Monday, September 03, 2012


So here we are at last.  Here beginneth my vivisection of the complete run of Monty Python's Flying Circus.  My modus operandi for this series of reviews is simple: I plan on reviewing, analyzing, critiquing and otherwise squeezing all the fun out of the forty-five half-hour episodes of MPFC, with likely pit stops along the way for other items that appeared during its 1969-74 lifespan (in particular, the two episodes of Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus [which is German for something, I think] that aired in 1972).  I intend to adhere to strict broadcast chronology in these reviews; for the most part, the programs were not aired in the order in which they were produced, and while it might be interesting to trace the show's ebb and flow by following them in production order, a lot of care was taken in ordering the episodes for maximum effectiveness, an arrangement with artistic qualities all its own, and it behooves me to give that artistry the respect and reverence it deserves.

Except for this one time.

There seems to be a tiny bit of confusion as to which installment of MPFC can truly be considered the "first" episode in some circles (well, in one circle, which would be mine, and as far as I know I'm the only one in the circle, which wouldn't make it much of a circle unless I held my arms out in front of me and clasped my hands together with elbows akimbo, which would be both exhausting and rather ridiculous-looking, so strike "in some circles" and replace it with "in my line segment" and let's move on).  The episode I am reviewing here, "Sex and Violence," was almost certainly the first to be recorded - it went before the BBC cameras and a slightly-bewildered studio audience on the 30th of August, 1969.  According to the available information, it was the second to be broadcast (October 12, 1969); the second episode as recorded (on September 7, 1969), "Whither Canada?" is widely said to have aired first (on October 5, 1969).  A very simple bit of reordering, that - someone either in the Python camp or at the BBC decided that "Whither Canada?" made for a better introduction to the new program than "Sex and Violence" (or any of the other three episodes that had been produced to that point) and simply switched them around so that the second episode ran first and the first ran second.  Basic, understandable, logical.

Only I'm not convinced.

Listen, one of the things you should know about me if this relationship is going to go any further is that, on certain subjects (almost all of them extremely trivial), I'm extraordinarily stubborn.  In fact, you might say that once I get an idea in my head, there's no shifting it.  And regarding such subjects, it will take some heavy-duty empirical evidence to convince me otherwise.  I'll give you an example: a decade and a half ago, back in  my semi-professional rock journalist days, I received a copy of a new CD by John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey (aka PJ Harvey - I'll have to tell you sometime about the anguish I suffered when trying to alphabetize my CDs; see, "PJ Harvey" was originally the name of her band, rather than her; it was only after the original lineup split up following her - their - second album that she officially started referring to herself by that name.  So I spent hours and hours pondering: should I file Dry and Rid of Me under "P" and To Bring You My Love under "H"?  But 4-Track Demos was recorded by herself even though PJ Harvey the band was still together when she recorded it, so dammit, I don't know what to think.  I eventually decided not to file them at all and just left them lying around the rec-room floor, one of my most Solomonic moments.  But I digress. [Another thing you should know about me: my digressions usually contain digressions.]) entitled Dance Hall at Louise Point.  I listened to it, liked it, and dutifully wrote a review of it for the magazine I worked for at the time, which ran as the lead review in the following month's issue, so the artist name and CD title were in nice big hard-to-miss letters at the top of the page.  Nice.  I made a point of checking out other reviews of the disc in other publications, mostly to see how mine measured up in comparison.  The 'zine reviews didn't make much of an impression on me, mostly because my keen copy-editor's eye fell to and fixated on a strange typo - they spelled the second-to-last word of the title without the "I".  Stranger still, all the other 'zines I picked up made the same error.  Well, okay, 'zines are often riddled with typos by their very nature, so I chalked it up to an odd coincidence and nothing more.  Except I noticed the same mistake turning up in the "legitimate" music magazines, every single one of them.  And look, I said to myself with amused exasperation, even the promo material I got with the CD misspells "Louise" as "Louse."  God, what's happened to attention to detail?  Holy shit, check this out - even the cover of the CD itself spells it wr...


My point, aside from "the blue ribbon at this year's Least Interesting Anecdote Competition is as good as mine," is that you're dealing here with a man of strong, rock-solid beliefs, beliefs that I will zealously and stalwartly defend unless and until I am presented with immutable, empirical evidence to the contrary, at which point I will become extremely embarrassed and sheepishly skulk away in shame.  So bear this in mind as you read the following, or indeed any contention (causing all the headaches) I posit in this and any future posts: for all the rhetorical huffing and puffing I emit and the teetering Jenga-towers of semi-informed supposition and circumstantial evidence I erect, I am very likely wrong.  Someone out there may have solid proof that proves beyond the valley of the shadow of a doubt that "Whither Canada?" did air first, and if that person is reading these words, I encourage him or her (wait, these are Python fans we're talking about - it'd definitely be a him) to step forward and send the whole edifice tumbling to the ground.  I welcome it, in fact.  Having this nagging little conundrum settled once and for all will more than offset how much I'll feel like a real louise for wasting all this energy on a false supposition.  But I do have my reasons for considering "Sex and Violence" the proper first episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, or at least should be thought of as such.

One reason: that was the way I experienced it when I first saw it.  PBS, the only American network to run the show in its entirety (more or less - more on that anon), put "Sex and Violence" first in its broadcast order.  (At least it did when they ran the series in 1983 and 1998.)  Another reason: various sources, from the early reviews printed on the back cover of the first Python album (which opened with the same sketch that opened this episode) to a rather scabrous piece in the National Lampoon*, mentioned items that appeared in this episode rather than anything that appeared in "Whither Canada?"  

I would go on - which should be no surprise to anyone at this stage - and lay out more circumstantial evidence to prove my point, but I just dug up my copy of Robert Hewson's Monty Python: The Case Against, a thorough rundown of the various struggles with censorship and censure the Pythons endured in their first ten years that happens to be one of the very best books about the troupe, and noticed that he reprinted an audience research report for this episode, which clearly dates "Sex and Violence"'s airdate as October 12, 1969.  So, okay, there's that elusive proof I've spent so long looking for; it did air second. (However, thanks to the stunningly detailed and near-comprehensive "Monty Python Pages" by the folks at Some of the Corpses Are Amusing [back online, hooray!], we can see that the review I mentioned above - written by Peter Purser and reprinted on the back of the first MPFC album - was published in the Sunday Telegraph on October 12.  Which meant that he had to have seen this episode before he wrote about it, in the days before screeners, and published his review the morning before it allegedly aired.  So, in other words, I'm still confused...)

But I don't care.  I'm calling it first anyway.  It just feels like a first episode, with the debut of several elements that would come to define the show, and, as I mentioned somewhere in that morass above, it was the first show produced.  

And above all - and here's where my stubborn persnicketude comes in - there's the matter of the very first joke in the show.  It's a tiny joke, designed to raise nothing more than a mild snicker, but it sets the tone: it clues the savvy viewer in immediately to their irreverent attitude towards broadcast convention and lays the groundwork for more sustained subversions to come.  Immediately after the foot of Cupid comes down, terminating the opening animation, a caption appears on the screen:

"PART 2."

Which is a joke that only works if this is the first episode.  If this show aired second, then it ceases to be a joke.  (Much ado about not very much at all, you say?  Oh, just you wait, folks - you'll be amazed at the things that outrage me.  Fans of a sketch involving a certain canned meat product may as well prepare themselves for a vicious rant that, at the rate I'm writing these reviews, you can expect sometime around mid-2016.)

Okay.  Let us finally get to the task at hand.  Here's how these will work: thanks to YouTube (which appears to have most if not all of the Flying Circus episodes, and a bunch more bits of glorious minutiae, readily available for viewing), I will embed the episode in question at the top of the review, the individual parts of which will be timecoded for easy reference.  I'll be taking it basically sketch-by-sketch; at the end of each one, I will note, to the best of my ability, who was responsible, writing-wise, for each one (except in the case of the animations, whose authorship is obvious, and some of the shorter filmed bits and vox pops, which were often devised on location by the entire group in collaboration).  In some cases, authorship is bleeding obvious (or credited to particular writers in the various source materials about the show); in others, I will have to make an educated guess based on whatever clues I can turn up.  Again, I strongly encourage anyone who has information that disproves my suppositions (or even a more convincing guess) to let me know in the comments thread or via e-mail (  I'm happy to be proven wrong.  Except about this show airing when it did.  I'm still a little pissed off about that.

So, eyes down please, for episode one(-ish) of Monty Python's Flying Circus, "Sex and Violence."

About the episode title: Like several of the titles given to specific installments throughout the first series ("Whither Canada?," "Owl Stretching Time"), "Sex and Violence" was salvaged from the list of names they considered for the show before finally settling on MPFC.  (Others, such as "The Toad Elevating Moment," would be put to use as titles for chat show parodies and the like.)  It's hard to say whether these were originally intended to be genuine episode titles or another way to poke fun at TV convention; in the first series only, these titles appeared on screen at the start of the closing credits instead of the name of the show, so it's conceivable that they were meant merely to confuse the viewer at first.  There were certainly more than enough rejected titles to have christened each episode with a surreal, meaningless sobriquet, but they pretty much dropped it after the first few shows, opting instead to give them titles that refer to a recurring thread or gag within the episode (or coming up with fresh meaninglessness, such as "The BBC Entry to the Zinc Stoat of Budapest" or "The Naked Ant").  As it happens, "Sex and Violence" works both ways - it's a rather appropriate title for this episode, as we shall see.

0:00 - Every new show needs a hook of some kind, if not several of them: something for the viewer to grab onto, an aspect that sticks in the mind, a consistent element that recurs week after week to provide the comfort of structure.  A nice, soothing predictability of some kind.  Sitcoms and dramas, of course, can rely on a regular cast of characters, a familiar setting, and varying degrees of story continuity to keep viewers coming back week after week.  Pre-Python, sketch-based comedy shows followed their example: however varied the material might be, it was almost always slotted into a tight, rigid format, with regular features and recurring characters popping up in essentially the same place every week, with a central personality (or two) there to welcome you at the beginning of the show, serve as linkman (or men) between segments, and send you fondly on your way for another week at the end.   

A fairly major crack in the foundation formed in 1962 with the premiere of That Was The Week That Was - deliberately ragged (it was produced, live, in a sparsely-adorned studio with cameras, boom mics and wiring clearly and frequently visible), written up to the last possible minute (by a largely freelance pool of writers, which included a certain John Cleese), and with a far more daring and outrageous attitude than had been allowed on British TV up to that time.  Of course, all those things are in themselves hooks, and they were thus able to snag a large audience (over three and a half million tuned in for the premiere episode, a remarkable figure for a late-night BBC program) right from the start, and there were sufficient structural comforts - every episode began with the same signature tune, over which Millicent Martin sang freshly-written lyrics commenting on the events of the week, and David Frost linked all the bits together as compere - to give the viewer easy bearings, even as the show brazenly explored areas never before attempted on television.  (Amazingly, some of it remains bracingly daring, even shocking, fifty years later, as the compilation show below demonstrates: unfortunately, the video slips irritatingly out of sync towards the end, but before that, you can see a couple of TW3's most notorious moments: "A Consumer's Guide to Religion," which stirred up outrage not unlike that which greeted a particular motion picture sixteen years later, and another so caustic, damning and angry that it still makes the jaw drop - you'll know it when you see it.)

But TW3 proved an anomaly; it ran for less than two years on the BBC, sunk by a combination of government interference - it was deliberately taken off the air in anticipation of the 1964 General Election - and viewer fatigue - the early-sixties "satire boom" of which it was a part went the way of all fads, and the greater British public went searching for something new to focus its fickle attentions on, finding it in the musical output of a group of four cheeky, talented lads from the Northern port city of Liverpool.  (Which reminds me: have I ever mentioned that I consider Monty Python to be the Beatles of...)  The only part of TW3 that survived past the end of 1963 was the format: The Frost Report had a similar feel and structure (and, of course, the same man linking all the pieces together), but stayed clear of any politically-daring material.  Order was rescued from the jaws of anarchy once again.  But Pandora's Idiot Box had been opened; the potential for televisual subversion had been made manifest.  The next wave of revolutionaries just had to be more subtle with their subversions.

First, they had to slowly dismantle structural conventions.  At Last the 1948 Show contained plenty of inspired absurdism, but couched it in the accepted format of the day: discrete sketches with beginnings, middles and ends (topped off by the necessary punchline, no matter how limp), and a central personality to segue between them.  But in this case, the central personality was "The Lovely Aimi MacDonald," a ditzy showgirl-type who presented as if under the impression that she was the star of the show, in spite of the fact that she never participated in any of the sketches and was even incapable of introducing them properly: her "links" consisted entirely of solipsistic self-promotion and utter non-sequitur.  (Speaking of subtle subversion - it occurs to me now that this may have been the first instance of the future Pythons turning on their patron for his sins of blind ambition and inveterate spotlight- and credit-hogging: David Frost slyly recast as a dumb blonde.  If so, it was sly enough to be totally lost on the viewer and certainly to Frost himself, which surely hampered their satisfaction.  Future Frost-mockery would be significantly more blatant, as we shall see.)

Next, they struck a blow against the star-making machinery of television.  The BBC wanted a vehicle for John Cleese; not a major comedy star on the level of, say, Peter Cook, not yet, but he was on his way.  Cleese was already something of a familiar face to viewers - indeed, as that face was perched atop a six-foot-five-inch frame, he was rather hard to miss - thanks to The Frost Report (and The '48 Show to a lesser extent).  By the end of the sixties, he was recognizable enough to secure the occasional supporting role  in the occasional mainstream series - 

- and even his voice was fairly well-known, as a cast member of BBC Radio's giddily silly I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again.  The BBC had already found success by pushing one of Cleese's co-stars to center stage (Marty) and would shortly double down with even greater success (The Two Ronnies), so it only stood to reason that they could do the same with him, and signed Cleese to a series commitment.

The BBC probably expected something along the lines of How to Irritate People, a 1968 one-off special (produced, again, by David Frost), written by the entire 1948 Show team, featuring all of them (except Marty Feldman) and an additional cast including Michael Palin and Connie Booth.  But Cleese is very much at its center: his name is above the title, he plays a major role in almost every sketch, and he serves as host and linkman throughout (not with the ease and comfort of Frost, granted, but not unpromisingly either).  

Had he chosen to, Cleese could have gotten something very much like this on the air as a series: something clever, inventive, and comfortingly familiar.  He might even have gotten the rest of the Pythons onboard as writers and performers, and they could have turned out the same kind of material they had provided for other comedy programs - well up to standard, but still standard.  It might have gotten decent viewing figures and favorable notices in the press, get its share of appreciative nods in the corporate corridors of Broadcast House... and be all but forgotten today.  (And given Cleese's renowned low tolerance for boredom, it probably wouldn't have lasted more than a series or two anyway.)

But Cleese wasn't interested in a star vehicle, or even one built for two (a Cleese/Palin-fronted show might have been even more appealing to the BBC) - this was to be a pure ensemble program, one of the first of its kind.  Moreover, the performance aspect of the show was practically secondary; MPFC existed chiefly to showcase the sextet's writing.  (Their arguments and clashes are the stuff of legend, but the record shows that very few of them had anything to do with casting: if it looked like one of the others could serve the material as well as or better than them what writ it, it was cheerfully passed off to them.  Though no one would question their brilliance as comic actors, there's a sense that they went before the cameras in part to protect their words, in much the same way that screenwriters become directors.)

One or two of them may wind up dominating the group in viewers' minds - practically an inevitability when it comes to ensembles - but they weren't about to make the viewers' decisions for them, and they weren't letting the network do it either.  (Note how they made no effort to match names with faces - the group was identified by name only in the closing credit crawl; as a result, Eric Idle and Michael Palin will continue to be mistaken for one another for the rest of their lives.)  It's hard to impart just how radical a move this was at the time, and how risky, but it speaks volumes about their confidence in one another and may well be the key to their longevity.  Whatever their struggles within the group, they maintained a united front in their dealings outside it.  Monty Python was and would always be the six of them, impervious to manipulation and divide-and-conquer tactics by any of the corporations for which they worked.  (The strength of the Python organism was also such that it could keep six formidable egos in check for a remarkably long time; it says something that even the stubbornest, most independent-minded of the six, who started chafing against being subsumed in a group identity within little more than a year of its formation, was only able to escape its clutches for a few months in 1974.)

But perhaps the most important manifestation of their collective confidence was the show itself.  The Pythons were unilaterally opposed to any entreaties from executives as to the form or content of the program, and yet they managed to secure an order for thirteen half-hours - with a high level of creative autonomy and without having to produce a pilot - even though they had no idea what the form or content was to be either.  Their sole criterion: they had to find it funny.  As long as the laughs were there, they figured, the show will find its form organically.  What structural specifics they insisted on were mostly significant in absentia - no hosts, celebrity guests, musical interludes or breaks for applause to prevent the constant delivery of those laughs. If a joke comes to the end of its usefulness, simply drop it and move on rather than let it limp to an unsatisfactory conclusion.  Even certain kinds of subject matter were deemed surplus to comedy requirements - topical references were deliberately avoided.  They wanted laughs, not applause.  (Besides, the strong brew that TW3 bottled had been watered down so steadily in the intervening years that it had lost nearly all of its potency, thanks to the BBC commissioning weaker and weaker knockoffs of the show.  What was once irreverent had become irrelevant.  When BBC's publicity department cast about for an adjective to describe this odd-looking child it midwifed, and came up with "satirical," the Pythons winced as one.)

Between a set of comedic voices honed stiletto-sharp from years of practice, a desire to get rid of all the dampeners muffling their delivery, and their commissioning network doing them the favor of not paying much attention, the pieces were in place for the purest comedy show the medium had ever seen: 30 unbroken minutes of stream-of-consciousness hilarity, guaranteed to be unpredictable because even its creators weren't entirely sure what would come out.

But it was still television.  This show had to have something, some recognizable frame to contain each week's anarchy to assure the viewer that he was at least tuned to the correct channel.  (It wouldn't be long before they'd stop extending their audience even that small courtesy, but they had to snag that audience first.)  True to form, what they came up with added a wink and a twisted smile to that tiny nod toward conventions, and made it more uncomfortable for themselves (or for one of them, at least) than it had to be.

Who knows what Mr. and Mrs. Great Britain, curiosity mildly peaked by this new show with the intriguingly meaningless title (or not even aware that the religious discussion program hosted by Malcolm Muggeridge - an ironic usurpation in light of a certain debate that took place almost exactly a decade later - had been replaced with this), was thinking when MPFC bowed on Sunday, October 5, 1969?  Experience with the BBC's Light Entertainment output may have led them to expect a bright musical fanfare, a clutch of attractive showgirls sashaying about, some smooth-voiced compere introducing the festivities with maximum smarm... Whatever the case, it's pretty safe to assume that one thing they weren't expecting was the sight of a haggard old man, struggling desperately toward the camera, gasping and grunting as he staggers forward, finally collapsing as he chokes out a crucial message with what may be his dying breath - 


Whatever followed this, one could be assured that it would be something not dreamt of in Benny Hill's philosophy.

Who wrote this? - Michael Palin cops to the creation of The "It's" Man in several sources, with an added dollop of disbelief that he would write himself such a dreadfully uncomfortable character to play.  (This is also the Oxford/Occidental side of Python asserting itself from the jump, or perhaps the stagger - Palin/Jones, and certainly Gilliam, were far more interested in the visual side of things, and far more willing to throw themselves into the muck, literally and figuratively, than their Cambridge counterparts, especially Cleese, who groused constantly about the misery the others put him through on location shoots.  I haven't seen Holy Grail on Blu-Ray yet, but I'll bet you can hear a fair amount of Cleesian grumbling on the remastered soundtrack.)

0:36 - Gilliam's iconic title sequence, set to the strains of Sousa's "Liberty Bell" and even more cracked than its titular subject.  Again, try to imagine the average viewer's response to seeing this for the first time - actually, no need to imagine; the studio audience is so nonplussed, you can make out the murmur of conversation and the occasional cough where laughter should be.  Even the rest of the group were struck tentative by its boldness: Cleese's announcement of the show's title, so confident in future weeks, sounds more like a sheepish continuity announcer, and the sound effect accompanying the final descent of Cupid's foot is more exhale than raspberry.

(The image at the top of the post - the original hand-colored cut-outs from this sequence - is courtesy Terry Gilliam's daughter Holly, who is organizing her father's massive archive for a potential book and exhibition, and has started to share some of her discoveries in a new blog, "Discovering Dad."  It goes without saying that every Pythonophile and Gilliamite will want to bookmark it post-haste, so I won't say it.)

1:07 - Grrrrr...

1:10 - Here we see the first appearance of one of Python's stock recurring characters - or more accurately, a recurring character type: Terry Jones' bowler-hatted, mustached city gent, handy visual shorthand for The Typical Englishman and a good, solid wall of decent manners and quiet befuddlement to bounce insanity off of.  (A nice, near-subliminal touch: the gent's responding to even the slightest awkwardness by unconsciously touching the brim of his hat.)  The insanity, in this instance, is a rather quiet variety, in the person of Graham Chapman's West Country farmer, watching impassively as a flock of unseen sheep nestle in some off-screen trees and attempt to take flight, though, as the farmer drawls, "Notice they do not so much fly as plummet."  Turns out it's all a desperate escape plan masterminded by a rogue ruminant named Harold, "that most dangerous of animals, a clever sheep," and the rest of the flock helplessly follow along despite the futility and danger, because, well, they're sheep.  A lovely little sketch, this: a good, strong concept sold mainly on suggestion and understatement with minutely-calibrated heightening (the farmer's slightly overformal diction) and a quietly delightful payoff - the touch of madness in Chapman's eyes when he explains why he doesn't simply get rid of Harold: "Because of the enormous commercial possibilities should he succeed."  Looks like the sheep aren't the only ones looking to rise above their station.

Who wrote it? - Cleese & Chapman.  The Cambridge half of Python dominates slightly in the early going, largely because they came to the table with a good amount of "bottom-drawer" material, sketches written for (and rejected by) other shows.  (Palin & Jones were mostly forced to start from scratch, as they had sold all of their decent material and were left with, in Palin's words, "absolute crap" in their bottom drawer.)  "Flying Sheep" was originally written for The Frost Report, only to be rejected by producer Jimmy Gilbert on the grounds that it was "too silly" (a phrase I believe we shall hear again before long).  That particular rejection may well have been the genesis of Python, certainly as far as Cleese was concerned; among many other things, MPFC exists as a place where silliness is a virtue, not a liability.  If Gilbert thought this was silly, he would likely have scoffed to death had he seen...

3:40 - ...the silliness taken up a genius notch, with Cleese and Palin as a pair of French aerodynamics experts sharing both their schematic for an airborne aries and a stick-on mustache.  The two appear together as Pythons for the first time here, and already their comic chemistry is palpable, as is their inability to get through a scene without threatening to burst into laughter.  (They had such a hard time, in fact, that the scene had to be reshot at the end of taping; in their recollection, the audience found it funnier the second time around, which boded well for their future.  Gosh, would that there were a way to see the outtakes of that first take, hmm...?)

Who wrote it? -  Cleese/Chapman again.

5:14 - Another first: the Pepperpots, the Pythons' blanket term for a particular type of shrill old lady, make their debut.  (They are never referred to as such in the program, but Cleese names and describes them in some detail at the start of this clip from How to Irritate People:)

This vox pop, also the first of many, probably seemed funnier at the time - there's really nothing to it but the incongruity of aging British housewives standing in a supermarket namechecking philosophers.  On the first Python album, which begins by following the first ten minutes of this episode in order, the bit goes on for a few more seconds and comes to a more satisfying conclusion, the Pepperpots angrily denouncing German philosophers - "Rubbish!  Immanuel Kant - 'the ego posits itself' my foot!"  "Nietzche?!  HAH-HAH-HAH!" Here it just cuts off at the mention of Rene Descartes (not yet having been revealed as a "drunken fart" by the Philosophy Department at the University of Woolloomooloo), leading into an uncharacteristically simple Gilliam link that can barely be called animation, proving Descartes' most famous aphorism using Rodin's most famous sculpture, a thought balloon, and a "Duck Amuck"-inspired intrusion from beyond the fourth wall.  A mild joke at best, but certainly passable.)

5:46 - The Pythons' signature phrase - "And now for something completely different" - is uttered for the first time, though by Eric Idle instead of Cleese, possibly because he hadn't appeared in the show yet.  

5:49 - Another solid hit by Cleese, as a staid BBC interviewer trying to find a way to question Terry Jones, who has three buttocks (and what could be more newsworthy than that?).  Parodying TV was not in itself particularly innovative in 1969 - mock chat shows and quiz programs appeared frequently in other sketch shows - but Python bit the hand that fed them hard enough to damage a nerve.  Spoofs of specific programs and personalities (most of which are unknown to the majority of Americans, so they may as well be abstractions) dotted the series, but MPFC at its best savaged the medium itself - its glittering surfaces concealing hidden shallows, its reduction of complexity and ambiguity to thin, palatable gruel, its repulsion-unto-obsession with the odd-shaped parts it's unable to assimilate.  Cleese's interviewer, squirming and jumping in his seat as he strains to address Jones' gluteal maximalism without disturbing the British viewing public's delicate sensibilities (or at least his own), but insisting that that same public get an eyeful of the very thing it can't talk about, is television incarnate.

Who (Do I Think) Wrote It? - I'm thinking Cleese/Chapman yet again, if only for the thesaurean turns of phrase - "I understand you have a... 50% bonus in the region of what you said" and "It's all very easy for someone to come along here to the BBC simply claiming... that they have a bit to spare in the botty department - the point is, Mr. Frampton, our viewers need proof!"  But he's been on Persian radio - what more proof do you need?

7:46 - A bunch of false starts and handovers, including Chapman as a man with two noses (the one with three wasn't there yet).  Most noteworthy for the first appearance of the "Women's Institute Applauding" stock footage (said to represent their early, confused studio audiences - does that mean the film was added after taping?) and the first evidence that the conventions they go gleefully undermined included their own, even shortly after birth - the second-ever time "and now for something completely different" is used, it's to introduce something exactly the same.

8:53 - TV was Python's satirical punching bag of choice, of course, but less remarked upon but still important (to the extent that any of this is important; just think, if I devoted the same amount of time and energy I've been spending breaking down a forty-plus-year-old comedy show on, say, the debt ceiling, the damn thing'd probably be repainted by now) is their contribution to another great strain of entertainment mockery that spread through the seventies - the smirk and smarm of the low-rent nightclub performer.  

This was nothing new, certainly.  For all his much-vaunted groundbreaking in form, function and language, Lenny Bruce's true genius was to reduce all performance - stage and screen, editorial page and pulpit, courtroom or bedroom - to the tawdry, grubby level of the late-show MC or the schticky comic introducing the acts at a sticky strip joint.  In Bruce's worldview, it's all showbiz, and (as he said about a different subject in a different context) it's all so corrupt, it's thrilling:

But that was Lenny's world, the one he was literally born into and never truly escaped, so it's hardly surprising that the bars of his prison were visible in most of the landscapes and still lifes he painted.  What the Pythons brought to this was detachment and disgust; there's a (ma)lingering affection for their pompous barristers, grotty housewives and mousy chartered accountants, but the oleaginously insincere MCs portrayed by Michael Palin (as here) or Eric Idle are all etched in acid.  If they could make the drool gathering at their chins burn holes in the labels of their red blazers on the budget they had, they probably would.  

Palin's MC insinuates himself into the show with further appearances throughout the first series, introducing and commenting on the sketches themselves, but here he's pure sub-music-hall abstraction, mewling nonsensical innuendo about an unseen female performer, then downshifting into his only other gear, a hushed, awed encomium to the singular brilliance of the act you're about to see, which turns out to be...

9:28 - Arthur Ewing and His Musical Mice!  (Incidentally, this marks the third time a character named "Arthur" has turned up in this episode already, and there's at least two more to come before the half hour's up.  No wonder George Harrison warmed to the show so quickly - half its characters might have been named after his hairstyle.)

This is simply a beautifully nasty little piece, escalating their content for the gimmicky dregs of showbiz to the point of brutality.  But then, there aren't many subjects that don't, at one point or another, get escalated to the point of brutality throughout the life of Python.  Not for them the harmless slapstick violence of old, or even the hip but blase approach of the "sick" comics and their fellow travelers that held sway a few years previous - Python engaged in open hostility, a product of the mounting desperation of the times (coming off a year of uprisings, assassinations and riots) and in recognition of something roiling and churning beneath the conciliatory surface of British society.  (One of the - if not the- great themes behind much of John Cleese's work, reaching its apotheosis in the persona of Basil Fawlty, who is akin to a sentient boil of rage and repression that won't stop bursting.)

I'd say more here, but I'll have many, many chances to hold forth at tiresome length on the subject, so I'll hold off for the nonce.  Suffice it to say that this is one of the most memorable moments in this inaugural-ish installment (the reveal of the mallets may be the single biggest laugh in the entire program), iconic enough to be referenced in the first few seconds of "Python Night," their 30th-anniversary celebration which aired on BBC2 in 1999: 

Who Wrote It? - Almost certainly Palin/Jones.  Funny that Terry J. beat Cleese and Terry G. to the punch (as it were) to secure the title of First Act of Senseless Violence in a Monty Python Episode, but the others will catch up in short order.

Well, let's see, that covers the first ten minutes or so - I think it's time to take a little breather.  I shall return to slice up the rest of "Sex & Violence" soon.  (What in god's name have I gotten myself into here?)  While you're waiting, why not try and find the hidden message in this track from Robert Fripp's 1979 release Exposure and then publicly denounce it in the church of your choice?:

* I'll be getting back to this at some point in the near future - it's a fascinating document to unpack for a number of reasons, few of them pleasant.


Winslow's Words of Wisdom said...

This is utterly outstanding work. I really hope you'll keep it going, if only for this one anonymous person on the internet to read. :) haha

Anonymous said...

Make that two anonymous persons (actually, I'm a schizophrenic, but this is my lunch hour). Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

I think you're wrong about Cleese not wanting a two men show with Palin. In various interviews and books, Idle, Jones and Gilliam have stated that Cleese really wanted to work with Palin in the first place, but he (Michael) brought along the others.

William Ham said...

You're probably right, though there's variations of opinion/recollection on that score (as is pretty much inevitable). Cleese certainly wanted to work with Palin, but I'm sure he knew that their respective writing partners were going to be part of the deal (and, though Cleese has been pretty dismissive of/belittling towards Chapman's contributions in recent years, he probably had no overt problems with that at the time). But yes, the more I read about it (and lord, have I been reading a LOT on the subject lately), the more an impression forms that, had he his druthers, he would have happily partnered up with Palin alone. (How Palin would have liked that is another matter entirely - performance-wise, it'd have surely gone well, but one thing almost everyone who's tried it, with the exception of a certain ex-wife, can agree on is that John Cleese is a maddeningly over-meticulous writing partner.)

Thanks for the response - I'm working on the next entry (speaking of maddening over-meticulousness) and hoping to have it ready, albeit with several really long and tenuously relevant digressions, in the next few days. Really. Honest.

Anonymous said...

I’ve always thought that the origin of the troupe is clouded because the pythons wouldn’t explain much about it. Especially Palin and Cleese. (It’s almost tabu) Isn’t that strange? I mean, think about it. We all know Cleese has always tolerated Jones, I honestly believe he couldn’t stand the man, even from the beginning of their acquaintance. In the book “The Pythons by the Pythons”, Cleese says that ever since the first conversation they had (in a pub) he couldn’t agree with him at all. He didn’t like him, he knew there would be frictions between them. Now, what about Gilliam? Again in that book, Idle says that John always felt nothing but disdain for the animator’s contribution. As far as Idle is concerned, Cleese knew him from Cambridge, saw potential in him, but even though he was in "Frost" and in "Do not adjust your set", it was Palin who caught his eye. He invited him to participate in "How to irritate people". Was Cleese’s desire to work with Palin so intense that he, much to his chagrin, had to put up with the others? Did Palin (for once in his life) put pressure on Cleese to accept his friends? Did Cleese have to sacrifice Tim Brooke-Taylor in favor of Palin’s partners? Cleese is not a man you can easily convince to do what he does not want to. It seems Cleese was fascinated with Palin because of his talent as a writer and performer, but most important because of his kind personality (and maybe his good looks?). I know you’re doing a serious job, but all I can say about this is “Nudge nudge, wink wink”. Sorry about my English, it’s not my first language.