And now for the full Monty Python, (still) something completely different
The miraculous thing about Monty Python is how finely the humour has aged
A tall, disgruntled man walks into a pet store. “Ello," he says, discarding the “h" in his haste, “I wish to register a complaint." The owner, a man used to evading complaints, ignores this. “Ello, Miss?" the customer asks. The fact that he addresses this moustached man as “Miss" hits us like a particularly batty bolt from the blue, as it does the man addressed thus. “What do you mean, ‘Miss’?," asks the owner, himself now far from gruntled. “I’m sorry," clarifies the customer, “I have a cold."
This is spellbinding lunacy, and we haven’t even gotten to the bird. The Dead Parrot sketch is one of the most watched and revered skits in the history of television, a staggeringly absurd routine involving a man trying to return a very deceased bird and a pet shop owner trying to defend his sale on the grounds of the parrot’s beautiful plumage. This is comedic perfection, and a bunch of British blokes specialized in it.
The gentlemen of the troupe Monty Python are often accurately compared to The Beatles—in terms of influence and iconicity—but what one must remember was that the members of Monty Python weren’t like a Beatle apiece but rather like the whole band rolled into one: John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and (the American) Terry Gilliam each had a bit of John and a piece of Paul and a glug of George (who was, in turn, an honorary Python) and many a gigantic helping of Ringo. In sum: There was much genius afoot. Genius and plumage.
We must now be the knights who say Netflix, and celebrate the streaming giant, for it has brought us not just the full 45 episodes of the television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but also the splendid feature films, as well as live performances, from the legendary Live At The Hollywood Bowl to the more recent Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five To Go. There are documentaries, highlight packages and rarities, like Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus, where the Pythons performed their sketches in phonetic German for German television, but occasionally threw on an Australian accent, and where—rather unforgettably—The Merchant Of Venice is enacted using moos.
Where were you when first struck by Python? I always loved John Cleese—Fawlty Towers remains the perfect sitcom—but the thunderbolt truly hit with the opening credits of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, which start telling a fantastical story about how a moose (sorry, møøse) once bit someone’s sister, after which things get truly nasty, before a card informs us that those people have been given the boot, and “the credits have been completed in an entirely different style at great expense and at the last minute". Credits (that celebrate llamas) then flash across a red and yellow strobing screen. The film hasn’t even started and already we’re in thrall.
The miraculous thing about Monty Python is how finely the humour has aged. The writing sings, the characters are excellent, frequently cross-dressing performers make every nudge, every wink and every lumberjack memorable. In a recent interview, Cleese said this was because their humour was never topical, and this is remarkably true. Why settle for popular culture references, said the silly ministers of Monty Python, when you could name-drop philosophers instead? Here’s a snatch of Bruces’ Philosophers Song:
David Hume could out-consume
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine,
Who was just as ‘schloshed’ as Schlegel.
There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ye
‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
Socrates himself was permanently pissed.
What could be more timeless than a Socrates joke? Indeed, what a pleasurable picture it is: The great minds of history pickled and passed out, hungover when making sense of humanity. Always look on the tight side of life.
The films are enormous. Holy Grail is the funnier film, with W.G. Grace as God and a fantastic coward called Brave Sir Robin, while Life Of Brian is a brilliant bit of blasphemy about a youth being heralded as the son of God when, as his mother says, “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy." They are uproarious, nutty laughs but also incredibly clever and biting laughs, which come from a gloriously unpredictable corner and effervescently carry us to a better, fizzier world. One where cheese shops are blessedly uncontaminated by cheese.
And while Monty Python might not exactly conform to a specific time, some of their precisely pitched humour hits home in rather specific ways. Today, when we appear to have lost the ability to debate, the real world could do with something like Python’s Argument Clinic, another bit of immortal magic. Here’s a snippet from that sketch where Palin, a client, has paid money for Cleese, a professional, to argue with him:
Cleese: “I’m very sorry, but I’m not allowed to argue unless you’ve paid."
Palin: “Aha! If I didn’t pay, then why are you arguing? Got you!"
Cleese: “No you haven’t."
Palin: “Yes I have. If you’re still arguing, I must have paid."
Cleese: “Not necessarily. I could be arguing in my spare time."
Palin: “Oh, I’ve had enough of this!"
Cleese: “No, you haven’t."
The collected works of Monty Python, now on a Netflix near you. It’s better than Shakespeare. (No, it isn’t.)
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
The writer tweets at @rajasen