by Devanjali Banerjee
“Silliness is about a way of dealing with things you perhaps don’t want to do or when life gets rather, not exactly boring, but the way life is organised and the way people behave rather pompously and rather self-righteously and assume that they run this, that or the other – then you need silliness. It’s very, very important.”
-Michael Palin, one of the Pythons.
Silliness is to television as Monty Python and the Flying Circus (MPATFC) is to comedy. The series was started with the noble and patriotic purpose of ‘trying to subvert the establishment’.
And subvert they did - and how.
For the uninitiated, MPATFC is the mother of all sketch comedy series - especially ones that tend to follow a non-linear, stream of consciousness format. The series influenced comedy in a way that can be compared to the way The Beatles influenced popular music. Think of the style in which Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketches are presented to you - or even Just for Laugh Gags, a half hour show broken into various segments that have wildly different themes and characters that, more often than not, are non recurring (no prizes for guessing which show popularised the format). Now, add to this no real plot direction or linearity; erudite references to macro-issues relating to literature, politics, philosophy, corporations and governments; so surreal that it-feels-like-you-are-on-psychedelic-drugs animation by the inimitable Terry Gilliam and an entire globe (and beyond) worth of characters ranging from different nationalities to religions to genders played by four British men and a Minnesota man - and ROUGHLY - you get an essence of what MPATFC is.
It’s almost like hot khichdi with dollops of ghee slathered on top- it’s a fusion of the obscure and the comic with a result that you never thought would be worth watching or laughing at - but just like dal and rice combine to form the manna that is khichdi, MPATFC manages to discharge an insanely harsh burden with a simple but effective - “And now for something completely different." (Yes, that’s where I’ve sourced the article’s title from.)
Although watching the show is like chewing on a ‘shroom covered with ecstasy, dribbled with cocaine, dusted with hash and burnished with marijuana - there is a keen method to the madness that is MPATFC. Every episode usually has a catchphrase or a general theme that is founded by the episode name. So if the episode How to Recognise Different Types of Trees from Quite a Long Way Away starts each individual segment with an old-timey picture of a tree and the narrator’s voice identifying it as a larch till you want to stick a sword up John Cleese’s throat, you’ve heard it so many times - then You’re No Fun Anymore uses the eponymous catchphrase a million times (no exaggeration-watch it and count).
So now to regular tropes. The opening (and closing) credits of season one of MPATFC is dominated by the “It’s” man - a Robinson Cruesoe-esque figure with torn clothes and a Dumbledore-like beard, always seen performing some dangerous task. He will then run up to the camera and introduce the show by way of a simple ‘It’s”- and the stock music and Gilliam’s animation takes care of the rest. The Knight with the Raw Chicken is another running gag wherein where anyone says anything silly, he (presumably) hits them over the head with the chicken; often, other characters borrow the chicken for the same purpose. Another amusing trope is a brief black and white stock footage of some middle-aged women laughing and applauding. According to some sources (okay Wikipedia) this was taken from the British Women’s Institute’s meeting.
(Possibly without the knowledge that they were appearing in a cult comedy sketch show)
(*gets hit on the head with the chicken*)
So I recently watched You’re No Fun Anymore (episode 7 of season 1) and decided that I would deconstruct it for the purpose of this review. The episode starts off with the It’s man and an array of disjointed sketches starting with ‘Camel Spotting’ wherein Cleese interviews an unsuccessful camel spotter. The interaction ultimately yields the punch line from the anguished spotter who goes, “You’re No Fun Anymore”. This punch line is then used as fodder for a variety of situations. There is even this funny skit wherein an auditor is shunted out of a big corporate after having informed the management that the annual turnover has been a shilling and that he’s embezzled a penny.
The next segment, one of the most sustained sketches I’ve seen, is termed “Science Fiction Sketch” and deals with alien blancmanges (a type of dessert- I had to look this up halfway through myself) whose evil plan was to turn the entire population of Britain into Scotsmen with the sole purpose of winning Wimbledon. The inherent assumption being that, apart from other deficiencies, Scots are terrible at tennis and Britons brilliant at it - so with no Britons in Britain and Scots inherently shitty at tennis-only the alien blancmanges (I love this term) stood to gain. There is the obvious ribbing of the 50s sci-fi genre replete with campy stock characters, even campier dialogues (“Will they stop at nothing?” “I don’t know, will they?”) and terribly tacky flying saucers. The purported hero and heroine are unnamed scientist and dimwitted but beautiful companion. Despite the two (well, one - the scientist finally knocks his lovely companion out cold given her intellectual inadequacies) having discovered that the true intentions of the alien blancmanges (did I mention this is my favourite term already?), the world is powerless to stop the blancmanges from wreaking havoc in Wimbledon and winning/eating all the players.
But there’s a twist ending, when Mr. and Mrs. Brainsample save the day by eating the blancmange. Astonishingly, they are the extraordinarily ordinary couple that the camera cuts away from in the start of the sketch, to focus on the first Londoner-turned Scotsman.
So if trope, trope and trope and repetition, repetition and repetition is MPATFC’s game, why watch at all?
Because despite the inherent failings and flaws that any show will have, even the ones you love (yes, Grey’s Anatomy was always quite wearisome - deal with it), you tend to stick with MPATFC, mostly because you haven’t the faintest idea what the hell they’ll do next, and you want to stick around to find out. The sheer ingenuity of the Pythons will keep you hooked-even if you find the direction of the show lacklustre or tedious, at the most. No other show will have subtitles that get randomly hijacked. No other show in the year 1969 had animated characters actively part of a comedy sketch. And no other show would you be perfectly comfortable with seeing a knight slapping the Pythons with a raw chicken.
(*gets slapped again*)