Uncoiling Monty Python

This day in 1969 the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus premiered on BBC. Though it debuted in Britain then, the influential sketch comedy program didn’t air in the the U.S. until several years later, 1974-75. I didn’t hear about the show or their 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail until around 1977, when I started Junior High School and began meeting kids from the nearby village where our State University was located. My working class family were not PBS people. So my initial encounters with Python sketches were second hand. The other kids quoted the routines; that was how I heard about them, and I probably saw snippets of the show’s re-runs shortly thereafter. The Life of Brian (1979) would have been my first “real time” encounter with the team (and an irreverent one it was.)

Something within me always resisted going full nerd when it comes to Python. When I was a teenager, there was a crowd who fully embraced things like Monty Python, the old Dr. Who, and Dungeons and Dragons. My appreciation for Python is great, but something within me always felt that exhibiting too great an enthusiasm smacked of affectation. I could never rise to the ecstasy some bring to the franchise; I reserve that for the Hollywood classic comedians of the 1920s and ’30s.

Python were and are a sui generis. Their posh academic backgrounds put them outside the music hall and regional repertory traditions I relate more readily to. While they are frequently Rabelaisian, none of them is “earthy”, strictly speaking. Two of them are from Oxford, three from Cambridge. While they constantly send up the conventional and the powerful, and the middle and upper classes, they do so from a place of familiarity, as opposed to pot-shots across class barriers. Naturally the part I love about them best is their absurd surrealism, and their immense cultural range, encompassing both the erudite and the coarse. Python is in the rich British nonsense tradition I wrote about here, fully in the vein of pioneers like Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and W.S. Gilbert. I gave them at least one shout out in No Applause, I know because I love their use of a John Philip Sousa march as their theme song, as well as Terry Gilliam’s Edwardian-flavored cut-out animations, the closest thing to music hall touches in the program. Of Gilliam’s films, I prefer the early ones, Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, and Time Bandits the most. I have been impatiently waiting for his Don Quixote film for years. Though it was released a few months ago, I haven’t yet had an opportunity to see it.

Terry Jones was co-director on Holy Grail. While he was always the least distinguished (distinguishable) of the Pythons as an actor, I’ve always held The Meaning of Life (1983), which he directed, to be Python’s crowning achievement. It came out when I was a high school senior and I went into raptures over it. Most people seem to prefer Holy Grail. But I find Meaning of Life to be highly pointed satire in the tradition of Swift and Pope. It’s not as nonsensical as their earlier work, perhaps, but I cherish its coherence. It’s a terrific example of the potential of comic cinema, one rarely approached by most American comedians with their timid conventionality and terror of ambition. Sadly, Jones passed away in 2020.

Of the others: Graham Chapman always seemed the mascot or lightning rod of their brand of absurdity. His beak like nose and wide staring eyes called to mind John Tenniel’s illustrations of the Mad Hatter. While his writing partner John Cleese accused him posthumously of being lazy on the creative end, it must be admitted that Chapman was one of the more popular members of the team, starring as he did in Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and his own Yellowbeard. Sadly, Chapman died of cancer back in 1989. As for Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin, they all enjoyed substantial solo careers as well, fully deserving of future posts on their own accounts, which I will endeavor to accomplish. Thanks for the insanity, Monty Python!