Tuesday, June 12, 2012

PYTHON DISSECTED - Prologue, Part 1: "The Gathering of the Jibes"

Monty Python's Flying Circus debuted, with little fanfare, on BBC-1 on October 5, 1969, nine days after the Beatles released their final studio album, Abbey Road.  I mention this seemingly irrelevant piece of trivia because it's one of those serendipidous bits of timing that no major cultural sea change can exist without.  Much has been made about how the Fab Four's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show - the event that rocketed them to stardom in the U.S. and thus set their subsequent world domination in motion - came scant weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a moment when America (whether it realized it or not) needed a cleansing blast of youthful exuberance.  We'll never know if the Beatles would have been the musical and cultural bellwether they turned out to be had things been different - given the talent and the personalities at hand, it's hard to imagine that they wouldn't have made some sort of splash - but it's hard to deny the power of that particular harmonic convergence.  So, too, with Python.  No less an authority than George Harrison would later claim that the spiritual energy that was fatally draining from his band at that moment transferred cleanly onto this other, (mostly) British combo, and history has borne him out: comedy underwent a revolution of form and function in the seventies every bit the equal of rock in the sixties, and it was Monty Python who fired the opening salvo.  (It's true that the fuse Python lit - if I may mix my revolutionary-weaponry metaphors a bit - was much slower-burning; comedy didn't truly become the new rock 'n' roll until the mid-decade premiere of Saturday Night Live, a show that provided the same tonic for a country traumatized by Watergate and Vietnam that the Beatles did post-Kennedy, and which owed its comic voice as much to the National Lampoon and Second City as it did MPFC.  But heavy strands of Python are in its DNA - reruns aired on Canadian television several years before it made it to America, heavily influencing a struggling writer/comedian named Lorne Michaels; several years later, he stood on line for the world premiere of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where he would meet the man who would become SNL's first breakout star [and probably the main reason the show wasn't cancelled after a few weeks], Chevy Chase.  Which means that it's only a matter of time before some crazed conspiracy theorist fanboy blames Python for Dan Harmon's ouster from Community, but let's keep shtum about that.)

More (much, much more) after the jump:

Monty Python has been called "the Beatles of comedy" so often that I'm hesitant to do the same - it runs dangerously close to cliché, and much of Python's seismic effect on the world of comedy hinges on their conscious avoidance/exploding of clichés (eventually inventing a few new ones in the process, but we can't really hold them accountable for that) - but I don't care: it works.  Viz:

1) They were comprised of strong individual talents who only became world-class once they came together as a group.  You can see the Python sensibility slowly coalesce as its six members slowly drift towards each other throughout the sixties: partnerships forged, chance encounters made, mutual-admiration societies founded.   The Cambridge contingent (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle) all distinguished themselves as members of the Footlights Dramatic Club, riding an unprecedented (and unrepeated) wave of public interest in the wake of former President Peter Cook's ascent to national stardom (as one-quarter of Beyond the Fringe, founder of the short-lived Establishment Club in London's Soho district, and co-founder of the seemingly indestructible Private Eye magazine, he gets much of the credit/blame for kicking off the "satire boom" of the early sixties, though most of his best material relied far more on brillliantly escalating absurdity than tweaking the noses of Cabinet ministers).  This led to a great deal of attention from their rough equivalents at Oxford (Terry Jones and Michael Palin), not to mention an unsuccessful attempt to capitalize on Fringe's celebrated run on Broadway by bringing the Footlights' 1963 revue A Clump of Plinths (rechristened with the slightly-easier-to-say title of Cambridge Circus - hmmm...) to New York, where an assistant editor at Harvey Kurtzman's Help! magazine*, one Terry Gilliam, caught sight of Cleese and recognized the perfect live-action comic strip character when he saw it:

(* - Another roundabout Beatles/Python connection?  No idea, but one wonders if a seed was planted somewhere in the organization on sight of this cover...)

The demand for University-bred wits to churn out material for British TV in lieu of pursuing foolish paths like medicine or law crested by mid-decade, when all five of the British Pythons were simultaneously employed by the great facilitator/exploiter of the sixties Brit-comedy boom, David Frost, on his semi-satirical post-That Was the Week That Was program The Frost Report, but that was a statistical certainty, as he hired every young gag writer in the British Isles to write for him (which didn't stop him from hogging the lion's share of the credit, which inspired a wonderful mixture of affection and contempt in his charges - we'll get to an example of that in the very first MPFC shortly, but none is more illustrative than The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, a film scripted by Cleese and  Chapman starring Peter Cook as a ruthlessly ambitious character viciously patterned after David Frost, which was produced by... David Frost).

There, the five future Pythons developed their particular... um... (idioms, sir?)  idioms.  Palin and Jones collaborated on the short filmed inserts that ran throughout the show, Idle concentrated on one-liners for Frost's interstitial bits (known as the "Continuous Developing Monologue," or CDM, though Cleese and Chapman referred to it as OJRIL, or "Old Jokes and Ridiculously Irrelevant Links"), and John and Graham wrote a number of the in-studio sketches.  Cleese also made his first major appearances as a performer here, alongside Ronnies Corbett and Barker:

(This is probably not the best example of TFR's comedy, and the framing is unfortunate - Cleese is tall, but not that tall - but it's the best I can do, owing to the ever-present copyright police and to a particular, infuriatingly short-sighted practice you can bet I'll be ranting about at length in the near future.)

TFR was a smashing success, so none of its writers and performers had any problem getting work in its aftermath.  The five Pythons-to-be spread out, working on radio shows, sitcoms, screenplays, etc.  But the most significant pre-Circus projects came about in 1967: At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set.

At Last the 1948 Show was another Frost production, written by and starring four of The Frost Report's scribes: Cleese, Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor (another Footlights vet who went on to join Bill Oddie and Grahame Garden to become The Goodies, a long-running series whose over-the-top wackiness failed to find the foothold in the States so crucial to Python's immortality, so I guess that makes them the Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas of comedy or something), and a brilliant sketch-comedy writer who had to be coerced into going in front of the camera, as it was feared that his protuberant eyes would unsettle viewers and detract from the comedy... (wait for it...)  ...Marty Feldman.  The '48 Show's only remit was to scrape off the last vestiges of the satire albatross - no attacks on the political figures of the day, no overt take-offs of the British class system, no real social significance whatsoever; just sheer silliness.  Take this example, which could be an absurdist parody of the famous Frost Report "I Know My Place" sketch:

Meanwhile, Palin, Jones and Idle were enlisted to write and star in a late-afternoon kids' comedy show.  They assented, but secretly agreed not to write down to children, a smart move that wound up making Do Not Adjust Your Set as popular among adults as with its intended audience. 

The 1948 team were among those adults, which helped set another piece of the Python puzzle in place. Terry Gilliam fled the States (to escape the draft) and arrived in England in 1968.  Looking for work, he called upon his old Help!-mate John Cleese, who put him in touch with the DNAYS team, and several of his crudely-clever stream-of-consciousness animations appeared in the show's second series, including this one:

(And, while I'm pounding this whole Beatles-comparison thing into the ground, it should be mentioned that, in addition to David Jason and Denise Coffey, DNAYS was rounded off by weekly appearances from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, whose Beatles-unto-Python credentials are undeniable: they appeared in Magical Mystery Tour, one of their singles was produced by a pseudonymous Paul McCartney, and their membership included Neil Innes, who would work extensively with the Pythons throughout the seventies and eventually collaborate with Idle on The Rutles, the ultimate conjoining of the two groups [and SNL, for that matter].)

At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set are both inventive shows that stood out from the standard run of British comedy at the time, but, when watching them today (to the extent that you can - again, I will register my complaint on that particular issue before too long), something is clearly missing.  The '48 Show is meticulously ridiculous, but a little stage-bound; DNAYS is more visually creative, but a touch lightweight.  Perhaps more importantly, both shows leave something in that they would have been better off without.  The sketches above start out with strong premises let down in the end (and at the end) by limp conclusions.  This was standard comedy dogma; every sketch must end with a punchline, and punchlines are the hardest parts of a sketch to write.  Quite often, a satisfying finish is nowhere to be found.  As a result, even great sketch writers wind up with funny pieces that disappointingly deflate at the end.  These five comedy writers recognized the problem but had a rough time figuring out how to subvert it, and if their next major project had consisted of just those five, they may never have.  It may have been a well-balanced combination of sensibilities that never quite left the ground.  Let's go ahead and reintroduce the tired overriding analogy: the tyranny of the punchline was their plodding Pete Best; the freedom suggested by "Beware of the Elephants" gave them a magical new backbeat.  In Terry Gilliam, Monty Python had found their Ringo.

As usual, I've nattered on a bit too much - what was supposed to be a brief preamble has turned into a ramble.  And I've got more to say before I get to the meat of this project, which I may as well tell you now is a thorough examination of the 45 episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus, plus the two programs they did for German television, plus various bits of obscure ephemera they laid down along the way, and possibly the records, books and maybe even the movies if I feel up to the task.  But I think we've all earned a bit of a breather.  So I'll be back soon with the conclusion to the introduction to the preface to the beginning of "Python Dissected, Volume One."  But until then, I leave you with two more clips: the most famous sketch to emerge from At Last the 1948 Show and a Bonzo Dog Band performance from Do Not Adjust Your Set that might just possibly be a little tricky to pull off today. (Actually, judging by Neil Innes' expression and more, um, minimalist makeup choice, it was probably a bit dodgy then, too.)  Tolerate!

1 comment:

Ben said...

Great essay! Looking forward to the rest of these.