 1983. Graham Chapman died of cancer in 1989. John Cleese went on to write and star in Fawlty Towers together with Connie Booth ("Polly," whom he was married to); he was also in A Fish Called Wanda (along with Michael Palin), and some more recent stuff like those Pierce Brosnan Bond films where he played Q. Michael Palin's become well known for his globe-trotting television programs. Eric Idle (and his voice) has also popped up in some movies, and he co-produced the musical Spamalot. Meanwhile, Terry Gilliam has gone on to have a noteworthy career as a film director, and Terry Jones helped write the screenplay for Jim Henson's Labyrinth.

Getting back to the Flying Circus, today it's fondly remembered and lauded as influential. But back in the day the show had a hard time finding a wide audience, and its future often seemed uncertain. In the documentary, Michael Palin recalls how the group was often on the verge of splitting up, and yet Monty Python seems to have shaped all their future careers and there's still Python-related projects and collaborations going on today.

The Pros


In Almost the Truth, Eric Idle talks about "Beyond the Fringe," a comedy stage revue which included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and which inspired Monty Python. Idle says, "they attacked everything that I'd just spent 19 years being oppressed by: royalty, police, authorities, teachers -- every single authority figure was pilloried and destroyed, and my life just changed." We can of course say the same thing about the Flying Circus: among their favorite targets for lampooning are authority figures like policemen and the army as well as the bourgeoisie and the BBC establishment. In addition to being "angry young men" attacking authority figures, Monty Python can also be seen as representing the youth culture of the sixties rebelling against the staid, class-based society of post war years.


The fact that the Python crew are all university educated certainly comes through on the show: they reference the work of Marcel Proust, Latin conjugation, and philosophers like Descartes and Wittgenstein. One retrospective analysis I read (from the Independent) asked what show on TV today would dare to assume so much knowledge on the part of their audience; the critic also said that nowadays Python's name dropping would probably be descried as elitist. Nevertheless, I think all these schoolboy allusions are part of the reason that Monty Python still has a strong, cult following among nerdy high schoolers.


Like the best sketch comedy shows, the Flying Circus usually connects its skits in some way. Sometimes there's a stream of consciousness flow where something mentioned at the end of one skit is picked up on in the next; other times the show keeps on coming back to a sketch that acts almost like a framing device. In still other episodes there may be a central theme or story that runs through the different segments. I suspect the Flying Circus may have been the first show to do this, and it influenced future programs like the Kids in the Hall, the State, Mr. Show and the Upright Citizens Brigade TV show.

Another innovative element is how the Flying Circus would play with the conventions of television. For example, sometimes the opening title sequence won't come on until well into the show and/or the closing credits would roll before the show was actually over. They'd also mimic the BBC interstitials with the spinning globe graphic and the announcer saying "Coming up next on BBC 2...."


Looking back, every bit of every episode of the Flying Circus may not be gold, but you're bound to find some skits that you still find hilarious. For my money, I've always enjoyed the longer skits like "The Funniest Joke in the World" from episode 1, Scott of the Antarctic, Dennis Moore (the story of a highwayman who steals from the rich and gives to the poor), Michael Ellis (the episode that revolves around a trip to the department store), the Golden Age of Ballooning, the Science Fiction episode where alien blancmanges attack. Another favorite of mine is "Happy Valley," which is a sort of fractured fairy tale. I was bummed to find out that that was not included on the ridiculous complete Flying Circus box set I bought on a whim in law school because it comes from a special made for German television.

The Cons


The absurdist nature of the Flying Circus might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I don't mind it. But, as that army general would say, some of the skits really are just silly. Occassionally Monty Python veers into slapstick or caterwalling in funny voices. Sometimes jokes are drawn out for so long that they try one's patience (I get restless just thinking about the interview of Johann Gambolputty...). And then there's those trippy cartoons which I more often than not find to be a snoozefest.


Aah, now we're getting into the real sour note that you notice in retrospect. The Monty Python crew is obviously a boys club, and -- leaving aside how that might have affected the show's humor -- let's talk about the depiction of women on the Flying Circus. There are basically two types of female roles: attractive young women who at least half the time come off as ditzy. Even more often, these women are reduced to sex objects: they're frequently seen appearing in their underwear or making out with the (pasty, unattractive) Python boys.

The other type of female portrayed on the Flying Circus is the middle-aged, bourgeoise housewife played by one of the Python boys in drag -- employing that one-of-a-kind falsetto, familiar to anyone who's ever watched the show. More often than not, these ladies are shrewish and/or narrow-minded prudes, and they're usually the subject of ridicule.

Whether it keeps you from enjoying the show or not, I do think that it's hard to deny that by today's standards Monty Python's Flying Circus is pretty sexist. The only counterargument that I think one can make is that most of the male characters portrayed on the show are also ridiculed for being either stupid or pompous stuffed shirts (or both). I also think that the portrayal of women may have improved a bit in the Monty Python movies which came out in the '80s (cf. the female characters in the Life of Brian).


This goes along with the sexism charge. The Flying Circus sometimes depicts stereotypically effeminate, flamboyant homosexuals and cross-dressers for comedic effect. It's true that sometimes the true butt of the joke is actually the pompous, stuffed shirt homophobe (like the army general), but the campy homosexual is himself often held up for ridicule. After seeing the show again, probably for the first time since high school, I was really taken aback by this. Even the lumberjack song where it's revealed that the burly woodsman likes to "put on woman's clothing and hang around in bars" might be mildly off putting when viewed from this perspective.


Monty Python's Flying Circus was undeniably a ground breaking comedy show. Looking back, you'll find some skits that are still hilarious 40 years later, but there is also some filler and dull spots. Also, you'll definitely pick up on the fact that the Flying Circus is a product of the sixties and seventies and that our society's sensibilities about the depiction of women and gay people has changed a lot since then.

Bonus Question: If the Flying Circus is sexist than how racist is the character of Manuel from Fawlty Towers?!

Images: title image from Monty Python's flying circus; photo of Monty Python boys by AP found on the guardian website; photo of John Cleese and Graham Chapman and Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion from


nola32 said...

i know that we discussed this before you wrote the post (i would like to insert props for myself here for bringing up how 'the world's deadliest joke' is my fave skit) but i thought i'd reiterate...
i do love flying circus but i do think that it's very dated. when i think about the show i think about things like the skit in which they make fun of decimalisation. i still think that that skit is kind of funny but i understand that even people who are british and our age just won't get it. the only reason that i do is because i studied the time period. it was so very current that now some of the things it touched upon have vanished from the collective consciousness.
having said that, i still think that a lot of it is timeless (mostly the physical comedy or skits that refer to times long past-- i think that's also why the movies remain current while the show has become dated. the films deal with topics-- like christ-- that are never forgotten).
i do think that the show is very bigoted in its ways and fawlty towers is guilty of the same thing. when the bbc recently issued a new directive saying that comedy couldn't be 'offensive, abusive, etc' they specifically cited fawlty towers' portrayal of manuel as being cruel and unnecessary (they also brought up just about every episode and joke in every series of 'blackadder').
i think that the python boys undoubtedly changed the face of comedy. maybe what they did then wouldn't go over now but it helped us get to where we are.

Meeg said...

let's face it nicole the western front is about as likely to move as a Frenchman living next door to a brothel.