Friday, March 12, 2010

Monty Python's Flying Circus, S01/E01 - "Whither Canada?"

It's about bloody time I got around to doing this! This has been getting kicked around in the back of my head since last year when Shelley and I were watching Python religiously. A few weeks ago I watched a few vintage Saturday Night Live episodes on NetFlix, and I have to say the comparisons between SNL (even in its "Not Ready For Primetime Players" heyday) and Python are bullshit. That's like saying so-and-so is "an American Beatles" or even, like so many critics and fans were searching for in the early 1970's, "the NEXT Beatles."

Both were sketch comedy shows, yes. Both were radical departures from the standard fare of their respective countries (and that, too, makes a key difference)...but that's about it.

Subversive by American standards was "I want to feed your fingertips to the wolverines."

Subversive by English standards was...well, watch:

Click here if the video isn't working.

Regardless, this shouldn't be an excuse to knock Saturday Night Live. We're here to praise the Python...although something about that sentence just doesn't sound right.

On with the episode.

By and large, one should not judge the strength of a series by its premiere episode. With American programs, pilots are generally the first aired, and even if they're "good," they pale in comparison with the rest of the series. This one is no exception. Not to say it's awful, in fact, it's still very watchable - plenty of classic Python bits to be found here - but the moments where the show is off it feels like a cheap skit put on at a talent show.

(Yes, yes, Python geeks, I'm aware that Season One, Episode One, "Whither Canada?", was the second episode filmed. No matter, what I consider canon is the airing order. This aired first, this was England's introduction to the Pythons, so there.)

The opening sequence, with Michael Palin emerging from the water as the tattered "It's" Man, takes just a little too long for my liking. (I clocked it at 55 seconds.) Years later, Palin made a joke about the not-at-all steep grade of the ground underwater, hence the length of the sequence. Still, seeing this hairy scruffian wearing the haggard shreds of a suit emerge from the sea, only to collapse and sigh the word, "It's..." before the animated credits roll is iconic absurdism.

One of the great features of the Flying Circus series was that the troupe wanted to avoid sketch program cliches. One such cliche is that sketches are written, built up, but then brought to an end by way of a punchline, which more often than not didn't hold up to the rest of the sketch. Why end sketches in a program, when they could all be linked together, in a surrealistic stream-of-consciousness fashion?

This first time out, though, the comedic device of people sitting on pigs is the source of linking material. Frankly, I think it's poorly played the first time (not well-performed by Graham Chapman, also some poorly synced sound), though later on in the episode it's quite funny. Maybe it's the repetition. The idea of repetition being a simple gag for humor would be taken to its most bizarre next season, but that' season.

That aside, this isn't some crummy pilot. They don't hold any punches with their first sketch, a phony program entitled It's Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, featuring John Cleese as the composer. However, it's nothing really to do with Mozart - he is merely the host - and instead is a program featuring the deaths of historical figures. It's got a dark undertone to it (a commentary on television violence, perhaps?), balanced out by the sheer slapstick of seeing Genghis Khan (Cleese in a filmed bit) die a cartoonish death by way of leaping in the air and landing on his back.

My great thesis on Python, whether it's the films, albums, or television series is that their brand of humor succeeds because it combines some intelligent, cerebral wit with simple, funny-no-matter-how-many-times gags. This is best symbolized by the death depicted of Admiral Horatio Nelson. You don't need to know about the Battle of Trafalgar to laugh at seeing a dummy in early 19th-Century garb tossed out of a high-rise window. However, you can laugh just a little harder knowing among his last words were "Kiss me, Hardy!", to his second-in-command.

Don't miss Cleese, with a German accent, uttering, "Blimey, how time flies!"

The Italian For Italians sketch is...okay. The audience laughter at Terry Jones' instructor saying he is from Gerard's Cross is something lost on me. As for the Italians taking the lesson, they're played a little broadly, pinstripe suit-wearing spivs divided by regionalist pride. Political correctness makes sketches like these age poorly, but at the time other sketch programs would often display national stereotypes and call it humor. The Pythons are in fact offering their own twist on this trope. They would do it again throughout the series, and frankly, the underlying point is much more obvious. It's amusing enough, but not a strong sketch. Thankfully, Terry Jones sits on a pig (porcine casualty number three in this episode - PETA would be pissed!), leading to the first cartoon.

A runaway pig from the tallyboard, where dead piggy #3 is crossed off, marks the debut animation from Terry Gilliam. Even in the weaker shows, the cartoons never cease to amuse. Explaining what all happens would suck the fun out of seeing it. It leads to a phony commercial for Whizzo Butter, "containing 10% more less," a product that brings with its purchase admission to Heaven. Pitchman Palin is seen with the other four actor Pythons (Gilliam's on-screen presence is generally that of an extra and/or grotesque, making "Terry Gilliam appearances" a tally category at the end of this post) all dressed in drag as middle-aged housewives.

These little wenches are called "pepperpots," dubbed such in Cleese's pre-Flying Circus special How To Irritate People, relating to the shape of their bodies. Along with Gilliam's on-screen appearances, I'm also going to have Cleese's appearances in drag as another tally. At six-foot, five inches tall, Cleese is an extraordinarily unconvincing woman and, to me at least, as unfailingly hilarious as Gilliam's cartoons.

The pepperpots can NOT tell the difference between Whizzo Butter and a dead crab, and this is apparently a good thing, although they threaten Palin that if he's one of those television pitchmen trying to get them to compare Whizzo Butter to a dead crab, they'll slit his face.

So far, we've got animal cruelty, broadly-played national stereotypes, clever historical references, death, a mockery of consumerist stupidity, and one demented cartoon. Yep, this is Python, all right!

Unfortunately, the Whizzo bit ends in a very un-Python manner, with a hard edit to the credits for It's The Arts. (According to Kim Johnson's marvelous Python book, The First 28 Years of Monty Python, quite a few sketches were cut from this episode, many to be seen in future episodes.) The first segment of It's The Arts features a great lampooning of the formality of names and nicknames, with filmmaker Sir Edward Ross (Chapman) being called a litany of names: Ted, angel-drawers, Franny-knickers, and everything in between. Storming off the set, Ross is summoned back by Cleese's Tom (who doesn't want Ross "bothering with all this 'Thomas' nonsense") with a serious question about his latest film. Ten seconds into Ross' guaranteed-to-be-dull yarn, Cleese interrupts with an, "Oh, shut up!", expertly dashing audience expectations.

Eric Idle, who I now unfortunately think of as the Python with the honor "Most Likely To Ride Python All The Way To The Bank," gives his own variant nickname-based interview. While Cleese's interviewer tries so desperately to be polite and personable with his subject, Eric is a cheeky smart-ass with composer Arthur "Two-Sheds" Jackson (Jones), who earned his nickname not by actually having a second shed but rather by simply thinking of building a second shed.

This doesn't keep Idle from asking if Jackson wrote his latest symphony in the shed. He drives him to his breaking point, turning from sheds to inquiring about Jackson's interest in trainspotting. After a snippy, ready to crack retort of "What's that got to do with my bloody music?", Cleese's Tom joins Idle in booting the irate composer off-set. Again, another sketch ended before getting stale (maybe even a little early) and without some silly punchline.

The final bit of the It's The Arts segment centers around Pablo Picasso's latest painting, which is being done whilst riding a bicycle. If this notion isn't delightfully silly enough, the entire thing is played out with the detailed enthusiasm of a sportscast. Picasso's route is outlined, the model of bicycle is explained, and in one of the best moments of the episode, Cleese presents an on-the-scene report while a laundry list of famous artists (dead and alive) zip by on bicycles. Palin's surprisingly informed pepperpot tells Cleese that it's Vassily Kandinsky he's seeing and not Picasso, later correcting Cleese that the (dead since 1948) Kurt Schwitters was German, not English.

What makes the scene, beyond the incongruity of Palin's middle-aged housewife displaying a good knowledge of 20th-Century art is more than just the attention to detail. It's Cleese's performance. He delivers his lines at a mile-a-minute, like his head is ready to's one of those things, you can't explain why it's funny. It just is.

How does this build-up climax? With the absurdist logic that makes Python so great: Picasso falls off his bicycle, unseen, the details of his painting unknown. We are informed, thankfully, that the artist is unharmed, "although the pig has a slight headache." One more piggy pops its head up from under the desk as Palin's host bids us goodnight, right in time for the end credits (around the 21-minute mark) if this were American television.

Thank God for the commercial-free programming of the BBC, as we've still got nine minutes to go. We get another wonderful cartoon, featuring what I consider Gilliam's staple art: animations of vintage photographs. It's twisted, it's slightly disturbing (the man trapped inside the military officer begging to be let out), but it's marvelous. And to think this was on mainstream television some 40 years ago.

The show ends this week with an extended sketch, featuring the world's funniest joke, which induces fatal laughter. The film version of the sketch's first half featured in the 1971 film And Now For Something Completely Different is performed a little better - notably in the joke's author and his mother's deaths from reading the joke - but this is a fairly important sketch for the lads. It seems all three writing teams (Chapman/Cleese, Idle, and Palin/Jones) all contributed their own bits to it, and while there are no animations, Gilliam appears on-screen in two minor roles.

Rounding out the rest of the show, the segment lags at times (mainly in the battlefield scenes), but its high points more than make up for the bumps. Terry Jones' dorky, unsuspecting Army test subject and his tittering demise still makes me laugh, Cleese's goose-stepping interrogator is great (and we'll see him again as a Nazi before the season's end, a more famous one, in fact...), and the scene where the defense ministers laugh themselves to death (on the other side of a guarded door), with the laughter punctuated by the sounds of bodies dropping, is a beautiful stroke of macabre humor. And history geeks will appreciate the stock footage of Chamberlain declaring "Peace in our time!" as Idle mentions "England's great pre-war joke."

Idle's narrator wraps the segment with a solemn tribute at the burial site of the Unknown Joke, before a quick cutaway to stock footage of a ref blowing his whistle and a title frame saying "THE END".

The "It's" man is roused by way of a pointed stick (an incredibly specific prop we'll be seeing and hearing of again in future episodes) and he drags himself back out into the surf as the end credits play.


Low Points:
+ I feel like the first few episodes of this series treat Cleese as if he were the leader of the troupe, for better or for worse. He'd enjoyed the most success already by this point with At Last The 1948 Show, The Frost Report, and his TV special How To Irritate People (which plays like a really, really bad episode of Python.) He certainly seems to elicit the most laughs from the audience.

+ Parts of this episode's first half, pre-It's The Arts, come across as tentative.

+ The piggy gag. (In all fairness, Shelley liked it.)

High Points:
+ This episode is kind of like "I Saw Her Standing There," the first song from the first Beatles album. It's hard to define the inaugural quality of "Whither Canada?", as the show most definitely picked up some serious momentum in the episodes to come, but damn if it doesn't make me happy every time I see this and know this is where it all started.

+ Cleese's stream of ridiculous nicknames for Sir Edward "Ted/Eddie Baby/Sweetie/Sugar Plum/Angel Drawers/Frank/Fran/Frannie/Little Frannie/Frannie Knickers" Ross.

+ Idle's ribbing of Arthur "Two-Sheds" Jackson.

+ Cleese's sportscaster, forerunner of so many classic Cleese moments.

Best Lines:

"We are proud to be bringing to you one of the evergreen bucket kickers. Yes, the wonderful death of the famous English Admiral Nelson."

"He say, 'Milan is better than Napoli!'"
"Oh, well, he shouldn't be saying that, we haven't done comparatives yet!"

"I don't like being called Eddie Baby!" - this implies he's been called this before...

"I'm going to get rid of the shed. I'm fed up with it!"
"Then you'll be Arthur 'No Sheds' Jackson."

"In 1945, peace broke out."

SCORE: 84% B

John Cleese in drag count: I
Terry Gilliam count: II

1 comment:

Shelley said...

I'd give the episode around the same grade for a Monty Python episode. But for a television sketch comedy show - especially its pilot - I'd give it an A.

I do love the pig sketch. It was their way of continuity throughout the episode, and the continuity is one of my favorite things about Monty Python. And I totally agree with you - this is where it all started.

I LOVED the artists on bicycles race. And when Palin said "He's German" I was thinking the same thing which made me laugh even harder.

But, again, for a Monty Python episode it wasn't the best.

Still makes you laugh hard, but not quite as hard.