The Pythons were masters of juxtaposition: their signature move was to thrust something very salient into the wrong context. Dressed as garish figures from history or high culture, they would bizarrely insert themselves into the drab, rainy reality of 1970s England. The Spanish Inquisition bursts into a series of middle-class living rooms. Picasso paints a picture while bicycling down the A29. In an art gallery, the figures in all the paintings walk off their respective canvasses to go out on strike. (The first volume of Michael Palin’s highly readable Diaries, published in 2006, reminds you that the Britain of Python’s era was a dysfunctional place, bedeviled by strikes and power outages.)
The Pythons worked similar tricks of juxtaposition with words: their most quotable sentences tend to feature some sudden, jarring contrast between high language and low. “It’s probably pining for the fjords,” says Palin in the parrot sketch, looking to explain the Norwegian Blue’s painfully apparent rigor mortis. Like Cardinal Ximinez leaping into someone’s living room, the exotic word gate-crashes the unsuspecting sentence. “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy,” says Brian’s mother in Life of Brian. When people call something Pythonesque, this is the sort of effect they mean. The Pythons kept dragging exalted themes into a context of English ordinariness, thereby revealing the absurdity of both.
“Only those who are capable of silliness,” wrote Christopher Isherwood, “can be called truly intelligent.” Palin quotes this maxim in his Diaries, with approval. Python’s silliness was extreme, all right, but it was balanced by the men’s wit and education. They did physical gags that could amuse a preverbal child, but they also employed language so vivid that intellectuals quote it as if it were poetry. When Christopher Hitchens spoke at the Sydney Opera House a couple years before his death, the audience demanded an encore. Hitchens obliged by reciting the whole of Python’s drunken-philosophers song from memory (“John Stuart Mill of his own free will / On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill …”).
The Pythons knew their stuff; when they didn’t, they read up on it. Researching the Middle Ages for Holy Grail, they learned that taunting the enemy was a common tactic in medieval sieges. So, apparently, was catapulting dead animals. Thus the completed film features Cleese’s imperishable turn as the French taunter, whose strange shouts of abuse from the battlements (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries”) are followed by the flinging of the dead cow.
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?!”