Friday, June 15, 2012

PYTHON DISSECTED - Prologue, Part 2: "The Fellowship of the Thingie"

Right.  Where was I?

Oh yes, the middle of the interminable preface to my alleged project wherein I review and overanalyze all 45 episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus (plus the two German shows and whatever other ancillary nonsense I can dredge up), a preface that started as a quick couple of introductory paragraphs but quickly metastasized into a recap of information which anyone who would bother to read such a thing undoubtedly knew already tied loosely together by a pointless point-by-point defense of my notion that Monty Python are/were the Beatles of Comedy, as if that notion was a) stunningly original and unprecedented and b) really in need of defending in the first place, I mean you may as well mount an impassioned, florid speech in defense of a twenty-shilling parking ticket and have your barrister call a dead person and a professional Cardinal Richeleu impersonator to the stand as character witnesses, I mean what's the point of it all, I think they ought to send them back where they came from, I mean you've got to be cruel to be kind so Mrs. Harris said, so she said, she said, she said, the dead crab she said, she said. Well, her sister's gone to Rhodesia what with her womb and all, and her youngest, her youngest as thin as a filing cabinet, and the goldfish, the goldfish they've got whooping cough they keep spitting water all over their Bratbys, well, they do don't they, I mean you can't, can you, I mean they're not even married or anything, they're not even divorced, and he's in the KGB if you ask me, he says he's a tree surgeon but I don't like the sound of his liver, all that squeaking and banging every night till the small hours, his mother's been much better since she had her head off, yes she has, I said, don't you talk to me about bladders, I said...

Ahem.  Let's crack on, shall we?  Okay, Reasons Monty Python Are/Were the Beatles of Comedy, continued...

2)  They had a similar inter-group dynamic.  As you will recall from the exciting climax to my last post, I considered Terry Gilliam's arrival in the Python compound to be their Ringo moment - the final piece of the Pythonic puzzle.  The last member added to the group, a little goofier and earthier than his colleagues, not primarily a writer, yet he held the group together and established the rhythm and flow of their output.  It was Gilliam's free-associative cartoons that gave Terry Jones the solution to the vexing punchline problem - once a sketch has outlived its usefulness, just get out of it and move on to something else.  (And it was his more comically violent - that is to say, American - tendencies that inspired some of the more extreme methods of exiting a sketch.  You'd have a hard time getting Cupid's foot to crush a live-action character, but you can drop a sixteen-ton weight on them, no problem.)  

The George Harrison role in Python is rather bleeding obvious - Eric Idle was the one Python who wrote on his own, and thus had a harder time getting his material into the mix than the two writing duos in the group (who at least had each other to laugh at their material in writer's meetings).  Of course, Idle's close friendship with Harrison is quite well known; no doubt many hours between the two were spent commiserating about the difficulties of being the odd man out in a legendary combo.  Like George, Eric surely had a drawerful of material that never made the cut which built up to the point that he had to get it all out on his own - Rutland Weekend Television, the only sketch show produced by an ex-Python (if you don't count Out of the Trees, Graham Chapman's collaboration with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy mastermind Douglas Adams, which never got past the pilot episode), is nothing if not Idle's All Things Must Pass (and is probably about the same length).  The two worked together fairly frequently - here's the Idle-directed video for Harrison's 1976 near-hit, "Crackerbox Palace":

Which leaves only the Big Two.  The more I think about it (which, as should be obvious by now, is way too much), it seems that Python had three Lennon/McCartneys depending on how you define it.  Methodology-wise, Terry Jones and Michael Palin had a strikingly similar working relationship: in the early days, they would compose eye-to-eye, hashing out the beats together, but, as their partnership progressed, they would increasingly write on their own and bring the raw materials to the other for a critique and a polish.  Also, like John and Paul, they were so prolific they could afford to pass their lesser material to other performers.  (Which would make The Two Ronnies the Peter & Gordon of comedy, I guess.)  The major distinction in this case is that their relationship never became fractious (no "How Do You Sleep, Mrs. Ratbag?" here); to all appearances, they continue to enjoy each others' company, and, in all known Python literature, they are the only two who don't seem to have a negative word to say about the other.  Almost boring, really.

As performers, Cleese and Palin deserve the Maclen honors: one severe, cutting and dark, the other cute, boyish and acceptable to grannies, together they were comedic chemistry personified.  A high percentage of absolute Python classics are Palin/Cleese two-handers, and in fact, if there are any occasions where pairing the two of them together have resulted in anything short of comedy gold, none come to mind.  (Okay, Fierce Creatures maybe, but still.)  On occasion, the pairing might even have been too funny to work in a larger context:

But, hands down, the twin poles of Monty Python, the two individuals whose opposing approaches provided the creative tension that defined the troupe's ultimate dynamic as strongly as John and Paul's did for the Beatles, were John Cleese and Terry Jones.  Cleese was the logical, cerebral linchpin of the group; the inner mechanics of the comedy were paramount above all else.  Jones, on the other hand, was the intuitive, impulsive one; structural minutiae came second to the overall design in his eyes.  The process of creating Python has been described as "democracy gone mad," but any democracy has its dominant figures, and John and Terry were the loudest, most passionate, and stubbornest of the lot.  Their arguments and disagreements are the stuff of legend and extended to all parts of the process right from the jump - Jones, for example, fought vehemently for the stream-of-consciousness flow of Flying Circus, whereas Cleese was barely interested, averring that strong, tightly-written sketches were the key to a successful show.  This tug-of-war almost certainly led to countless instances of verbal fisticuffs along the way, but it undeniably contributed to the richness of the final product.  One need only look at the final six episodes of Python, produced without Cleese, to recognize this: the Jones-dominated show lacks the grounding that Cleese's presence provides, just as a Python project sans Jones would have been dryer, more earth-bound, even a little fussy.  Neither of them turned up together in too many of the others' sketches, but when they did, the resulting struggle between control and chaos could have delicious results.  On second thought, "delicious" may not be the best choice of words...

So that accounts for five-sixths of the group, but where does Graham Chapman fit in this schematic?  Well, simply, he fulfills the Lennon role in a more unfortunate way - he's the one who's ruined all hope of a proper reunion by having the poor form to be dead.  But, even in his current state, he still manages to make his mark:

3) Their solo work was mostly not as good.  It's an issue that applies to most every great group, really, that the works of the individuals outside of the collective rarely measure up to the output of the full team.  As with the Fabs, some of it, particularly early on, is actually rather good, though only one solo project to my mind achieves the greatness of Python at its best; in fact, in terms of overall consistency, it may even exceed it.  I'm referring, of course, to  Nuns on the Run

I'm referring, of course, to Fawlty Towers, one of the greatest sitcoms ever produced, conceived by John Cleese in an appropriately Beatlesque parallel: forsaking the group in favor of collaborating with his wife.  (Whether that makes it his Plastic Ono Band or his Ram, I'll leave for you to decide - what, am I supposed to do all of the allegorical heavy lifting myself?)  In it, Cleese (and Connie Booth, the aforementioned wife, who has been out of showbiz for many years but is fondly recalled as one of Cleese's finest co-writers, the loudest laugher in the audience at early Python tapings, and one of Cleese's few ex-spouses not to bleed him dry for alimony) took several of his key obsessions - the pent-up hostility trapped beneath England's characteristic politeness, the do's and dont's of customer relations, and the myriad ways of contorting his long legs - and sharpened them to a ticklishly murderous point.  Laughter rarely gets more cathartic than it does in Fawlty Towers, as the frustrations, pretensions and repression of an entire nation are channeled into the figure of a sympathetic monster of a hotel proprietor, whose every attempt at bettering himself or merely getting through an average work day inevitably builds to a chain of glorious explosions:

Nothing the others (or Cleese himself, with the probable exception of A Fish Called Wanda) did on their own can hope to measure up to that.  Not to say that they didn't turn out interesting work.  As mentioned above, Idle took his talents for parody, absurdity and wordplay and turned out two series of Rutland Weekend Television, a sketch show purporting to be the programming day of a tiny, low-budget TV network (coincidentally, around the same time a group of improvisational stage performers hit upon the same premise for their own shoestring-budgeted Canadian sketch show, resulting in SCTV, one of Python's few equals in the genre).  Idle scripted all fourteen episodes by himself, and as such the shows thin out as the series go on.  Still, there's plenty of inspired moments throughout, and RWT would stand as more than a scarcely-remembered footnote to a long career if Idle hadn't strangely disowned the whole project.  (It never aired in the States - though, oddly, both its spinoff book and record were released here - and Idle refuses to allow the show to be issued on home video, a curious position for a guy who spends most of his creative energy exploiting his legacy nowadays.)  As the most musical of the Pythons, it's no surprise that some of RWT's finest moments were rock-oriented: every episode features a performance or two by Neil Innes, furthering a kinship forged in the Do Not Adjust Your Set days which culminated in Idle's most celebrated solo effort, the original mock-rockumentary known as The Rutles.  And perhaps the finest sustained piece of parody in RWT's short run was this piece from the fourth episode savaging the most popular British music program of the seventies, and, by extension, the whole of pre-Pistols British rock:

Post-Rutles, Idle's non-Pythonic output has generally been a case of steadily diminishing returns, grasping at but rarely recapturing the magic of his strongest work.  (Another similarity to George Harrison, sad to say.)  He's ended up the most commercially-successful of the ex-Pythons, thanks to Spamalot, but whether that's a case of extending the life of one of their classic productions by bringing it to a new audience or a cynical dumbing-down and broadening of their humor for (some) fun and (mostly) profit remains up for debate.  (You might be able to guess which side I land on.)

Jones and Palin, true to form, cast their respective nets farther and wider.  Their major collaboration after Python was the BBC series Ripping Yarns, nine half-hours sending up the "boys' adventure" stories of their youth.  Outside of the first installment, "Tomkinson's Schooldays" (the most Pythonic of the nine shows), Jones opted to stay behind the camera, leaving Palin to take the lead in each of the stories.  His acting prowess comes to the fore here, memorably assaying roles ranging from the most boring young man in Britain to a soccer (um, football) fan looking to regain his glory days by reuniting his favorite team for one last game to a prisoner of war determined to escape from captivity (and, of course, doomed to fail and fail repeatedly), as seen here:

Visually striking, flawlessly performed, and cleverly conceived, Yarns nonetheless lacks the Python spark.  Loath as I am to admit it, some of the episodes meander a bit to the point that my eyes glaze over by the time they end.  (If you've read this far, you probably understand the feeling.)  In the years since, Palin and Jones have wandered even further afield - between them, they've turned their attentions to books of fairy tales, works of historical scholarship, acting in more overtly dramatic roles, and a seemingly endless stream of travel documentaries, all of which bear only the slightest resemblance to their Pythonic pasts.  (Is there a Beatles comparison to be made here?  I don't fucking know.)

(sigh) Not done yet... More to come...

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