Monty Python’s Flying Circus premiered on the BBC over 41 years ago. The series lasted four years on the BBC. Monty Python’s Flying Circus remains the greatest thing the comedy troupe has done. The movies are wonderful. The various other mediums they used for their act are worth the price of admission as well. But nothing compares to four years of the brilliance, satire and humor that Flying Circus did.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus was revolutionary in 1969 England. The country experienced migration from the Caribbean and the West Indies, which would cause turmoil and strife into the 80s and 90s. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam had no fear attacking the Royal Queen or law enforcement in England. The troupe poked fun at housewives. They ruminated on philosophy, the purpose of art but they also indulged in many silly things like spam, the Spanish Inquisition, Cheese Shops, Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, Slap Fish, Dennis Moore and his lupins.
Considering the autobiography the troupe published as well as the DVD set, “Almost The Truth,” this humble blogger won’t write too much more about the history of the show nor what the group wanted to accomplish because the book and the DVD is worth renting or buying and watching. The information’s better coming from them than some random blogger.
But I will write about today’s Classic episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, titled “Whither Canada?”
“Whither Canada?” is the first episode of the Flying Circus. The Python’s considered using Whither Canada as the show’s name until the BBC rejected it. Though the episode is over 41 years old, the entire episode feels so modern. Immediately, the show introduces its stream-of-consciousness style and its disinterest in punchlines. Sketches begin then get interrupted and forgotten about. The absurdity and silliness of the show gets introduced within the first five minutes during the wonderful “It’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” sketch. As the episode progresses, the Pythons show the audience that their series won’t simply be absurdity and silliness when “It’s The Arts” takes center stage.
Artist pretension has not disappeared in the last 41 years. Artist pretension, if anything, might have gotten worse. Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, is exhibit A in the case of Artist Pretension. The funniest part about the “It’s The Arts” sketch is how the Python’s take the piss out of artist pretension. The sketch introduces Sir Edward Gross (portrayed by Graham Chapman) to discuss his latest film. Most of the conversation between John Cleese’s Host and Sir Edward is not a conversation at all, but rather a back-and-forth about what Sir Edward prefers to be called during the ensuing conversation. Finally, after Sir Edward takes umbrage with the name “Eddie Baby,” the host allows the director an opportunity to discuss his latest film. Indeed, Sir Edward begins a long tale of when the idea came to him, at what age before transitioning into his life story. At this point, the host remarks, ‘oh shut up,’ ending the interview with Sir Edward Gross. ‘It’s The Arts’ soon transitions to musical composer Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson (portrayed by Terry Jones) who wants to discuss his latest music composition. The other host (portrayed by Eric Idle) has no apparent interest in the composition. Rather, he asks question after question about how Jackson received the nickname Two Sheds. Two Sheds becomes exasperated and then gets booted off the show, as Cleese warns the studio’s not big enough for the three of them.
The unifying theme of the sketch is both the disinterest shown by the interviewers and the exasperation of the interviewees when they cannot discuss their respective art. Perhaps, Monty Python wanted to show the audience that both themselves and the show wouldn’t get lost in pretension. I can imagine the boys sitting around, talking about the pretentious bastards they met while attending university at Cambridge and Oxford. I imagine one of the guys knowing someone similar to Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson, someone too concerned with the importance of his Art to have a laugh at himself and a nickname. After all, Two Sheds wants to be known for his music rather than a nickname his friends have for him because he wondered if he needed another shed in addition to the one he owned.
‘It’s The Arts’ doesn’t mercilessly attack Two Sheds and Sir Edward Gross. The sketch isn’t about bullying the musician and the director about their names. The sketch wants artists everywhere to possess the ability to laugh at themselves even if they write moving musical compositions or direct wonderful films. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is one of the most intelligent shows written as well as one of the silliest shows written. In a sketch later in the series, a pepperpot utters the famous line from Hamlet, in which Hamlet tells Horatio that ‘there are more things in Heaven and Earth than dreamt of in your philosophy’ and wonders where that came from. Of course, the show followed something like that with 3 minutes of Gumbys. ‘It’s The Arts’ represents what Monty Python wanted to accomplish. They were going to be smart but they were going to take the piss out of themselves, and all they want is self-important artists to drop the self-importance, the pretension and, once in awhile, laugh at themselves.
The final two sketches are quite memorable as well: Picasso’s Cycling Race and The Funniest Joke In The World. I wonder how Monty Python would’ve written the Cycling Race in 2010, with the advent of social media and the 24/7 sports cycle. Nevertheless, the Cycling Race lampoons the over reporting done on certain athletes and sporting events (and it’s an extension of ‘It’s The Arts’). Re-watching it in December 2010, months after Lebron’s decision, made me appreciate the troupe even more for how advanced their perspective and humor was. Picasso’s Cycling Race revolves around a group of reporters following Picasso as he attempts to win an international cycling race while painting. The sketch cuts between various reporters as they track Picasso’s every move. One of the most inspired moments occurs when Cleese’s reporter narrates Picasso’s movements as he cycles and paints, only to be informed by a pepperpot that the cyclist is Kandinsky–the Russian painter and art theorist. By the end, Picasso falls off of his bicycle and fails in his quest to paint AND gain fame in international cycling–yet another criticism of artist pretension and self-importance. Picasso tried to become more iconic but found himself on the ground, and responsible for a pig’s headache.
The Funniest Joke in the World is a top minute sketch about a joke so funny that it kills whoever reads it through laughter. The sketch begins in a humble home in England and ends on the battlefields of World War II. The Army obtains the joke to use as a weapon against the Germans after discovering the lethality of the joke. The audience never learns what the joke is. The German version of the joke is: Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput! However, there is no meaningful translation and the words are mostly nonsense. As an aside, one of my favorite moments occurs when Cleese’s Nazi officer hears the joke, yells that it’s not funny, begins laughing and then tells the English prisoner that his favorite part is ‘die Flipperwaldt’ before dying.
Aaron Sorkin should’ve watch this sketch before writing any episode of Studio 60 and the Sunset Strip. The decision to exclude the actual joke from the sketch is great because the actual joke wouldn’t have succeeded as much as a multitude of characters dying as a result of how funny the joke is. Sorkin insisted on implementing the actual sketches from his fictional late night show within the show. The problem, his main character (portrayed by Matthew Perry) was supposed to be the funniest writer working but so many of the sketches were not funny.
The Funniest Joke in the World is yet another example of what the series would be in the future. The actual joke, the punchline, is omitted throughout the sketch. In fact, the troupe kills off the joke at the end when Eric Idle’s commentator tells the camera that joke warfare was banned at a special Geneva convention, and that the joke was laid to rest in the cemetery, in which he stands, never to be told again. The sketch is hilarious yet the punchline never remains dead and buried–that is Monty Python in a nutshell.
-I would never leave out the Italian classroom, a sketch about Italians in a class centered on teaching the Italian language. The class eventually erupts into an argument between a Napoli man claiming that Napoli’s the best city while a Milan man claims Milan is aces.
-I quite enjoyed writing about Flying Circus so I might write more about in the future.
THE YOUTUBE CLIP OF THE WEEK