Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Monty Python's Flying Circus: An Appreciation (for Carol's Tits)

This week is the 40th anniversary of the first aired episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on the BBC. Americans would have to wait until the show ran its four seasons on BBC two before the first strains of the “Liberty Bell March” were heard on PBS stations, so that anniversary will have to wait for another day. And, personally, it would be years more before my young eyes were ever cast over a dead parrot or a silly walk. But I am sure by now, all the world is on the same page.

Henri Bergson said… or rather, he said through John Cleese when John was giving a fake interview (Baudrillard’s head explodes)… that laughter is a hedge against social rigidity. Or something like that. Children have their natural sense of slapstick forcibly removed from their psyches in order to make them serious adults, fit for serious work. Humor in culture allows us to return this childlike state briefly and experience the play that comes from grooving with the absurd or awkward moments of life. I had a friend once who, while otherwise quite contained, would absolutely lose her shit if she saw someone trip. An whoever doesn’t laugh at a fart made proudly in a public space is some who is suppressing their inner nine-year old.

The Pythons drag that little bastard out of us.. Every single one of their sketches presents us with respectability and seriousness. Frames it in British imperiousness, and quashes it under a big, fat, naked foot. But the snake, though loosed in the execution of the spoof, will always return to its original, tightly wrought coil, like a jack-in-the-box whose tune we never fail to associate with its seductive mix of delightful anxiety and ejaculatory relief. I cannot possibly mix another metaphor into it. I feel a rubber chicken about to be rained down on my head by Gilliam in a suit of armor.

Who likes Python? “A certain kind of person.” Nerds? Mostly. But also geeks. The hipsters, too. Outcasts need Python, whereas the popular sorts (the ones who poison everything nice) found the accents faggy and the situations “weird.” (In case you were wondering, these are the folks who made Johnny Knoxville the number one at the box office.) We might have some quarrels. Are the Pythons better than the Marx Brothers at their best? No. But the Marx Brothers were seldom at their best. You have to pan a lot of water to get the gold. What about season four? No, Cleese, no Python? Yes, the fourth was something different. Not completely different, but it wasn’t quite cricket. Still, the epic of Michael Ellis is worthy of graduate thesis, and Mr. Neutron is some of Michael Palin’s best work.

Favorite sketch? Dead Parrot? Quite possibly. Argument Clinic? Ranks. Blackmail is a wonderful idea for a real game show and I wish someone would at Fox would make that happen. But for me, it all begins and ends with Sam Peckinpah's "Salad Days". It was my first conscious connection with Python. Prior, I knew it only as some kind of weird English show that wasn’t Benny Hill. I caught it so randomly… a Saturday night. Manually twisting the knob to find something to watch between the 14 channels on offer. And the local PBS station, for the first time, came in crystal clear, no tuning was necessary. There they were, all the gentlemen and ladies enjoying a pastoral afternoon. Along comes Graham… anyone for tennis? Here, catch. Then… BLOODBATH! The ball hits the eye. The eye squirts a stream of blood. A tennis racket flies through air and impales someone. A man’s arm is rather casually pulled off.. The piano lid guillotines the players hands. The stumps squirt two jets of blood over everything.

“Pretty strong meat…”

It was Tarantino before Tarantino. A natural evolution of cartoon violence, obviously, but also a knee in the groin to both upper-class stuffiness, as well as the preference for overkill in our culture. Moreover, the sketch, to my ten-year old’s eyes seemed so adult. There was intelligence there, not mere anarchy. I certainly didn’t know who Sam Peckinpah was back then, but I did understand that the so-called adult world - the world that is perennially kept from children “for their protection” – was not all that much different than the world of children. But here, under the lunatic purview of the Pythons, that world was being skewered. And the skewering, you see, that was truly adult !

Favorite Python? Cleese is the obvious choice, and there is much to recommend him. Many use that last season as evidence. Cleese is a verifiable scientist of comedy. A comedic laborer on the level of Peter Sellers or Steve Martin. His love of the language is only topped by the plasticity of his body when called upon to perform a silly walk, or alternatively, to stiffen into the very model of a British army martinet. (The true joy of the Confuse a Cat sketch is Cleese’s narrowing of the eyes in intense, earnest focus, to give the command to “confuse the…cat” He sells his authority without lampoon, leaving the context of the situation to supply the humor).

But then there is Eric, the rock star of the bunch. Seeming to be part Liverpuddian and part Cockney in equal measure, the epitome of the working class lad, the Artful Dodger all grown up. Eric’s characters are always up for a bit of it. But equally so, he was maybe the hardest worker. The Travel Agent sketch required a memorization of an incredibly complex line of complaint from the weary English traveler who couldn’t sat the letter “C” and substituted it for “B.” A truly silly bunt! And then having to riff on it live… switch it up for performances.

And then I like Michael a lot, too. Innocent evil. Delightful malice. Delicious paranoia. Something has gone wrong for Mr. Pewtey. His wife has gone off with the marriage guidance counselor. And the failed dreams of a lumberjack devolve into a murderous desire to kill the clients of his barbershop. The world of Palin’s characters is not absurd, it is tragic. His characters cannot cope. He is the prince of the kingdom of Pathos.

Terry J. is often overlooked. I wonder why? He too is my favorite Python. The impish, bratty child off to have fun in mother’s dresses or taking off all the clothes on a dare. There is a sense that Jones that he will do anything to make you laugh. His “rat-bag” ladies are the epitome of a certain kind of sexless, joyless, middle-aged female, too tired for suicide, and too poor take up drinking. Something in you wants to see her destroyed… or championed. And some of the women inside of Palin are still fairly sure they have this life thing figured out. When the new cooker (stove) arrives, she is quite sure that the bureaucracy will eventually work in her favor. Too bad she will have to die first. The apotheosis of the Jones woman occurs in season four, when, Mr. Neutron, the most powerful man in the universe (really!), uses his full powers to transform his beloved housecleaning Mrs. Scum into “the most beautiful woman in the world” can only manage to change her clothes to something slightly less frumpy.

Graham was easily the most versatile and most conventionally cinematic of the Pythons. I can’t quite see anyone else as Brian or Arthur. He always seemed to me the spiritual brother of Peter Cook, in other words, a man of high, respectable intellect who lunacy came as so much a surprise that one had to question the order of the universe. By all accounts, a bit of a freeloader, not really contributing much in the way of actual writing. Also by all accounts, Chapman was a fundamental and even elemental force within the group, contributing just the right idea at the right time to turn a funny skit into a Python skit. He was like the master chef who, having more or less ignore the soup all day, casually tosses two fistfuls of red ants into the mix . As much as I love Cleese, I would have missed Graham more had he left the fourth season and not John. For pure presence, Graham Chapman is my favorite.

Terry G. is a tough sell for me. I never quite cared enough for the cartoons, although I recognize their importance as interstitial material. (And yet their tone, so overtly surreal, seemed at odds with the mainline of the Python universe.) Still, I relish his infrequent, even spectral performances with the troop. He always seemed game for whatever. Naked. Corny. Slightly mongoloidish workman. Hunchbacked Inquisitor. Campy party queen. Keats. (“John Koots!”) I suppose it just wouldn’t be the same without him, but, if you cornered me at a party, I would tell you that, all things being equal, I prefer Carol to Terry G.

Carol Cleveland… I will carry that torch to the grave.

It is nice to properly appreciate the Pythons in a non-nerdy way. For too long, references to Python were the equivalent of Masonic handshakes in the circle of chubby, fat-lipped computer programmers who always seem to smell of toner and psoriasis salve. It was slightly embarrassing to be a fan, but now, their genius is self-evident, like George Carlin, Matisse or Rubber Soul. I love that , unlike most comedy, the Pythons remain unredeemed by respectability. They haven’t mellowed like whiskey, they’ve gotten more bracing, like the finest sipping acetone. Unapologetic. Un-PC. Unredeemed by the legions of decency, Monty Python’s Flying Circus continue to crash land into the pretences of polite society, scattering the bloodied, dismembered bodies of clowns, elephants, and high-wire performers all over the cold, antiseptic marble of our so-called civilization.