Monday, November 14, 2011

Monty Python's Flying Circus: Season 1, Episode 1: "Whither Canada?"

This is technically a re-post from a review I wrote in March 2010, but I've made enough edits and revisions that if you were around then it's worth revisiting.

It's always strange to look at an artist (or group of artists) who made groundbreaking work in their time and know that had they been around today, they would have never been given a chance. Networks, record labels, film studios, none of them are keen on taking chances on something that deviates wildly from the norm, and the ones that do always have a hard time getting picked up by fans and critics. It took a good season and a half for the American adaptation of The Office to gain appeal, for example.

Sketch comedy is a wildly uneven bag. For every groundbreaking series like Chappelle's Show, there are dozens of copycat programs (on TV and online) that take Dave Chappelle's example of crude, shock-peppered humor but opt to leave out all the discussion-generating topics the master comedian was addressing.

In my original version of this post, I riffed a bit on Saturday Night Live - a viewpoint I will never shy away from having - but let me trim that whole argument down to me simply saying that its reputation as being groundbreaking, subversive, or cutting-edge is more or less a mythology put into its place by its creators and by contemporary critics whose other viewing options were such dreck as Happy Days and Three's Company. By contrast, early Saturday Night Live must have seemed like the onslaught of punk amidst the easy-breezy swill of California rock and the pomposity of progressive rock.

But let's just call it for what it is: early Saturday Night Live was young and energetic, like a cheetah among dinosaurs, but it didn't rewrite the book on sketch comedy. For the most part, though, the old episodes have not aged well - select segments are timeless, but on the whole it is little more than a charming artifact.

The reason I harp on this is because I don't like the comparison that Saturday Night Live was an "American Monty Python." It just isn't. These guys shook up the rules of what had become a stagnant format for televised comedy and did it in a way that truly has yet to be replicated - and, with the present state of affairs in the entertainment industry, probably never will.

For that reason, I submit to you a revised and revisited review of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Season 1, Episode 1, "Whither Canada?"

Reasons #2 through #45 shall follow on a (hopefully) weekly basis.

And so it began:

Click here if the video isn't working.

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 they usually suck. Even if they're "good," they pale in comparison with the rest of the series. Although not a proper pilot so much as it is simply the second episode they shot and the first one aired on the BBC, 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.

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. 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 a 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.

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, hosting a program featuring the deaths of historical figures - why him? Why not?! 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-or-how-old-you-are 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. That in itself is a funny visual. However, you can laugh just a little harder knowing among his last words were "Kiss me, Hardy!", to his second-in-command.

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, and honestly, the only time jokes fall utterly flat for me with Python, it's usually moments like this. They also seem to make fun of a town called Dorking a lot throughout the series - is it the name, maybe? As for the Italians taking the lesson, they're played broadly, but that's the point: the Pythons are offering their own twist on the trope of using stereotypes for an easy gag. They would do it again throughout the series, and frankly, the underlying point is much more obvious in later episodes. It's amusing enough, but not a strong sketch, ending in minor-league chaos before a poor little pig is sat upon by the flustered teacher.

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 (Idle, Cleese, Jones, and Chapman) 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. The term has since become a fixture of the Python fan's glossary.

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.

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, which may explain the edit.) 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 (don't bother with the "nonsense" of calling him Thomas!) with a serious question about his latest film, leading to a pleasant destruction of an anticipated punchline.

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 in his interview 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.

With the lack of commercials from the BBC at that time, 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 and slightly disturbing, 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 makes for a great Nazi, and the scene where the defense ministers laugh themselves to death (on the other side of a guarded door) is a beautiful stroke of macabre humor. 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". As a long-form sketch, this showed a sense of ambition from the get-go that the group had some interest in collaborating on long-form sketches; this approach, where Idle, Jones/Palin, and Cleese/Chapman all had a hand in the conception and delivery of the "World's Funniest Joke" sketch, would set the tone for their feature films in the 1970's and 1980's. While that is still 44 incredible half-hours of sketch comedy away, it marked the planting of a very important seed.

Cutting back to the beach, 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 portion, before we get to It's The Arts, come across as wobbly.

+ The piggy gag - not unfunny, but a weak running gag.

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

In future reviews of the show, I'll be sure to go into some detail on each member of the troupe, using a key performance as a springboard (like the "Nudge, Nudge" sketch to talk about Eric Idle) for the information.

I also plan to keep a tally on two on-screen occurrences throughout the series. The first is the number of times John Cleese appears in drag. Seeing this freakishly tall man dressed as a woman is one of the funniest sights, ever. The other is the number of times Terry Gilliam appears on the show. As the animator, he didn't fancy himself as much of an actor, but when it came time for bit parts and/or the occasional grotesque, Gilliam was perfect.
John Cleese in drag count: I
Terry Gilliam count: II

I'm Ba-a-ack.....

More to come. Soon, baby.