The group called Monty Python's Flying Circus consisting of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman British actors-writers, and Terry Gilliam American animator, broadcasted forty-five half-hour-long episodes of absurd humour on BBC from 1969 until 1974. After their works they are very often mentioned in Hungary as the "other" famous group of England besides the Beatles.
Despite their popularity in Hungary, their forty-episoded series was only shown on Hungarian television in 1994, twenty years later then the British broadcast. Hungarian audience had known this group previously only from their films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian. The works of Monty Python are more popular among the younger generations and I also have become interested in their works because I found them very interesting and amusing. Still, although I enjoyed their shows I could not really explain for myself or to others what it was that made me laugh. I decided to examine their works more deeply and thoroughly to find out what makes their sketches extraordinary and funny and that is the question I am attempting to answer in my essay. To find an explanation, firstly I am going to talk about English humour, then I would like to shift to the point of analysing the sketches of Monty Python, first from the social, then from the literary point of view. In my work I was helped by Miklós Galla, Hungarian comedian, who wrote the Hungarian subtitles for the series. Wherever statement concerning the history of Monty Python is found in my essay without a source indicated, the information was provided by Miklós Galla.
So let me now interpret my line of analysis, or, by announcing with the words of the Pythons: "It's...Monty Python's Flying Circus!"
A few words on English humour
First of all we should clarify what the term English humour means, because later we should place Monty Python into its context. The expression "English humour" is widely accepted and frequently used in most language to describe the humour of English comedians or the works of humorous writers. On the other hand, if we look for a definition of English humour, in most of the books trying to find an answer for this only the following characteristics are listed, such as absurdity, irony, understatement, self-parody, sophistication, morbidity and cruelty.(Bier:1968:420, Priestley: 1976:9, Mikes: 1967:73) In my opinion, none of these descriptions seems to be an appropriate one, because these characteristics are too general to be used only for English humour.
Since no definition could be found, the questioning of the existence of such a special type of humour has certainly arisen. George Mikes, an analyst of the topic formulates this problem wittily (Mikes 1967:9):
English humour resembles the Loch Ness Monster in that both are famous but there is a strong suspicion that neither of them exists. Here the similarity ends: the Loch Ness Monster seems to be a gentle beast and harms no one; English humour is cruel.
In spite of that no fulfilling description has been drafted for English humour, it might exist and differ from other types of humour. This can be the product of the voluntary separation of England from the "Continent", so humour could develop with less foreign influence, than in the case of the countries of the Continent. For example the term "English humour" also means in Hungarian a type of humour that is not funny at all, representing how far the humour of the English developed from the European "norms", where different nations influenced the humour of each other more strongly. From now on in my essay I am going to consider the works of Monty Python as the representations of English humour.
Monty Python's Flying Circus
1. Its place in English humour
In 1969 five British writers-actors John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle accompanied with the American graphic-animator Terry Gilliam formed the group called Monty Python's Flying Circus to make television shows. Their aim was to create half-hour-long films, which are unordinary, extravagant and built up of different sketches, which don't necessarily have a punch line, but rather flow into each other with the help of animation. Almost every role in their episodes were played by the five actors, even the screeching housewives. They shot forty-five episodes which were shown on BBC from 1969 to 1974.
Monty Python served the "third" British class taste, that was described by Jesse Bier in 1968 as a recently forming one getting wedged between the traditional labours' and upper class. As Bier described this "new interclass of the red- bricked universities" had just at the late 60's started to straighten and develop its own sense of humour (Bier 1968427). This educated class was forming between East End and Oxford, and the Pythons, whom actually got to know each other from the Cambridge Footlights Theatre as students, were one of the first representatives of this new, intellectual humour.
The "intellectual humour" expression is very appropriate to use for Monty Python's works, since their sketches are permeated by the atmosphere of intellect. Jokes are very frequently built upon the appearances of well-known historical or otherwise famous persons as for example in the Cycling race of twentieth century painters (episode #1), Attila the Nun (ep.#20) or the Housing project built by characters from nineteenth century English literature. There are also plenty of references and allusions to different philosophical schools, scientific theories and political issues which could be most entirely understood by the educated people.
2. Analysis of sketches
The social point of view
The Pythons, as the pioneers of intellectual humour created revolution in television comedy from different aspects. One aspect is that in opposition with traditional comedy, Monty Python sketches are hardly ever built up to a punch line. Their humour is rather based upon the differences between the appearing characters, that one of them is absolutely normal and ordinary, while the other behaves in an absurd and idiotic way. It makes us laugh that we realise the idiocy of the absurd person, while the normal one doesn't. From now on the source of laughter can be the inflexibility of the normal person and the sharp difference between the appearing characters. For example in the sketch Camel spotting (ep.#7), where the contrast appears between an ordinary television interviewer and a camel spotter, who is an entirely absurd figure. Their conversation runs on like a serious interview, only the answers given are unexpected.
Interviewer :How many camels have you spotted so far?
Spotter : Oh, well so far, up to the present moment, I've spotted nearly...nearly one.
Interviewer : Nearly one?
Spotter : Well, call it none...
Interviewer : So in three years you've spotted no camels?
Spotter : Yes in only three years. Er, I tell a lie, four, be fair, five. I've been camel spotting for just the seven years. Before that of course I was a Yeti spotter.
Interviewer : That must have been extremely interesting....
/and so on.../
In other cases, where comedy functions as a social instrument, the Bergsonian theory is manifested, in which he states that one important role of satire is to make a corrective against undesirable attitudes of the members of a society. (Bergson 1986:118.).These sketches reflect on certain negative human characteristics. For example in the Mr. Hilter sketch (ep.#12) the stereotyped and insipid conversational topics get caricatured through the chatting of a middle-class couple with Hitler and his Nazi leaders, who are pretending that they are English.
Landlady: Ooh planning a little excursion are we Mr Hilter?
Hitler: Ja! Ja! We make a little hike ...for Bideford.
Johnson: Oh well you'll be wanting the A39 then...no, no, you've got the wrong map there, this is Stalingrad. You want the Ilfracombe and Barnstaple section.
Hitler: Ah Hein...Reginald you have the wrong map here you silly old leg-before-wicket English person.
Himmler: I'm sorry mein Führer... (Hitler slaps him) Mein Dickie old chum.
Landlady: Lucky Mr Johnson pointed that out, eh? You wouldn't have much fun in Stalingrad would you, ha, ha, ha...
The overrated topics of this conversation are about the traffic, the weather, tea, very weak jokes, etc. In this sense Monty Python's intellectual jokes become more than jokes, because as soon as a member of the audience realise the target of the satire is himself, these sketches will make him think a little bit more deeply and seriously about the message hidden in the joke. This is the traditional attitude of the court jester, who has been telling the truth from under the protection of his cap and bells since Shakespeare first portrayed him in King Lear. In the case of Monty Python this could function much more effectively than in written satire, because their episodes, by appearing on television, could reach every class of the society. Actually, Monty Python parodied television, television programmes and BBC itself with overwhelming impudence. That was another aspect of Monty Python's revolution, because they used the publicity of television to attack its institute. For example their first book, Monty Python's Big Red Book is dedicated "to the BBC Programme Planners, without whom anything is possible." (Python 1971:7.).
On the other hand, human idiocy is not only offended by satire, it is very frequently attacked by "real" weapons, as a 16 ton weight or a knight with a rubber chicken. These acts clearly reflect on the society-forming role of humour, that in the imagined world of Monty Python the ones with negative characteristics get simply liquidated.
Other source of comedy is the sudden clash of two most extreme approaches of the same basic idea, where one extreme is the most serious, and pathetic aspect of the matter, while the other is the most flippant one, as for example it happens in Court scene (ep.#3) :
Judge: Mr Larch, you heard the case for the prosecution. is there anything you wish to say before I pass sentence?
Larch: Well I'd just like to say, m'lud, I've got a family... a wife and six kids... and I hope very much you don't have to take away my freedom ...because....well, because m'lud freedom is a state much prized within the realm of civilised society. It is a bond wherewith the savage man may soothe the troubled breast into a magnitude of quiet. ... What frees the prisoner in his lonely cell, chained within the bondage of rude walls, far from the owles of Thebes?...What goddess doth the storm toss'd mariner offer her most tempestuous prayers to? Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!
Judge: It's only a bloody parking offence.
Or another example is the Superman sketch (ep.#3):
Superman film: shot from below of Superman striding along against the sky.
Commentator (American accent):This man is no ordinary man. This is Mr. F. G. Superman. To all appearances no different from any other law-abiding citizen.
Pull back to reveal he is in a street full of Supermen walking, waiting at bus etc.
Commentator: But Mr. F. G. Superman has a secret identity...when trouble strikes at any time ...at any place... he is ready to become...Bicycle Repair Man!
The flash of the new, unimportant aspect turns the serious into funny, and that is the way how every task taken seriously by mankind (for example the idea of freedom or ideal heroes) can become ridiculous. By this point we have arrived to the field of a more subtle aspect of Pythonesque1 analysis, that is the literary aspect.
The literary point of view
It is a typical feature of Monty Python, that they turn the task taken most seriously by mankind: the task of death into a joke by overwhelming morbidity. About 80% of the characters are "killed" in the most varying ways from the falling of 16 tons to being eaten by a Blancmange, and, furthermore, Monty Python may also lay claims for the most morbid sketch ever written, the Undertaker's sketch (ep.#26):
ANIMATION: various really nasty cannibalistic scenes from Terry Gilliam. Cut to man.
Man: Stop it, stop it. Stop this cannibalism. Let's have a sketch about clean, decent human beings.
Cut to an undertaker's shop.
Man: My mother just died.
Undertaker: We can help you. We deal with stiffs... We can bury her, burn her or dump her.
Man (shocked): What? U.t.: Dump her in the Thames.
U.t.: Oh, did you like her?...
U.t.: If we burn her she gets stuffed in the flames, crackle, crackle, which is a bit of a shock if she is not quite dead....Or if we bury her she gets eaten up by lots of weevils, and nasty maggots, which is also a shock if she is not quite dead.... Where is she?
Man: In this sack.
Man: Are you suggesting eating my mother?
U.t.: Er…yeah, not raw. Cooked.
Man: Well, I do feel a bit peckish...
U.t.: Tell you what, we'll eat her, if you feel a bit guilty about it after, we can dig a grave and you can throw up in it.
This sketch was not accidentally put into the episode The Queen will be watching, that shows that they consciously strived to shock the "ordinary law-abiding citizens". The sketch is a perfect example for black humour, as it is described to reach the catharsis of laughter through shocking and disguising, and to reject all kinds of moral codex which regulate our lives on Earth. (Abádi 1982:369). Black humour makes fun of the horrible, from violence and death by phlegmatically avoiding sentimentalism, with the tools of shocking and dismaying. Its role is to reflect on the senselessness of universe and death, which are unchangeable by anyone or any society. The fact of mortality faces humans indifferently and it neglects all forms of unwritten moral laws, and so does black humour. The undertaker talks indifferently the truth about what happens to a buried person, reflecting on our fragility by shocking and astonishing us.
According to Bier (Bier 1968:420) the number of morbid sketches had increased in British television comedy in the late sixties. He reasons this phenomenon as the steam let off from the Victorian repression. During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), the English were proud of being the members of the greatest world power of their time, the values accepted by the English middle class were sobriety, thrift, self control and strict sexual morality. As a consequence of these, decadent humour reflecting on the frailty and mortality of man and his unimportance in the Universe would have been censored sharply.
Monty Python also has sketches ridiculing this serious and proud era of the past, for example the sketch Queen Victoria Handicap, that is a race hold not for horses but for queens Victoria, or The wacky queen, that is a burlesque scene narrated by Alfred Lord Tennyson with a jolly American accent showing the naughtiness of the Queen and Gladstone throwing cakes at each other, etc. .
"And now for something completely different"-as it could have been said by John Cleese, who created a catch phrase from this sentence by telling it lots of times throughout the series. Now let us talk about absurd humour, nonsense and philosophical satire in the works of Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Absurd humour is an attack against rigid logic. Absurdity turns proper sequences of ideas upside down and creates absurd logical connections with the only aim of causing catharsis by laughter. (Balotá 1979:41) Absurd humour has a base of incongruity, that comedy in this case is derived from the sensation of the opposition between the elements of a certain situation. In this definition three types of incongruity are distinguishable, such as logical, natural and social incongruity.
Incongruity of logical nature in the Python-sketches occurs mainly between what should happen logically and what really happens. In the sketch Queen Victoria handicap comedy lays in that we would expect the race of horses, but after all it is fairly logical to have racing queens Victoria, since it was indicated by the name of the handicap.
In other cases, when the situation is realistic, the incongruity is natural occurring between the action and the words describing it, as in sketch Flying sheep (ep.#2), when a rustic narrates how his sheep are trying to fly:
Rustic:..It is my belief that these sheep are labouring under the misapprehension that they're birds. Observe their behaviour. Take for a start the sheep' tendency to hop about the field on their back legs. Now witness their attempts to fly from tree to tree...Notice they do not so much fly as plummet.
It is also a "fair" way of approach on the side of the rustic, since his description about the sheep is very precise indeed. The incongruity is between that the phenomenon is at least very strange, while the rustic takes it as a trivial one.
The third type of incongruity is the one with social nature, that appears between the natural demands of a human and the conventions, schemes and banalities of the society. This is represented by the institutions made up by the Pythons, such as the Ministry of Silly Walks (ep#14), the Society for Putting Things on top of Other Things (ep#18), where they put something absolutely useless in the framework of a socially respected idea such as politics, television, etc.
The word 'absurd' means senseless in Latin and its encyclopaedic definition is something opposing the laws of logic, e.g. a quadrilateral triangle. Deducing a statement from here ad absurdum is to show its contradiction, from which we may conclude that a statement opposing it may be right.(Révai 1994:46). By this definition we arrived to the next genre of humour we should examine if we are dealing with Monty Python, that is philosophical satire or satiric absurd.
Satire is a genre ridiculing and criticising the absurdity of a society, or as derived from the nature of absurd described above, satire is the deduction of a phenomenon occurring in society, and by showing its contradictions, give a hint that an opposing opinion might be the right one. In that case it can be a serious judgement of a certain task although it causes laughter. Monty Python used this weapon most strongly to judge militarism and politics.
Anti-militarism is expressed in the sketch Trivialising the War (ep.#42), where a soldier's case is on trial, who is accused of not taking the war seriously:
Soldier: How can I encapsulate in mere words my scorn for any military solution? The futility of modern warfare? And the hypocrisy by which contemporary government applies one standard to violence within the community and another to violence perpetrated by one community upon another?...
Presiding Counsel: Shut up!... (to the soldiers) Stand up! (everyone stands up) Sit down! (they sit down) Go moo! (everyone goes moo) Right, now, on with the pixie hats! (everyone puts on pixie hats with large pointed ears)...
This part reflects on the anti-humane features of the institute of the army, that people can order others by the principle of rank and militaristic hierarchy.
Politicians are attacked by satire in e.g. The Apology from Politicians (ep.#32):
WE WOULD LIKE TO APOLOGISE FOR THE WAY IN WHICH POLITICIANS ARE REPRESENTED IN THIS PROGRAMME. IT WAS NEVER OUR INTENTION TO IMPLY THAT POLITICIANS ARE WEAK-KNEED, POLITICAL TIME-SERVERS WHO... SACRIFICE THEIR CREDIBILITY BY DENYING FREE DEBATE... IN THE MISTAKEN IMPRESSION THAT PARTY UNITY COMES BEFORE THE WELL-BEING OF THE PEOPLE... NOR INDEED DO WE INTEND THAT VIEWERS SHOULD CONSIDER THEM AS CRABBY ULCEROUS... VERMIN WITH FURRY LEGS... WE ARE SORRY IF THIS IMPRESSION HAS COME ACROSS.
Or in asking a conservative MP's opinion (ep.#12):
MP : Speaking as Conservative candidate I just drone on and on and on, never letting anyone else get a word in edgeways until I start foaming at the mouth and falling over backwards. (foams at the mouth and falls over backwards)
In the history of English humour there are such representatives of philosophical satire as Swift , who chastised a whole society in his Guliver-trilogy.(Szerb 1941:361-5). Absurd satire also appeared in comedia dell'arte in the Middle Ages, in the role of the clown, who used to make fun of the self-confident logical world, and it is mainly represented in our age by television comedy. (Esslin 1969: 21).
Monty Python actually uses the tools of comedia dell'arte in another respect, in the appearance of reoccurring characters. Such reoccurring, simplified characters with one or two exaggerated features are the Colonel, the representation of rank and power, the Accountant, the representation of dullness, the "It's man" getting through all kinds of vicissitudes to announce the beginnings of the shows, the knight with a rubber chicken, the extremely primitive Gumbies, who wear the easily distinguishable handkerchief on their heads, Luigi Vercotti, the typical Sicilian Mafioso, etc. The role of these reoccurring characters is that to involve the audience into the game of the Pythons, to make the audience accomplice with the writers, because the recognition of a character already increases our attention to what will happen to him. The tradition of reoccurring characters dates back to comedia dell'arte that worked with the permanent cast of simplified characters as the bragging Capitano, the pedantic Dottore, the clown Arlecchino, etc. (Cambridge Guide to Literature 1991:342).
Another aspect of absurd humour is the nonsense, where the logical connections are entirely hold in respect and the chain of ideas is perfect. On the other hand, these ideas are connected to each other arbitrarily, and their relationship towards reality or believability don't hold any respect in the eyes of its writer. (Balotá 1979:42.). English literature has a great tradition in nonsense represented by Edward Lear and Lewis Caroll. Nonsense humour in opposition with the absurd doesn't mean an attack on the rationality and reality of the world.
Following this tradition, the Pythons have used nonsense very frequently in their works. One good example for this is the sketch Secret Service dentists (ep.#4) caricaturing spy stories. In this nonsensical story dentists behaving like gangsters, they want to get "the fillings" from each other with such weaponry like a machine gun or a bazooka, while at the end the "Big Chief"-dentist arrives and dismisses the story because it's lunch-time.
Nonsense also occurs in the Pythons' anti-jokes, which are based on that the jokes are quite weak, and instead of a punch line somebody stops the film and claims that the joke was very lousy indeed and that the whole sketch would better be stopped. In these sketches the Pythons parodied even themselves.
As we could see from the social and literary analyses of the Python-sketches, the group often had deeper aims with their sketches than that to cause a chief laugh in the audience. They meant something new and strange in the world of comedy because of their astonishing absurdity, scandalous morbidity, but also because of their deeper philosophical massages hidden behind the jokes, which either were with social or philosophical impact.
Monty Python's Flying Circus is among the most famous representatives of English humour of the twentieth century and that is likely due to their revolutionary ideas in using and considering humour, as it has been analysed in my essay. Considering this feature of them we may also conclude that the six writer-comedians created something in humour that can actually be compared to the Beatles, who meant a revolution in music in sixties' England.
There are also other aspects from which the Python-series could be analysed, such as the role of animation or the role of Woman in the person of Carol Cleveland, (the seventh, "honorary" member of the group)
Finally, I would also like to add that the popularity of the group do not mean that everybody liked their shows. I have meant by this word that most members of the society of seventies' England knew about the Python-phenomenon. On the other hand they have received laugher as well as disapproval from their audience. In my case they have mainly received laughter, and whenever I didn't understand their English humour, I admitted the Hungarian meaning of this phrase.
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