Month Python has made people laugh, smile, and smirk for decades. E&M explores its staying power.

(-‘Shh, it’s satire!’

-‘No it isn’t, it’s zany madcap humour.’)

The new citizenship test unveiled by the UK government earlier this year was derided for portraying a nation of unreconstructed, tea-swilling imperialists in bowler hats. To many continental Europeans, there may not seem much wrong with such a depiction; but what seemed especially peculiar was that among the examples cited by critics of the test’s elitism and anachronism, the Battle of Trafalgar and the Raj were joined by Monty Python, a 1970s comedy troupe famous for the Ministry of Silly Walks and the Spanish Inquisition.

Over the last half century, the brand has caught on. | Photo: Bernt Rostad, CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The Pythons’ oeuvre may be as unrepresentative as the rest of the test’s content of what immigrants need to know to become British; but it would be hard to think of a more accessible, timeless, borderless set of films and TV programmes. Searching on YouTube for a sketch by Monty Python yields a striking variety of subtitles and dubbing: something seems to be available in every European language bar perhaps Luxembourgish. Comments posted by non-Anglophone users testify to its lasting entertainment value, even for those unfamiliar with its original cultural and linguistic context; the silly walks seem particularly to have caught on in Brno.

Although notably harder to find subtitled in Hindi, Mandarin, Igbo or any other non-European language, Monty Python has clearly transcended both time and place, with its fan-base spreading across borders and into a digitally-literate generation. It has been a fundamental inspiration to much of the successful comedy made since, such as Groland in France or now Almodovar’s I’m So Excited, which often recalls the cockpit scene of Monty Python’s successor How to irritate people. It has given comedy what the Beatles gave music: a point of reference of lasting, international popularity, one forever being imitated and evoked. But why should such a body of work, of which even the historical films (The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian) are based so heavily on caricatures of 1970s Britain, have proved so enduring?

The answer lies partly in the question of why we still identify with the ideas of the 1960s and 1970s so closely: when I listen to the Who or Patti Smith singing about their generations, I actually think they’re talking about mine. The posters of Jimi Hendrix and other 27-club members on every young person’s bedroom wall testify to our aspiration to follow in the footsteps of those early rebels; and the Pythons’ regular mockery of Bishops, Policemen, and even the Queen reflects the anti-authoritarian dynamic with which many of us tend to characterise that period. Consumerist aspiration is, of course, still perfectly recognisable. So are debates on gender and sexuality, which began in time to inspire the Pythons’ portrayal of transgender police officers or exploration of the question of whether a man can become a woman; although less progressive in their all-male composition, they make fun of heteronormative prejudices which forty-four years later seem depressingly familiar.

Yet there are more timeless reasons behind Monty Python’s lasting appeal. In part, it due to the transferable, culturally non-specific nature of purely ridiculous humour. In ‘The First man to Jump the English Channel’, the joke is one of communication more than anything else: what on earth can you sensibly say to someone hoping in earnest to jump 42km in one go?

With some exceptions, however, Monty Python’s skits work not so much on their silliness, as some dismissively claim, as on being reliably unpredictable. ‘And now for something completely different’: a sketch is never allowed to descend into repetition, and if this does threatens to occur, on comes a deus ex machina in the form of Terry Gilliam’s animations, an indignant colonel or an outraged correspondent. The ‘straight man’ of a scenario – the character who represents normality, or indeed the likely reaction of the viewer, in the face of a farcical situation – does often exist, but (in the chemist or cheesemonger sketches, for example) he keeps switching characters. Even such bastions of normality, such staples of our expectations as a film’s opening credits, are made thoroughly, enjoyably confusing. As with confrontation, success in comedy depends on maintaining a constant surprise factor; and Monty Python rarely lets the viewer be too certain of what is going to happen next. Once described by one of its six members as fundamentally ‘non-topical’, it refuses to be pinned down.

As the Holy Grail‘s opening sequence demonstrates, even the medium itself, the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, and the activity of filming comedy, become a bit of a joke. The actors are forced to restart and rework the chemist sketch a number of times, with the camera eventually breaking the ‘fourth wall’ too by following a character off set. The disrespect shown to highly-regarded figures such as Bishops, or admired characters such as lumberjacks, is not simply about poking fun at authority. Like the recurrent twists of form, style, and content, is about poking fun at certainty. Nothing that threatens to be taken too seriously is left untouched; in which vein, incidentally, it is probably worth acknowledging that if watched for too long in sequence, Monty Python sketches can get boring (better to watch a single hilarious one, over and over again).

The Pythons’ apparently insouciant approach to entertainment diffuses an eternal coolness. When Terry Jones’s moustache comes off in the Attila the Hun sketch, he just puts it away and carries on. In the infamous undertaker sketch, they show themselves boldly comfortable with what is likely always to count as bad taste. This swaggering spontaneity, besides making most of their work impossible to remake, charms us as if we were listening to an engaging raconteur. Unlike many raconteurs they remain likeable, thanks to a disarming sincerity which also permeates their work, whether in the deadpan tone of John Cleese as he announces something completely different or in the apologies Eric Idle makes to the camera in the chemist shop. Indeed, a rather admirable patience can often be discerned in the troupe’s efforts to continue in spite of setbacks, for example when something completely different cannot immediately be found.

Monty Python may enjoy a success beyond its original time and place; but this success remains anchored in Europe. Yes, it is hugely popular in the USA and Canada. But the camp lumberjack (why not watch that one again?) is about as far as Monty Python’s deconstruction of North American cultural icons goes. By contrast, much of their work plays with the very identity of being European: besides using jokes based on cultural interchange involving Italians or Hungarians, they explore fundamental myths such as those surrounding classical composers or knights in armour (see The Holy Grail). It is here, indeed, that Monty Python shows itself to be much more than simply ‘silly’: the intellectual rigour behind the commentary on philosophers’ football is impressive, and the pertinence of the Life of Brian‘s satire of anarchists, religious nutters and others is such that the film is usually cited to illustrate a political or social point.

Writing in a previous issue of E&M, Mohammad Al-Hasani proposed that Umberto Eco was ‘Top European’, and it might seem the Pythons are eligible for a parallel Euro-hero status. In their own small way, they champion precisely the sort of openness which the article eulogised. Indeed, Michael Palin’s words about closed systems of thought in a 1979 interview almost exactly anticipate Eco’s criticism of rigid world visions. Forever overturning prejudices even within the context of an individual sketch, they exude an ethos of tolerance, not just on politicised issues such as homosexuality but also in a more philosophical sense. Above all, as they strive against the odds (against the policemen, the intruding animations) to get the show to go on, they embody an adaptability, an openness to compromise, of which we Europeans are in particular need at present.

I would propose Monty Python as a bunch of Top Europeans, therefore; I would, except that to do so would be a direct contradiction of their non-topical, amorphous essence. Instead, I shall just advise you to watch them, whichever language is your native tongue. It is not, as the Bishop would patiently say, ‘too late’.

Cover photo: Alastair Campbell; CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

  • retro

    Timothy Beyer studied International and European Politics at Edinburgh University. Interests include gender and (gradually) learning Arabic.

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