Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Revisiting the Mighty Mr. P and his Aerial Extravaganza

I recently found myself reading the best book on, about or by the Monty Python group that I've ever found.  The highly informative and entertaining Monty Python Speaks.

In the course of reading I found myself reflecting on my own experience of Monty Python.  Having spent years performing and writing sketch comedy professionally  I found it nearly impossible not to bump up against the ground broken by Monty Python.  This of course was exacerbated by the age I grew up in.

The first episodes of Python aired on BBC the same month I was born and took just enough time to make it to the West coast of Canada that I do recall my Mom discovering the show as it first premiered here.  I recall Mom sitting me down to watch this ridiculously funny show she'd been enjoying.  My first experiences I only barely recall.  I vaguely recall the Scotsman playing tennis against a blancmange.  I had no idea what a blancmange was at the time.  Actually, I still don't.  (Thank you Wikipedia.

A year or two passed and the North American popularity of Python took off.  PBS started doing day-long fund raisers, showing all the episodes of Python in a row.  This was where I really began watching it.  Over the years I have found that this was the case for many people my age.  I recall sitting down in front of the TV on a weekend morning and happening upon whatever episode was playing at the time.  I recognized it for what it was and began watching.  Sometime later the phone rang.  It was for me and I grudgingly pulled myself away from the TV.  It was one of my best childhood friends at the time, Jason.  He was calling me to tell me that I had to turn on Channel 9 right now because the craziest most amazing TV show was on.  He was of course talking about Monty Python.

Over the years I watched a LOT of Python.  Listened to most if not all of the albums and definitely watched ALL of the movies.  One of the books I had was the transcribed script of The Life of Brian.  It was a gorgeous book - illustrated with a panoply of stills from the film and the trademark Terry Gilliam illustrations.  At some point, Demetri and I got it in our heads that we should use a scene from the book to enter in the regional speech arts and drama festival.  Yup.  We entered a serious performance festival doing a Monty Python sketch - the beard haggling scene in particular

We won.

But from that point my relationship with Python actually kind of degrades.

Sure, I continued to love the work of the members.  Gilliam's films are always worth checking out (with the exception of Tideland) even when they aren't firing on all cylinders.  A Fish Called Wanda, though it hasn't aged terribly well, was one of the funniest films I've ever seen.  Palin's travelogues are fantastic.  And on...

But when it comes to Python itself, I found that I could not have been more annoyed with the constant quoting and abusing of the material by people who were obsessed by Pythonsanity.  This was particularly acute in theatre school, but at least there I could rely on the recitations to be well performed.

Fast forward to roughly now....

As I was reading Monty Python Speaks it began to occur to me that I am not certain I've actually seen all of the TV episodes.  I have of course heard all the classic scketches on records, in compilations, and hacked by too fanatic fans, but I'm not sure that I've actually seen every second of the original material.  I certainly haven't seen great portions of it since I was a teenager.

So I've decided to go back and take care of it once and for all.

I figure that there will be material that went over my head (or at least that I couldn't fully appreciate), stuff that I've totally forgotten, pieces I may have never seen (what a treat that might be!), sketches that don't work now - if they ever did, and of course, all the classics rendered in their original ground-breaking form.  In any case, it ought to be insightful.

Jodie and I began watching last night and got through the first three episodes of the first series.

Episode 1 - Whither Canada?

The first episode, apart from the iconic "It's..." did not get off to a great start.  Cleese as Mozart introducing famous deaths had me thinking right off that if this was what I could expect from the rest that I likely would never finish all the episodes.
The second major sketch - Italian Lesson - amused me at first, but it was becoming clear that the influence Python had on everything that followed was making their initial steps look kind of pedestrian.  That said, we both got one good laugh out of the Italian Lesson towards the end.
Similarly, Whizzo Butter, It's the Arts, Arthur 'Two Sheds' Jackson and the Picasso Cycling Race were all amusing, but rarely made me laugh.
Then came The Funniest Joke in the World.  A classic.  I definitely recall seeing a version of this before - but I may have only ever seen the version in And Now for Something Completely Different.  In any case, at last I was truly reminded of the true genius of Python.  I laughed numerous times, even though it was a sketch that I clearly recalled the overall outline of.

Episode 2 - Sex and Violence

As we sat down to watch the first episode, Jodie and I had a brief conversation about how Pythin had influenced The MuppetsThe Muppet Show is on high rotation in our house right now.  The basic consensus was that it had to be somewhat inevitable at the time.  Well the evidence presented itself in bold relief in this episode.  Perhaps coincidentally the episode title is the same as the original pilot for The Muppet Show.  But read on...

Again I found the overall level of hilarity to be muted by familiarity and the years.  A Man with Three Buttocks?  Definitely funny.  But not for the reasons I found it funny when I was ten.  The status interplay between Cleese and Jones in this sketch is fantastic.

In the middle of the episode came a sketch that really brought the Muppets connection into focus.  Terry Jones playing a mouse organ with hammers, pretty much exactly the same mechanic as the Muppaphone.

I probably laughed the hardest and most often at the Marriage Counsellor sketch - a sketch I was certainly familiar with, but I don't think I could have appreciated it fully when I was a child.

I began to find that Gilliam's animations - which with exceptions I found as a child were my least favourite - were often my favourite pieces of stream of conscious.  I loved watching and deconstructing them in real-time.  Trying to glean what inspired the connection of one image to the next.  Fascinating stuff.

I am quite certain I have actually seen this episode, but I have no recollection of the Alfred Lord Tennyson narrated, kinetoscope films of Queen Victoria behaving like a silent-film physical comedian.  Not terribly funny, but amusing. And definitely delightful in being a piece I have zero recollection of.

The true revelation of the night was the Working-class Playwright sketch.  I absolutely remember this sketch and even "got" the basic premise when I was younger.  Hell, I even quoted it on a Facebook thread last week - though I had actually forgotten that it was  Python reference at the time.  This was a sketch that I really had missed the details and subtleties (yes, Monty Python is in fact very subtle at times) of and really required seeing it to bring that out for me, despite my recollection.

The Mouse Problem.  When I mentioned to my mother that I planned to rewatch all the Monty Python episodes, this was the first sketch she mentioned.  I had forgotten about it until she mentioned it, but then it all came back to me - including the homosexual subtext, which I'm not sure I had understood when I last saw it.  I'm guessing this was a really subversive sketch at the time.  It's still pretty good, but not terribly edgy in a rainbow-tinted world.  I had also completely forgotten where the habit of repeating the word "hostile" in a high-pitched voice after another person had come from.  I don't really do that much anymore, but now I'll remember where it came from.

Episode 3 - How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away

I am almost certain that I have never seen this episode in full.  The best parts (Restaurant Sketch, Seduced Milkmen and Nudge Nudge) all appear elsewhere and I have seen them all before.

Bicycle Repair Man though not laugh a minute funny was great fun.  I don't know how many times I've heard people say "Help me Bicycle Repair Man!" and even knew it was Python, but I don't think I ever knew the full context - and it is the context of this sketch that is really where the humour is, so if you haven't seen it, I won't spoil it.

The Restaurant Sketch... though I said it was one of the best parts... well it hasn't aged well.  The over-wrought reactions in it just aren't funny anymore as we've seen the rest so many times before.  However, the sketch really pinpoints one of the cornerstones of form that Python was reacting to at the time they began.  They were tired of the presumed requirement for sketches to reach an end point - a punchline.  They felt that if the humour of a sketch had been effectively mined without reaching a punchline, there was little or no point in ending it on an inferior punchline, just to end it.  In the restuarant sketch they skewer that practice by forcing the action back to the sketch after having left it for the express purpose of delievering a punchline that is appallingly lame.  Humour as a commentary on the form of humour itself... nice.  (Even if by definition not very funny.)

The Seduced Milkmen is kind of a "happy place."  I must have found it funny once upon a time.  I don't think it isn't funny, but from frame one I know exactly where it is going and with really only one joke in it, there isn't much to re-discover.  That said, it is a gag that still makes me smile like I've got the warm-fuzzies.

Nudge nudge...  ....Well...  here we have, after three full episodes, one of the top ten (maybe even top-five) most over-quoted Monty Python sketches ever.  I actually winced when I realised what I was about to see.  But ya know, despite being the epitome of what made me begin to bristle at Python in University, I found it funny.  Eric Idle, despite what many a quoter seems to assume, is not the funny part of this sketch.  Yeah, he is inherent, and he drives the sketch, and he is kind of amusing.  But what actually makes this a funny sketch is (Comedy 101) Terry Jones.  It is Terry Jones reactions to Idle's forceful inappropriateness that is the magic ingredient that makes Nudge Nudge work.  And that is why baristas, bus-drivers and book-sellers affecting weak-sauce British accents and shouting "Say no more, say no more!" is tiresome and completely devoid of actual humour.

We shall see if I have the time to continue reviewing my re-viewing of subsequent episodes.  I intend to as I have more thoughts about how Python has influenced who I am that I didn't have time to get into here.  And hey, I'm a completist.

Now if you'll excuse me, a passing protest (in the DTES?  Say it isn't so!) has prematurely woke my daughter from her nap.  That's a sure fire way to not improve your chances of earning my sympathy for your cause.