Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Monty Python, No. 1 - And Now For Something Completely Different (1974)


[Warning: This is ridiculously long.]

This space was originally reserved for The Beatles, for a consideration of the five films they did together at the height of Beatlemania. Then the truth became apparent – this is not a franchise. Sure, consistent performer persona and title can denote a loose franchise, in the case of Abbott and Costello for instance, but…The Beatles’ aren’t personas, they’re personalities, real people who happened to have five pictures made about them. Consider…

A Hard Day’s Night (1964), a hilarious, anarchic, revolutionary “day in the life” mockumentary on the Beatles qua the Beatles, with Richard Lester’s brilliant directing coupled with Alun Owen’s equally astute writing, all serving The Beatles as they were already known.

Help! (1965), a Bond spoof. Hence, entirely fictional, in a different continuity no doubt even if we accept the leads remain the same.

"Magical Mystery Tour" (1967), a 1-hour made-for-TV “movie” inspired by the LSD binges of McCartney. This just does not count.

Yellow Submarine (1968), an animated fantasy, itself ground-breaking and visually fantastic. Never mind that The Beatles didn’t even participate in the film, but for prerecorded songs and a final live action tag, their characters now distinct entities done by voice actors.

Let It Be (1969), an actual, honest-to-goodness documentary, made to satisfy contract needs seeing as producers couldn’t let a TV show or a cartoon count as a Beatles film. Never mind the band was schisming now, necessitating the whole non-fictional approach.

There is no way I can justify calling all that a “franchise,” not without expanding the definition to include all consistent actors (and delving into the shiver-inducing filmography of the King Himself, Elvis Presley, which is unappealing).

We apologize for any inconvenience in this misdirect. Those responsible for my brief dalliance with the Fab Four have been sacked.

And now for something completely different…

Rather, the other revolutionary British troupe, Monty Python, who did for comedy what The Beatles did for music, with experimentation into new forms done with unparalleled artistry/silliness.

This formally innovative band of Limey misfits (and one Yank) moved British television humor away from logical gentility to a realm of pure, oddly-logical anarchy. As writers of the very material they performed, the group made their name on the BBC in 1969 with the start of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” (Which I have on my TV right now.) Building on the fine efforts of humorists before them, all known styles of comedy blurred together into something closest to resembling a sketch program (or programme) – but with a noted aversion to the familiar “punch line.” In fact, the Pythons’ aim was to create an indefinable new style, meaning ‘tis a fantastic failure that their humor can be described as “Pythonesque.”

Let us meet the Pythons (Monty), shall we?

Graham Chapman – All the Pythons boast educational backgrounds strangely perpendicular to their comedy careers; Chapman studied medicine in Cambridge. His humorous background is mostly as a writer, often with John Cleese. As a Python, Chapman was most regularly the straight man, the authority figure, leading to his leading as a leading man.

John Cleese – Likewise a Cambridge man. Study: law. With Chapman, wrote for “The Frost Report” pre-Python, meeting his future coconspirators in comedy. (This led way to “Do Not Adjust Your Set,” just before the “Flying Circus” took flight.) His performance specialties covered either the repressed stiff sop, of the maniacal loony. Hell, all of Python has a special love for taking the piss out of noted institutions, and Cleese’s psychotic madmen are the chief piss-taker-outers.

Terry Gilliam – The American. Rarely on screen as an actor, Gilliam created animated connections between his compatriots’ sketches, guided by a stream-of-consciousness approach that puts the rest of the Pythons to shame. Picture cut-outs, surrealism, collages, classical paintings repurposed to allow excessive nudity grace British television screens without censorship. When performing live, Gilliam the non-actor is a grotesque.

Eric Idle – Cambridge study: English. The sole Python to write solo, rather than in a pair. Given his English background, Idle’s efforts concern language over visuals. Another concern of Idle’s: general naughtiness, cheekiness, all around randiness. Know what I mean, know what I mean? Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!

Terry Jones – Noted as the single best cross-dresser in a troupe filled with deviant cross-dressers, for his shrill and haggard characteristics – this is certainly what Jones learned in his English study at Oxford (not Cambridge). Was the first of the group to develop a directorial sense, even while it is (Terry) Gilliam who later took that bull and ran with it. Hence, Jones is most responsible for the general surrealism of the programme, forcing the formal inventiveness of the “Flying Circus.”

Michael Palin – As of 2008, the world’s second-funniest Palin (his assertion). The other Oxford man – history, I think. Among the Pythons, Palin is most noted for his range, able to fill any role needed – leading to the prolificacy of appearances. Palin is a bit of a chameleon, really. Otherwise, he may well be the “nicest man in the world.”

“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” ran for four series (or “seasons,” as sotted, bleeding Yanks will say), 45 episodes. Following the end of the second series, it was decided to open the show up to Americans who weren’t Terry Gilliam, in the form of a feature film to be called And Now For Something Completely Different. Production on the “Flying Circus” was still Concern # 285 – No, Concern # 1 – and thus there would be nothing completely different in Completely Different, it rather being a reconstitution of the group’s best sketches to date, refilmed on a format other than the BBC’s ever-degrading videotapes.

There is nothing in Completely Different not to be found earlier in the “Flying Circus.” For British audiences hoping for further insane enlightenment, this would not do. For the Americans for whom it was intended, difficulties came from both a pathetically small release, and a general U.S. refusal to understand the accents and humour with a “u.” It wasn’t until 1974, when PBS started schooling Yankee nerds-to-be on the finer silliness of Limey hilarity that a reissue and television rebroadcast earned the film some attention.

Oh, and it was produced by Victor Lownes, head of Playboy UK of all people, hoping to branch out from tits to twits. As a film producer, he proved quite the asshole.

Of the sketches…Those previously filmed out of the studio on film, such as How Not To Be Seen (a government educational film extolling the virtues of avoiding detection – by blowing up the public at large), are not much changed in their new, cinematic incarnation.

Neither are those recycled Terry Gilliam animations. The only unique animation for this entry are the opening credits, done to Souza’s traditional “Liberty Bell” march in all its public domain glory, extolling the inestimable virtues of – Foot!

Ah, but the live, studio-set sketches! They were filmed anew (done on a meager – or meagre – budget) not in the shady, crackerjack confines of BBC Studios, but someplace far more respectable – an abandoned dairy factory. (Director Ian McNaughton is the same crack who perpetuated the TV series, so all’s square there.) The sketches change in little respect from their original forms, as the Pythons were inveterate writers, the pacing already worked out to the nth degree. And that damnable laugh track they glommed onto the show is now gone, surely a good thing. But to account for the short running time and heady mass of sketches, many are truncated, prone to being cut off in the middle o-


“We apologize, but it seems this blog write-up was a bit shorter than originally expected. While we rush to correct this error, please enjoy this short paragraph.”

[Sound of cutting, pasting…]

A Man With a Tape Recorder Up His Nose. It concerns a man with a tape recorder up his nose; the rest falls out logically.

[Typing resumes on the regular posting…]

We now resume our regularly scheduled Completely Different.

Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook. Cleese is a Hungarian, whose improper phrasebook begins with a carnival of non sequiturs (“My hovercraft is full of eels.”), then descends into ever more lascivious leering.

A police investigation leads to the trial of phrasebook author Palin. And, uh –

ANIMATED INTERLUDE – Hand trees grow and are populated by hand birds, hand bikes, and what else makes sense in context. A man shaves his own head off.

Marriage Guidance Counselor. Counselor Jones greets married couple Palin and Carol Cleveland (a blonde bombshell oft noted as the “seventh” Python – she gives me a seventh python, nudge nudge, wink wink). She does likewise to Jones, who proceeds to treat Cleveland to the fullest ravishing the censors will allow, whilst Palin prattles on with inestimable actorly skill through a perfectly melodramatic speech. He finally becomes wise, and jealous, resolves to set things straight, except –

Such is a standard running gag of the show, like Cleese’s perpetual desk jockey proposing imminent difference, or Palin’s bedraggled castaway, or Jones’ occasional nudery.

“So much for pathos.”

ANIMATED INTERLUDE (meaning the natural train of thought has derailed) – A baby carriage eats people. A leering perverted arm yanks away the censorial fig leaf on the Statue of David, forcing a phallic chattering housewife to decry smut, smut, smut!

Nudge Nudge. Wink wink! Say no more! A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat. Eh? Need I go into detail?

Self Defence [sic – Americans think] Against Fresh Fruit. Cleese, in his maniacal zest, teaches a self defense (or “defence”) class against attack with any great number of fruits. The fruit thing is the chance for a cold, bloodless listing of all the fruits the Pythons could conceive of without reference to a reference. Their innate sense of ignoring pacing at all costs somehow makes such anti-humor effortlessly effortless. Then Cleese has Chapman demonstrate fruit attack as a “banana fiend” – and shoots the poor sap point blank with a pistol.

Stop that, it’s getting silly!

I beg to differ, Chapman’s Sergeant Major Character, but it could have gotten much sillier. Seeing as a full three other Pythons remained unmurdered by Cleese, this film’s self-editing has denied us more death by pistol, or tiger, or even –

Ah, yes. Rather, Chapman has no more concern for this rubbish, and commands this write-up cease its blathering diversions, and move right on to assessing the next scene…

Hell’s Grannies. A documentary narrator warns us all of a dread social problem besetting England’s suburbs: roving hoards of violence-prone grandmothers. Senile delinquents. Footage comically equating the elderly with youth gangs soon gives way to decided surrealism, such as baby-clad men stealing further grown men (a comic reversal), and heedless gangs of “Keep Left” signs.

This, seemingly, is itself too silly for Chapman’s fictional militant. Rather, he grants us scenes of military drilling – which descend into mincing homosexuality. This is too deemed “silly.”

ANIMATED INTERLUDE – Once upon a time, there was a fairy tale prince who died of cancer. His black facial spot then traveled to the city to make it big and marry a fellow big black facial spot. This inspired racial tension, and a broom swept it all away.

Expedition to Mt. Kilimanjaro. Sir George Head is an upper-class gentleman, prone to mental derangement – hence, he is John Cleese. He interviews Idle’s Arthur Wilson about a proposed trip up a certain pair of peaks, as Cleese suffers from eternal double vision. It seems in every sense Cleese is unprepared for the mere concept of this trek, in a manner that is a series of largely distinct gags not tied down to a single comprehensible concept easily summed up in a single lazy paragraph. With Cleese’s linguistic fallacies growing apace, Chapman enters for a bit of vicious physical catastrophe. But you could care less about that. You’d rather see –

Girls in Bikinis.

Or rather, Would You Like To Come To My Place? That’s the title of the sketch, not a request on my part, and the title rather spoils the one short gag. So instead how about –

The Flasher. There is but one gag here to. It concerns flashing, and all I can say is it thankfully delays any full-frontal Python nakedness until Life of Brian.

ANIMATED INTERLUDE – The yellow Communist midgets of China, under Mao’s guidance, invade a lower-middle class British flat, drowning its spinster resident. A U.S. ship sails over, as Uncle Sam discusses the Cold War in terms of a dental analogy.

In contrast, a commercial for Crelm Toothpaste expresses dental care as a car race.

Shrill Petrol explains its oil in the terms of pure visual pandemonium and odd noises.

It is in this context where “Conrad Poohs and his Dancing Teeth” becomes a relatively sane proposition. And my God is this amusing!

Musical Mice. Made a nice companion by Jones’ cruelly pounding a table full of mice with a mallet, all the while he himself hums “Three Blinded White Mice.” The bluebloods in attendance are aghast at this reprehensible violence, and seek to physically rend Jones atwain in retaliation.

Leading us straight past Sir Edward Ross (Chapman), a film director and interviewee for host of “It’s the Arts,” John Cleese. In order to establish a “rapport,” Cleese refers to his guest as, in turn, “Edward,” “Ted,” “Eddie Baby,” Sweetie,” “Sugar Plum,” “Pussycat,” “Angel Drawers,” and “Frank.” (This last is the standard roundabout dig at Nixon, if you’d believe it.) At last Chapman is able to accomplish some genuine dialogue, and Cleese screeches “Oh shut up!”

Seduced Milkmen. Carol Cleveland seduces milkmen. I assume this is a true story.

The Funniest Joke in the World. On “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” this is one of their greatest, most cinematic efforts, telling a flowing, odd, ever-growing story. It loses a lot of its potency in the context of a feature film, and a lot of the material is dropped outright (making the late-stage plot developments the focus, and thus less surreal). Even so, the gist remains the same.

Michael Palin has written the funniest joke in the world, a narrator informs, leading to sudden laughter, an equally sudden death. His mother sees the gag, assumes it a suicide note, reads it, cackles, and cacks it.

Skipping ahead, the English WWII effort gets their hands on the lethal joke, translating it a piece at a time into German. Used against the Hun menace, it wins the war for Britain’s boys – all this in spite of Hitler’s efforts to device a counter-joke, told through footage recontextualized from Triumph of the Will of all things. (Hitler’s joke, about a dog nose, is something I once told before my entire undergrad community – and promptly got booed off the cafeteria table for. It’s a long story.) And that joke, in German, is as follows:

“Wenn ist das Nunstruck git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!”

For fear of my very life, I hesitantly go on over to Babel Fish, determined that if I am to die, what better way? And the translation…[drum roll]…“If the Nunstruck is git and Slotermeyer? Yes! Beiherhund the or the Flipperwaldt gersput!”

ANIMATED INTERLUDE – Buses skip over an old lady. She trips a bus.

Killer Cars! At least we can thank our lucky stars for atomic mutation, which has created a counter threat in a great big Siamese cat.

Further escalations commence, though the narrator admits the budget is too low for them to be seen on screen. But in the end the cat is fed through a meat grinder, its meat forming the hair of Botticelli’s Venus why not. And she dances.

Dead Parrot. How does one address this? One doesn’t. One lets YouTube do all the lifting.

Likewise, the subsequent Lumberjack Song is beyond commentary, and requires the same treatment. Mind you this second one is not from Completely Different, but the “Flying Circus,” just as a way of contrast.

Of course, I blame And Now For Something Completely Different for hijacking discussion of the troupe’s sketches, allowing the lazier Pythonites to skip over the “Flying Circus” completely, and just requote these two routines endlessly, again and again, never stopping and never changing up, in a mindless and perpetual repetition of the same thing over and over, endlessly, again and again, never stopping and never changing up, in a mindless –

Stop that, it’s getting silly!

The Restaurant Sketch. This is the perfect Monty Python encapsulation of their attitude towards the traditional sketch format, wherein an horrible punch line renders the entire preceding effort failed. You see, there is this dirty fork, found by Chapman. Head waiter Palin apologizes in increasingly extreme terms, as do, in turn, the establishment’s Idle (yet active) manager, and a greasy, Cleesy cook. Escalation goes far beyond what a sane comedy troupe would accomplish, climaxing in hari kari.


“Lucky I didn’t tell him about the dirty knife.”

[Rim shot!]

ANIMATED INTERLUDE: A hammer smashes things!

Bank Robber. A bank robber robs a place which is not a bank, but is in fact the punch line.

People Falling Out of High Buildings. People falls out of buildings. High buildings.

ANIMATED INTERLUDE: A caterpillar-man rests in bed, and becomes a butterfly-man.

Three cartoon men sing in ecclesiastical terms, glowingly and reverently, about a Vocational Guidance Counselor sketch.

Vocational Guidance Counselor (sketch). Palin, an accountant, wants to be a lion tamer. Only he has some confusion on the distinction between lions and anteaters, then flees Cleese’s presence when beset by lion stock footage. Cleese then addresses us on the debilitating social disease that is accountancy.

Blackmail. Palin, as an in-between twixt accounting and lion taming, is now the host of TV’s “Blackmail,” a self-explanatory programme in which Palin extorts viewers at home, lest he reveal sensitive information about their lives. There is not much more to this sketch, except for this:

The Battle of Pearl Harbor: Several housewives tussle in mud, as is their wont.

Romantic Interlude. Jones makes sensual love to Carol Cleveland, the lucky sod! What follows is perhaps the first ever use of stock footage as a double entendre (well, the first would be when it happened in the “Flying Circus,” but you know…). (This also ignores the Hitchcockian cutaway, off of which this builds.) As such, it is also the first example of subverting the stock footage joke, making it far cleverer than any variation “Family Guy” would ever come up with.

The Upper-Class Twit of the Year. As the grand finale, at long, long last, all five non-Gilliam Pythons assemble as the crème-de-la-crème of Britain’s spoiled, incompetent, inbred, spastic, isolated, cerebral palsy morons, here to compete in a sports competition to decide who is the moronicest. Before a screaming crowd of inserted footage, they shall twitch their twit ways as follows:

# 1 – Walking along a straight line.
# 2 – Leaping two layers of matchboxes.
# 5 – Kicking the beggar.
# 16 – Running over the old lady.
# 3.0002 – Waking the neighbor (by means of slamming a car door).
# 98 – Shooting the rabbit (a difficult task, as they are staked to the ground).
# 8,372 – Taking the bras off the debutants from the back.
Final event – Shooting themselves.

Gervais is the winner! Thus his coffin presides over the others’ on the podia.

ANIMATED CREDITS spool along in partial recreation of the “Flying Circus,” what with Gandhi’s head being equated with an egg and all. This unspooling of miscellany allows me a moment to reflect upon this Completely Different movie – and effort which sadly lacks some of the Pythons’ better sketches, as things like Spam, The Spanish Inquisition, Cheese Shop, The Ministry of Silly Walks, the Gumbys, and so on, didn’t exist yet…No, wait, they did! A pox upon this insufficient 90 minute running time, when one really ought to plow through all the “Flying Circus” (possibly excepting series 3 and 4, and maybe 1 and 2).


Related posts:
• No. 2 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
• No. 3 Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
• No. 4 Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
• No. 5 Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

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