Different and Dangerous

Recently, Dangerous Minds posted a 1970 interview with Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam, in which he explained how he did a famous piece of animation. A hand repeatedly tries to pull a fig leaf from the crotch of Michelangelo’s David and finally succeeds, to reveal underneath it a talking head that says, “We’re not going to allow this kind of filth on screen.” A giant “Censored” stamp comes down and the animation ends. The bit is seen in the Python TV series and also in the film And Now for Something Completely Different.

In 1978, I was co-editor of our high school’s literary magazine, and we decided to participate in the school’s fine arts festival that spring by showing a movie. In those pre-videocassette days, you’d rent a movie on 16MM—there used to be companies that provided them—and show it for a couple of bucks a ticket. With Python-mania at its height in 1978 and several Python fanatics on the staff of the magazine, a showing of And Now for Something Completely Different was perfect. So we rented it, publicized it heavily, and planned to show it on a Thursday and Friday night in the high school lecture hall.

The Thursday night showing was not particularly well attended, as we guessed it would not be. Friday was going to be the big night. Five minutes before Thursday night showtime, however, a whole family showed up—Mom, Dad, their high-school-aged son, and three much-younger siblings. We were not sure what they were doing there, but we collected their $2 a head and rolled the film for the two dozen people who had showed up.

And Now for Something Completely Different is an anthology of bits from the first two series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One of the first sketches involves a phrasebook that mistranslates mundane Hungarian phrases into sexually suggestive English. Another sketch involving a marriage counselor ends with the counselor and the wife undressing behind a screen before a romantic tryst. This is followed a few minutes later by the fig leaf animation.

On this particular night, the fig leaf animation was followed by the family in the audience noisily getting out of their seats and marching up the aisle and out of the hall. The father demanded of the staff member at the ticket table, in Biblical tones, “Who is responsible for this abomination?”

That night, I knew nothing about the brouhaha, or if I did, I ignored it. The next morning, however, I arrived at school to hear myself being summoned by the public address system to the magazine advisor’s classroom. “It has hit the fan,” he said. “That family at the movie last night complained to the school board, and we have to show the movie to the board at 8:00 this morning.” As it turned out, we had to show it to one member of the school board, a woman I had known for several years because her daughter was a classmate. Perhaps that previous personal relationship saved the magazine—and our advisor—from as much trouble as we could have been in. We were not permitted to show the film on Friday night, but that was the last I heard of the controversy.

It turned out that the family who had left outraged the previous night had come to the Monty Python movie under the impression that it was in fact about a circus, with clowns and acrobats and suchlike. They did not own a TV set, having gotten rid of it years before to keep televised filth out of their very religious home. “Why is their backward attitude our problem?” I asked our advisor. Under the circumstances, he did well not to smack me upside the head in response.

If something similar happened today, the family would have gone to the media in addition to the school board, and the resulting shitstorm would have been epic—a Fox News profile of the religious family that was assaulted by pornography with the approval of the public school they support with their tax dollars. We were lucky to be living in simpler times.

The Meaning of Life

It’s 40 years this week since Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuted on the BBC. It changed the course of comedic history, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it changed my life, too. I discovered them five-plus years after their British debut, when the show started airing nationwide on PBS, and unto this day I’m one of those geeks who can recite whole sketches by heart.

My Python love got me into some hot water, however. In 1978, I was co-editor of my high school’s literary magazine, and we decided to show the first Python film, And Now for Something Completely Different, as a fundraiser. (The film was made up of TV sketches, released in the UK in 1971 and in the States in 1972.)  The first night, a family trooped in with several small children in tow—and soon stormed out, deeply offended by the content of the film. We found out later that they didn’t own a TV set, and they’d brought the kids because they believed it was a Disney film, like 101 Dalmatians.  I had to screen it for a member of the school board the next morning—and I tried valiantly not to laugh during the best bits. We weren’t permitted to show it a second time.

And now for something completely the same: back to the rundown of the Python albums we started yesterday.

The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). If Matching Tie and Handkerchief was Python’s Revolver, then this is their Sgt. Pepper, if by Sgt. Pepper we mean the group’s single greatest recorded achievement. The album is a fully realized comedic whole, with new sketch material linking clips from the film. Some of the new material is among the funniest stuff they ever made.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). I have never been as wild about Life of Brian as many people I know. I admire its audacity—Eric Idle once joked it would be called Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory—but it’s funny only in scattered spots, and is not so consistently enjoyable as The Holy Grail. The soundtrack album gets the Grail treatment, with some new linking material to go along with the clips.

Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album (1980). A largely musical album featuring some of the group’s best songs (“Sit on My Face,” “I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song on the Radio,” “I Like Chinese”), and only a couple of sketches. One of them, “Bookshop,” was originally performed on At Last the 1948 Show. It wasn’t the first time the Pythons mined their deep past for material—their live shows featured “Four Yorkshiremen,” also a 1948 Show original.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). By 1983, the Pythons had been like the Rolling Stones for most of a decade—gone their separate ways, but convening every now and then to work on a lucrative project. The Meaning of Life includes their darkest, most off-putting work since Matching Tie and Handkerchief. The soundtrack features a few new links to accompany the material from the film, and ends up being as unsatisfying as the film itself.

The Python catalog has been chopped and channeled and reissued frequently in the last 25 years. In 2006, the original albums got a deluxe CD release with bonus tracks. Many of the bonus tracks are radio spots for the albums or films, and a few are versions of TV sketches. Don’t look for any lost classics among them. The same is true of the long-rumored Hastily Cobbled Together for a Fast Buck Album, which features outtakes from early 70s recording sessions and was supposed to get an official release in 2005. A few of the tracks are early versions of sketches that appear on later albums, and a few show up as bonus tracks on the 2006 releases. For the most part, however, it’s easy to understand why the rest of it didn’t make the cut back in the day.

Python at 40 is still a going concern, still ripe for discovery by new generations of fans. In that way, they’re also very much like the Beatles. The best tribute to Python’s innovation, and to the difficulty in describing precisely what they did, is also Beatle-derived. Both groups’ success resulted in the coining of new adjectives: “Beatlesque” and “Pythonesque.” Apply them to something today, and everyone knows what you mean.

“Witch Burning-Logician”/Monty Python (a familiar scene followed by an album-only bit that’s NSFW; buy it here)
“I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song on the Radio”/Monty Python (buy it here)

Python at 40

Forty years ago tonight, very late in the evening, the BBC ran the first episode of a new TV comedy show. Viewers weren’t quite sure what to make of it, and it took a while before the show gained an audience. It’s had an audience ever since. Monty Python’s Flying Circus brought an erudite brand of surrealism to television, reimagining what TV could look like and also rejiggering the very idea of what’s funny.

The Pythons were TV veterans by 1969. The five British members met while writing for The Frost Report, which aired in 1966. John Cleese and Graham Chapman went on to appear in At Last the 1948 Show in 1967. Terry Jones and Michael Palin appeared in Do Not Adjust Your Set, which ran in 1968 and 1969 and featured animations by American expatriate Terry Gilliam. Eric Idle appeared in small roles in both shows. Some episodes of At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set are available on DVD (although other episodes have been lost), and the roots of Python are clearly visible in them.

Python’s roots are also in radio. Cleese appeared on the long-running BBC Radio show I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, where Chapman was a writer; some of the other Pythons also appeared on or wrote for radio shows in the mid-to-late 60s. Python’s radio roots are never clearer than on the series of record albums they released. The albums contained material from the TV shows and movies, but the sketches were often modified to work without accompanying visuals. I count 10 non-compilation albums in the Python discography, and in this post and the next one, I’ll have a few words about each.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1970). Features early TV material re-recorded on a single day in front of a non-responsive audience in, for some reason, Cardiff, Wales. Not very well-treated by the BBC, which recorded it in mono without telling the Pythons, who had included a stereo demonstration bit with Chapman walking from one speaker to another.

Another Monty Python Record (1971). More early TV material, and the first Python album that sounds like a Python album in that it’s not necessary to have seen the material to find it funny. (A friend of mine adored the album for years before she ever saw the TV sketches.) Highlights: theater-of-the-mind on “Royal Festival Hall” and a version of “The Piranha Brothers” that’s far superior to the one seen on the TV show.

Monty Python’s Previous Record (1972). The first album to feature non-TV show material, including “Australian Table Wines,” “A Minute Passed,” and “The Wonderful World of Sound.” Also features “The Tale of Happy Valley,” which is based on a sketch first produced for Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus, two editions of which aired on German and Austrian TV in 1972. The Pythons wrote all-new material for both shows, performing the first one in phonetic German but having the second one dubbed. The material was not seen in the States until some of it surfaced during the 1982 American shows that resulted in the movie Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. (The German episodes were to have been edited together into a theatrical film, but the project was scrapped in favor of the Hollywood Bowl film.)

The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973). If, as George Harrison is supposed to have said, the Pythons carried the spirit of the Beatles into the 1970s, this album is their Revolver—the material is significantly more ambitious, and it’s performed with a spirit largely different from their earlier stuff. With no track listings, it was meant to surprise listeners, and it did. Original vinyl pressings included a set of concentric grooves on side two, meaning that it contained two different programs depending on where you dropped the needle.

Monty Python Live at Drury Lane/at the City Center (1974/1976). The Pythons took a show on the road throughout the UK in 1974 and brought it to New York in 1976.  They remarked on the odd reaction of fans during the live shows—people greeted the first lines of sketches with roars of recognition and recited along with the actors rather than merely reacting with laughter. Similar live albums were released in each country. The only new material on them were songs by Neil Innes, who had been in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, regulars on Do Not Adjust Your Set.

Coming next: Python reaches the apex of its career, on records and on film, and starts its lengthy afterlife.

“Royal Festival Hall”/Monty Python (buy it here)
“Record Shop-First World War Noises”/Monty Python (from Matching Tie and Handkerchief; buy it here)