Editor’s Note: This article was first published in January of 2013. It is being reprinted as part of a new weekend series at PJ Lifestyle collecting and organizing the top 50 best lists. Where will this great piece end up on the list? Reader feedback will be factored in when the PJ Lifestyle Top 50 List Collection is completed in a few months… Click here to see the top 25 so far and to advocate for your favorites in the comments.
Monty Python saved my life.
I was ten years old in 1974, when the Buffalo PBS station across the lake began airing the iconoclastic BBC comedy series every Friday night.
Being stuck in a cheap, dinky apartment that overlooked a burned-out church, with my bullying alcoholic stepfather and a meek, “see no evil” mother, surrounded at school by more extroverted, rough-and-tumble classmates — and very likely, without knowing it, clinically depressed — that half hour once a week sitting two feet from the TV was one of the only things I felt I had to look forward to.
Maybe ever, I thought at the time.
Ironically, my crappy stepfather was the one who turned me on to the show.
The first night, he “made” me watch it, the same way he was always trying to “make” me get a suntan or take up horseback riding or keep all the closet and cupboard doors in the house either open or closed depending on his inscrutable whim of the week.
My pouty resentment faded fast. For whatever reason — the cool accents, the breathless pace, the tame “naughtiness,” the “question authority” iconoclasm, the ineffable cuteness of Michael Palin — I got hooked on Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
In high school, I finally met a couple of girls who shared my passion, and we became those insufferable sorts who communicate almost entirely in Python (and SCTV) catchphrases.
I bought all the Python’s albums and books by and about them, and repeatedly signed out hard to find titles from the library, like the one detailing their lawsuits and censorship battles.
To this day, I feel a twinge of irritation when the queen’s birthday honors list comes out and I see that the surviving Pythons remain un-knighted for yet another year.
I see recent photographs of Eric Idle and Michael Palin and give my head a shake: How can they be getting old?
But as an adult, I’ve been forced to accept that these strangers — whose work was one of the only things I believed I could ever truly depend on — all had (giant, stomping, purloined) feet of clay.
Terry Jones revealed himself to be a bitchy Bush-hater.
John Cleese doled out self-help psychobabble while marrying and divorcing more times than even my mother. (He’s in the midst of an “Alimony Tour” and is auctioning off a career’s worth of props and memorabilia.)
Worse, Cleese seems stupidly saddened and baffled by the transformation of his beloved London into a lawless polyglot madhouse — a transformation which is entirely the fault of the youthful culture-busting philosophy he and his liberal pals embraced.
They’d unwittingly (or not) destroyed England in a way the Luftwaffe could have only dreamed of.
(See Ed Driscoll’s searing take on the aging comedian’s almost touching confusion about the world he helped create.)
On that touchy topic, I was forced to confront my unalloyed affection for Monty Python while reading Peter Hitchens’ The Abolition of Britain.
I’d picked that book up to get a kick out of Hitchens’ brutal evisceration of the people who’d turned Princess Diana’s funeral into a ghoulish holiday from their own tedious, godless lives.
What I didn’t expect was to feel convicted myself, when Hitchens turned his attention to Swinging London’s ’60s and ’70s “satire boom,” of which Python were a part:
Beyond the Fringe, Forty Years On and TW3 created a tradition of “anti-establishment” comedy which continued long after its roots were forgotten. There may still have been an “establishment” of snobbery, church, monarchy, clubland and old-school-tie links in 1961. There were no such things ten years later, but it suited the comics and all the reformers to pretend that there was and to continue to attack this mythical thing. After all, if there were no snobbery, no crusty old aristocrats and cobwebbed judges, what was the moral justification for all this change, change with benefited the reformers personally by making them rich, famous and influential? (…)
The new, “iconoclastic” humour changed the way that the British, especially the middle class, thought about themselves. But people who use the word “iconoclastic” in a casual, almost approving fashion have little ice of the damage that image-smashers can do, not least because the vandalism, once started, is very hard to stop.
That was hard for me — now a grown-up self-described conservative — to read.
I felt a bit sick.
Still, the best — or perhaps more accurately, my favorite — Monty Python sketches retain their humor, insight, and bite, holding up the same way that (at least for some poor delusional folks) some Beatles songs do.
#3 — The Four Yorkshiremen
One of the rules of comedy (and most creative efforts) is that one must stick to a kind of internal logic, no matter how surreal the set-up.
It seems odd to apply that test to things as intentionally illogical as Monty Python skits.
But it’s true. No matter how bizarre the setting of any good Python sketch, that curt, eye-rolling waiter (likely played by Eric Idle) looks and acts uncannily like the one who (reluctantly) served you two nights ago.
A fine example of such verisimilitude can be seen in the “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, in which the eponymous nouveau riche gents try to outdo each other’s tales of childhood deprivation.
This certainly rings a bell for me because just a few years back, a bunch of my friends casually attempted to top each other’s stories of “the time the cops showed up at your house when you were a kid.”
My pal from Montreal won: in search of bank robbers — that city has more than its share for some reason — the Quebecois version of the SWAT team had kicked her front door down.
As you might have noticed a few pages back, there are few things former poor people enjoy more than masticating on their long ago misfortune.
#2 — The Argument Sketch
This exquisitely written sketch — you can tell by its rapid-fire word play that it was penned by the team of Cleese and Graham Chapman — never gets old.
That’s because we’ve all encountered officious, by-the-book bureaucrats and “service industry” types who seem determined to treat the customer like an unwelcome intruder.
But what really cements this sketch’s appeal is the unfortunate fact that some people — even Palin’s ostensible “good guy” character — really do get a kick out of arguing for the sake of arguing. (Especially on the internet.)
Their interior lives are so arid that they search out even hostile artificial stimulation.
Then there’s the sketch’s poke at the burgeoning therapy industry, and the commodification of, well, everything, including human interaction.
In a world in which people happily pay others to whip them, order them to walk over hot coals, and drag them through degrading corporate “team building” exercises, is the premise of “The Argument Sketch” really so absurd?
Frankly, this multifaceted sketch approaches the level of Kafka.
#1 — Election Night Special
I can’t agree completely with Peter Hitchens’ notion that satire is an extra-strength, highly corrosive agent that can fundamentally change society. Or maybe it can only change it in bad ways, rather than good ones.
Case in point: Some of us have been mocking “political correctness” since shortly after it was born. (PCU, anyone?)
And surely we can all agree that it has become more prevalent and dangerous than it was in the 1990s.
We hear all the time from satirists that tyrants cannot bear being mocked, and therefore with enough well-aimed spoofs and SNL sketches, we can bring down the powerful.
Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, to cite just one example, proves this self-congratulatory theory to be absolute bosh.
That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the artistry of beautifully “conceived, written and performed” satire, however.
We conservatives are bound to believe that human nature is unchanging, are we not?
In that spirit, allow me to present “Election Night Special.” (I’ve added the superior Live at Drury Lane version below, which is audio only.)
I’ve chosen it, not because it is one of Python’s funniest, but because you may not believe it is over forty years old.
This spoof of hysterical, ultimately pointless election coverage, treating democracy like a trivial game, demonstrates how so little has changed in the interim.
At one point, John Cleese moans that continuing the sketch is “a bloody waste of time,” inadvertently echoing my point about the uselessness of satire.
I haven’t shaken my Python obsession completely.
Michael Palin is still kinda cute.
Previous provocations this year from Kathy Shaidle: