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Can’t Help but Smiling November 5, 2009

Posted by monty in comedy, TV.
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montypython

Monty Python will always be one of our most significant cultural dividers.  There’s really no waffling when it comes to what I consider to be the greatest collection of comedians of all time (just so there’s no question about which side of the divide I rest on).  You either love them fervently, slavishly, and absolutely, or you can’t figure out just what the hell everyone finds so funny.  If there’s a middle ground – slight, though it is – it might be the people who find Monty Python & the Holy Grail quite amusing, thank you very much, but who don’t have much time for the rest of their expansive output.

Fittingly, it’s with Holy Grail that I became a fan.  When I was a high school sophomore, a couple of my older friends were huge devotees of Python, and because I was a spineless little weasel, all I wanted was to be in on the joke.  One Friday night I went to the video store (I don’t think it was Blockbuster yet; it might have still been Video Towne), rented a copy of Holy Grail, and my comedy horizons were broadened forever.

It really was like nothing I’d ever seen: broad visual jokes (horsemen with coconuts), physical comedy that verges on slapstick (the battle with the Black Knight), bizarre arcana (“A five-ounce bird could not carry a one-pound coconut!”), unapologetic intelligence (“We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune!”), and a proliferation of non sequiturs that shouldn’t have worked but did.

I still didn’t know who everyone was, so it wasn’t until much later that I realized John Cleese played Lancelot and Tim and the Black Knight and one of the French guards.  And the jokes came so fast and furious that I vividly remember the movie coming to an end, immediately rewinding it, and starting it a second time.  It just blew me away.

And so began what has become a life-long love affair with all things Python.  As funny as Holy Grail is, I actually think The Life of Brian is a better movie – smarter and more sophisticated, to be sure, and a more comfortable mix of their verbal and physical comedy.

And I think – although I’m not positive – that this was the first example of satire I’d ever seen.  I didn’t then have the knowledge base that I have now, but even as a 16-year-old, I got what they were saying about the dangers of organized religion, and the peril of following a false prophet – as well as the importance of verb conjugation.

But the real joy for me has always been their BBC program, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Later sketch shows have done a good job of extending the Pythons’ humor, but there’s still really nothing that’s been able to match the dizzying display of comedy in an average episode of Flying Circus. The impact of their show has been somewhat diluted in the last forty years, but try looking at some other comedies during the late 60’s.  Everything had a punchline, and movies would end with a go-cart race or a pie fight.  The Pythons exploded all that – no punchlines, a slow pace when it was necessary, and an internal logic that you either accepted or you didn’t.

To try and post all the sketches that made a mark on me would take all day.  There are a few more here, which I put up a week ago in celebration of John Cleese’s birthday.  What I’ll leave you with instead is an anecdote I heard recently on the Independent Film Channel’s Python documentary, Almost the Truth, which I think perfectly captures the beauty of Monty Python.  In it, a comedian of Indian descent (I forget his name, sorry) recounted what it was like to be the first generation of his family to grow up in England.  He was gradually becoming more “English,” and as a result, the cultural gulf between him and his more traditional Indian parents was growing rapidly.  He hung out with British kids, listened to popular music, and fell in love with movies, and especially with Monty Python.  His mother, he says, could never understand it.  Something just didn’t translate.  Until the day she saw the fish-slapping dance.

That was the one and only time, he says, when he saw his mother laugh at Monty Python, and that moment forged a rare connection between mother and son.  There’s something about the fish-slapping dance that transcends culture and age to speak to all of us.  Funny stuff.

*****

Current listening:

Mark klamath

Mark Eitzel – Klamath

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