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.)
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
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...