The Beatles of Comedy

Monty Python's genius was to respect nothing.

During the Python era, writers like Woody Allen were doing similar comedy in America: popular, slapstick stuff that unself-consciously combed history and high culture for inspiration. What a falling-off there has been since then. Most of today’s popular comedy looks willfully malnourished by comparison. It’s poor form, these days, to know more than your audience. A modern comedian’s idea of an obscure reference is to mention Mr. Miyagi, or the cantina scene in Star Wars. These allusions must be okay, because every other comedian makes them too. Not even Tina Fey can escape the pop-culture echo chamber. Her book, Bossypants, is full of arcane but reassuringly junky cultural references—to Jon from CHiPs, to the guy from Arli$$. But when Fey risks a lone literary allusion, she feels bound to qualify it with a clanging footnote: “If you get this reference to David Foster Wallace’s 1997 collection of essays, consider yourself a member of the cultural elite. Why do you hate your country and flag so much?!”

The Pythons were luckier than Tina Fey, of course. The air back then wasn’t thick with culture-war grievance. People were less uptight. They must have been: How else did the troupe possibly get away with some of the stuff in these scripts? These pages make ample mention of dagos, wops, fairies, ponces. Large-breasted women turn up in low-cut dresses, and are lunged at. One character’s name is Mrs. Nigger-Baiter. A townswomen’s guild re-creates the battle of Pearl Harbor, having previously staged an “extremely popular reenactment of Nazi war atrocities.” Graham Chapman, playing a character who believes himself to be Jewish, puts on an enormous polystyrene nose. Various Pythons appear in blackface. Chapman appears in the character of “a Chinaman.”

Fortunately, Luke Dempsey, in his capacity as the book’s editor, is on hand to chide the Pythons for these failures to anticipate and heed our current mores. When Chapman’s Chinaman starts delivering his lines, Dempsey steps in to observe, “Our modern, even postmodern, ears might find this stock Chinese accent tough to enjoy.” And when a script calls for an art critic, played by Palin, to strangle his wife, we get another wringing of the editorial hands: “This casual violent misogyny strikes the modern viewer as horribly crass.”

Well, it’s good to know that our editor disapproves of spousal homicide. In troubling to let us know that he does, Dempsey risks coming across as humorless; but these days even an annotator of Monty Python would sooner seem humorless than culturally insensitive. At times, Dempsey sounds like a Victorian editor of Shakespeare, scolding the Bard for making Hamlet say bawdy Elizabethan things. He takes it for granted that our values are more enlightened than the Pythons’ were; he is confident that we’ve come a long way since then. But how far have we come, really, if we now require footnotes to assure each other that we don’t approve of husbands strangling wives? Have we really become so scared of one another?

No doubt we are more enlightened than the Pythons were, in some ways. But we’ve lost something, too—a general laid-backness and goodwill. It’s hard to rewatch Python’s old shows without feeling a nostalgic pang for a time when the world had a better sense of humor. Those guys didn’t need to insert disclaimers to indicate that they were, when they pretended to strangle women, only joking. They trusted their audience to see that. Yes, they were looser with their language than we are. But they were loose with it in the same innocent 1970s way that they were loose with everything: their unfettered hair, their indiscriminate ridicule, their pale unbuffed bodies, which they exhibited for the camera at the smallest opportunity. They freely used words like poof; one member of the team, Graham Chapman, was openly gay. Neither of these things seemed to strike their public as a big deal.

It’s a pity that the word irreverent has lost its weight, so that it’s come to seem a mere synonym for cheeky. The Pythons were irreverent in the deepest sense. They had automatic respect for nothing. Everything was fit matter for comedy: religion, national differences, cannibalism, Hitler, torture, death, crucifixion. They created a parallel world in which nothing was serious. They were like boys: they not only weren’t afraid; they didn’t know they should be afraid.

Today’s comedians can’t go back to that prelapsarian world. They can query or violate our current taboos, but they can’t unknow them. There has been plenty of excellent comedy since Python’s work, but most of it has been the comedy of social anxiety: comedy that walks the tightrope between what we can and cannot say. The writers of Seinfeld, the smartest TV show of the post-Python era, knew that propitiations had to be made. When Elaine dated a man whose ethnicity was ambiguous—she didn’t know whether he was black or white—she found the question so ticklish that she sought George’s and Jerry’s advice. “Should we be talking about this?,” George asked. “I really don’t think we’re supposed to be talking about this.”

The Pythons felt no such social dread: they talked about whatever they wanted to talk about. There were, of course, certain words they couldn’t use while doing so. By today’s standards, some of the verbal restrictions placed on Flying Circus seem laughably draconian. All but the mildest of four-letter words were disallowed. The BBC wouldn’t let them say masturbating; when ABC ran a clip show in 1975, the network bleeped out the phrase naughty bits.

In no other comedy series in TV history have so many brilliant ideas been packed into so small a space.

But beyond these constraints on verbal smut, Python was miraculously free to inflict deeper offense. Its undertaker sketch, which aired as the closing number of Circus’s second season, still ranks as one of the most outrageous pieces of comedy ever conceived. If Cleese had left the show after the second season instead of the third, as he once threatened to do, the undertaker sketch might have been the last thing the entire troupe ever performed. It would have been a fittingly weird swan song. To watch the sketch for the first time is a strange, slightly shameful experience. The laughter is ripped from somewhere deep in you, entirely against your will.

The sketch is set in a mortuary. Behind the desk stands an elaborately dressed undertaker, played by Chapman. Cleese enters as a solemn young man whose mother has just died. Chapman, in a depraved cockney accent, embarks on a graphic description of the pros and cons of the services available to him—mainly the cons. (“If we bury her, she gets eaten up by lots of weevils and nasty maggots, which, as I said before, is a bit of a shock if she’s not quite dead.”) Cleese’s character looks appalled, but he has no right to be—it turns out that he’s brought his mother’s corpse along with him in a burlap sack. Chapman peers inside it, and proposes that they eat the body. Cleese admits to feeling “a bit peckish,” but wonders whether eating his dead mother is really a good idea. And Chapman says: “Look, tell you what. We’ll eat her. If you feel a bit guilty about it afterwards, we can dig a grave and you can throw up in it.” Python tended to avoid punch lines, but that was one for the ages.

The BBC didn’t like the undertaker sketch, but it let Python proceed with it—on the condition that the studio audience could be heard and seen registering its disapproval. There were boos as the sketch got nastier. When Chapman delivered that magnificently rancid punch line, the audience got up and invaded the set. This was an unusually thoughtful stroke of censorship: The undertaker sketch was a deliberate assault on a universal taboo. It was therefore appropriate that the audience members were seen looking offended—if they hadn’t been offended, there would have been something wrong with them. A lot of them were laughing, too: proof that being offended isn’t the end of the world, and might even be a healthy thing.

When the Pythons switched from TV to the movies, they were relatively free to use profane language—if they wanted to. They rarely did: they remained more interested in the subversive possibilities of the profane thought. In Life of Brian, there is a scene in which Brian, played by Chapman, raises the ire of a Judean revolutionary, played by Cleese. In the original cut of the film, Cleese’s character indicated his displeasure by yelling “You cunt!” In the final cut, the line was dubbed over as “You klutz!” Python made the change for artistic reasons, not to appease a censor. The profanity was cheaply startling, and the film had more-expensive shocks to administer than that. (Marlon Brando is said to have cited a similar principle when, during the shooting of Last Tango in Paris, he refused to be filmed naked. The audience, he told Bertolucci, would look at his dick instead of his face.)

Brian stands as Python’s masterpiece because of the assurance with which it juggles the silly, the smart, and the sacred. To set a comedy during the time of Christ was a daring venture even in 1979. Today, such a project would surely flame out on the launchpad. Not that Python set out to mock Jesus, who makes only two fleeting appearances in the film. Instead it created Brian, whose life has certain parallels to Christ’s (he is born on the same night; he is taken for a prophet) but who is emphatically not the savior. The film was nevertheless deemed blasphemous, mainly by people who hadn’t seen it.

Those of us who have seen it know that the film has a respect for nuance that its detractors tend to lack. One refuses to believe that Brian is more than 30 years old; it feels ageless, eternally pertinent. The film’s closing scene remains one of the most sublime moments in film comedy. It shocks you by being funny and deeply moving at the same time. Brian hangs on his cross, bearded, shirtless, loinclothed, forsaken. The iconography is daringly authentic, and Chapman’s face carries a genuinely affecting look of despair. For the Pythons, the degree of comic difficulty became rather high here. How were they going to talk their way out of this?

They didn’t. They sang their way out instead. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” composed by Idle, rose irresistibly to the occasion. When the corpses on the ground start tapping their toes to the tune, you can’t blame them. It’s phenomenally catchy. But just as you start to feel that the movie has shifted away from seriousness, it dawns on you that what the Pythons are really singing about up there is you: you, and the fact that you’re going to die too. “Always look on the bright side of death / Just before you draw your terminal breath.” This is bold comedy: it gets right down into the roots of what we venerate and fear. When comedy like this works, the payoff is huge. You feel lifted, part of an intelligent species.

During the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, Idle turned up to sing the song live, flanked by a contingent of exhibitionist nuns wearing Union Jack underpants. It was a fitting and gutsy move to throw a touch of Python into a ceremony designed to showcase Britain’s contributions to world culture. Along with its language, England’s sense of humor is its finest export, and Python is English humor’s apotheosis. “Life’s a piece of shit / When you look at it.” True, but it’s hard to feel that way while watching Python. The troupe behaved as if nothing was sacred and everything was ridiculous. It is a deeply subversive attitude—and a deeply liberating one.

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David Free is an Australian critic and the author of the novel A Dancing Bear.

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