A pet-shop owner trying to convince a disgruntled employee that a clearly dead parrot is very much alive. A group of King Arthur’s knights fleeing in terror from a small white rabbit viciously massacring their troops. Gangs of vicious old ladies beating up teenagers, drinking and riding motorcycles through the streets of England. And a dozen crucifixion victims merrily whistling and chorusing with one another to “always look on the bright side of life”. Whilst this may read like perhaps the world’s most insane fever dream, they are in fact but a smattering of iconic sketches and moments birthed from the wonderfully weird, zany, idiosyncratic and bizarre minds of one of Britain’s most enduring and talented comedy troupes (not to mention one of my absolute favourites): Monty Python.
For many, the group hardly needs any introduction. Pioneers of a wave of absurdist humour so ground-breaking and unique it is attributed to them (the verb ‘Pythonesque’ is often used to describe an approach of comedy that is especially odd and exaggerated). Titans of comedy that have filled pop-culture with more quotable lines and gags than you can shake a stick at, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Terry Gilliam revolutionised British comedy with their hilarious, shocking, gleefully ridiculous yet witty and satirical brand of humour. 50 years later, and Monty Python’s legacy has stood the test of time.
Endlessly referenced and quoted, their movies re-watched and re-released in cinemas decade after decade; their sketches still accruing thousand of views across denizens of Youtube channels; their works spawning musicals, t-shirts, albums, costumes and stage-shows galore; Monty Python have embedded themselves as a staple of the British entertainment scene, and it is not hard to see why.
Their approach to comedy was something of the likes the world had rarely seen before. Airing in 1969, Monty Python's Flying Circus first introduced the English public to the Python troupe, and sketches that operated sans logic, meaning or really any tangible sense. The jokes were not constrained simply to a ‘situation comedy’ approach and rather blended outlandish premises with a sly, underlying satire that poked fun at the rigid decorum and stuffiness of more conservative British society. Sketches such as ‘The Ministry of Silly Walks’ and ‘Argument Clinic’ lampooned English bureaucracy with its presentation of brisk, no-nonsense businessmen and government officials working for ridiculous companies and treating nonsensical behaviour (such as a man applying to “change his silly walk”) as perfectly normal. It was an open challenge to what was considered ‘decent’ or ‘proper’ according to the rigid conventions Britain that had only begun to shake off in the aftermath of WW2. Segments involving Adolf Hitler and his high command holidaying incognito in a quaint bed and breakfast in London's suburbs or soldiers performing a drill in a stereotypically effeminate and ‘camp’ fashion only served to push the envelope further, leading to the BBC to nurse serious misgivings as to keeping the show on the air, going as far as to label it “disgusting”.
Following the show's brief (albeit memorable) run on the air, the Python troupe turned to cinema, with their debut motion picture ‘Monty Python And The Holy Grail’ (George Harrison of the Beatles oddly provided funding after befriending the group) Python’s take on Arthurian legend which pulled no punches in ridiculing the myths of a glorious medieval age, and spawning yet another myriad of iconic, hilarious gags (personal favourites include the Black Knight and his ‘flesh wound’, the horrifying killer rabbit, the not-so gallant Sir Lancelot’s crashing of a prince’s wedding and, who could forget, the nightmarish taunting of a squadron of French soldiers). Despite a limited success at the box-office the movie soon gained a rapid cult-following, and even later resulted in the Tony award-winning musical, Spamalot.
Next came ‘The Life Of Brian’ a side-splitting, cynical take on the life and times of Jesus Christ depicting a luckless nobody (the titular Brian) who inadvertently gathers a religious following around himself in a parody of the real Messiah’s own life. A darkly comedic ribbing of blind adoration and fervent Christianity, the film’s risque subject matter managed to get it banned in several countries for its perceived insult of Jesus Christ, though anyone who watched the movie would be aware that lead-character Brian is not the Messiah, just "a very naughty boy." Classic.
One final film followed, ‘The Meaning of Life’ (the least-well known of the Python's filmography) and that was all. The Python's went their separate ways soon after, reuniting in 2014 after the death of Graham Chapman for the darkly (but aptly) named ‘Monty Python: Live (Mostly)’ TV special.
The work of Monty Python was the product of six finely attuned minds, each capable of acting, directing and writing some of the most popular movies and sketches in the history of British comedy. Combining musical talent, razor-sharp wit, shocking and memorable characters and stories and a joyfully outrageous, provocative and childish energy to their performances, Monty Python triumphantly rejected the idea of comedy being tied down to the edgy or the ‘professional’ hearkening back instead to the times of vaudeville and classic theatre to spin humour as we know it on its head.
For Monty Python, nothing was too silly, odd or wild- there were no limits. Whether it be the questionable science behind the witch-trial in ‘The Holy Grail’, the ruminations on what the Romans ever did for society (a lot, apparently), the use of 'joke warfare’ during WW2 or a gang of accountants turning to (literal) piracy, Monty Python painted a world of burlesque, illogical, nonsensical rules that nevertheless cheekily exposed and stripped away real world truth’s in their exaggerated portrayal of everything from Ancient Jerusalem to the English military.
The Python’s, put simply, were the epitome of the power of humour. A gateway to escape from dreary, depressing reality into the macabre escapades of knights, Judean revolutionaries, lumberjacks, rich men from Cornwall and a whole, expansive cast of dozens upon dozens of characters each as memorable as the last. A fantasy world that taught people to embrace the absurd and laugh at the stuck-up, the priggish and the proud, that showed a whole generation to smile, whistle, and always look on the bright side of life.
Here's to 50 years of comedy gold. R.I.P Graham Chapman.
Pablo L, Year 13