With their live reunion show done (I’m anxiously awaiting its airing), the members of Monty Python are once again in the news.
Monty Python can be compared to the Beatles — They didn’t invent anything; they just took what had been done before, improved it, and made it their own. (And, like the Beatles, they were never quite as great apart as they were together.)
I remember being astounded at their humor when PBS first started showing their TV shows in the US when I was in High School. My friends would gather at the house on Monty Python night to watch. Many of the skits I first learned from their records, long before I ever saw them performed on the TV show (so in my mind, the records are the “official” versions). A group of us went to the afternoon showing of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” on opening day, and the usher gave us all free coconuts as we left. (Seriously, that was the promotion.) I went back a few more times to see it in the theater after that, and practically have it memorized now. The main character in my latest novel BLOODSUCKERS is a Python fan, and he quotes the show often (which usually confuses those around him). I have lots of Python books and films. You can say I am a fan. If you don’t believe me, you can ask my cats, Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion.
Anyway, besides being tremendously funny, here’s why they are important:
1. They broke the rules about TV comedy. When John Cleese was given the opportunity to create his own show for BBC, he asked for complete freedom. He was already a bit of a comedy star in Britain and could have easily made this “The John Cleese Show” (like his previous partner Marty Feldman had done — wouldn’t it have been interesting had he not, and had joined Python instead?) but instead he wanted a team effort. Instead of a traditional comedy show where there would be a skit with a punch line and then the guest host would introduce the next skit and then someone would sing a song and so on, the Pythons decided to just do a comedy show, and screw those punch lines. When the premise stopped being funny, just stop the skit and move on to something else. For that matter, they’d often end the show in the middle, run closing titles, and then keep going. Rules? We don’t need rules!
2. They never edited themselves for being smart. “That won’t play in the boonies” was never an issue with the Oxford- and Cambridge-educated Pythons. So what if half the country wouldn’t get their jokes about philosophers? If it made them laugh, it went in. (Which meant, of course, even if it was gross or childish. It works both ways!)
3. They refused to take the easy way out. The easy thing to do if you are writing for a comedy show is to reuse characters. You’d write a great sketch (Say, “The Coneheads”) and then, after it goes over, you rewrite the same sketch with a slight variation and run it again. The audience is happy to see their favorite characters back again and it’s easy work. The Pythons refused to do that. Oh sure, there were minor “characters” (such as the Gumbys and the Pepperpots) but they were rarely used and when used, they were not just repeating the same old skit in a new way. There were also a few that appeared tremendously briefly (Palin as the “It’s” Man, Jones as the nude organist, Gilliam as the knight with a chicken, Cleese as the “And now for something completely different” announcer) but those were minor. This decision to not take the easy way out with repeating skit ideas was a deliberate decision on their part.
4. They took control of their own work. I mean this in a legal sense as much as anything else. Because the BBC assumed this would be just another comedy show that would appear for a few episodes and never be heard from again, they didn’t mind when the Pythons asked for the rights to the show. In fact, when the BBC edited the show to give to American commercial TV, the Pythons sued — and won, establishing new precedents about what right a network has to change an artists’ creation.
5. There is no number 5.
So here’s to the Pythons. Thanks, guys!
And now for something completely different.
And thank you, Mike, for an exceptionally concise and dead-on take on why those cats were so important.
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