Friday, October 30, 2009
All last week, IFC aired a 6-part documentary on the history of Monty Python's Flying Circus, "Monty Python, Almost the Truth (The Director's Cut)." The group had a profound influence on my own early life and tastes.
I discovered Monty Python at the perfect time: the show first started syndication in the U.S. around 1975, which would have put me just at the start of my teens. I vividly recall being somewhat puzzled by the first episode I saw but intrigued. Fortunately, I stuck with it and slowly began to "get" what they were doing and, of course, quickly became an avid fan.
If I recall correctly, I had only recently discovered the television show when Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released. The movie obviously made me a fan for life—I recall it being one of the first movies I ever saw without my parents and with friends. It also was the first time I recall truly laughing aloud at a movie. (I recall one of my friends accidentally doing a spit take of his soda onto an audience member in the row in front of us during one hilarious sequence—after that, we learned to sip our sodas with our eyes closed.) Being the typical fanboy, I went on to devour whatever I could by the group, including their books and comedy albums, and being excited by their other projects, such as All You Need is Cash (the Beatles' parody Rutles mockumentary by Eric Idle). I even began producing my own homemade brand of Monty Python books for myself and my brother!
As I said, I was certainly the perfect age and demographic for Python—by the time I started college, spontaneously reciting and re-enacting Monty Python lines and skits became a quick way to connect and bond with new friends.
Calling the Pythons the Beatles of comedy has become a bit of a cliche recently, but it's nevertheless an apt and concise description: in the same way the Beatles reinvented and redefined rock 'n roll music and the music industry (even the album concept), the Pythons completely redefined the boundaries of humor, pushing comedy in new directions. And as the Beatles internalized their love of early American rock, the local Liverpool skiffle scene (as well as a bit of the English beer hall tradition), and turned it into something new, Python built on the work of innovative comedy groups like the Goon Show and brought this subversive surreal comedy into the mainstream. (Indeed, many of the Pythons worked concurrently on many of the British shows at the time before coming together to create their own show.) Many comedy shows, and practically every comedy skit show, are clearly Python influenced. It seems fitting that the Beatles were fans of Python (and vice versa) and, as shown in the IFC documentary, that their lives intersected substantially in many ways over the years.
Being familiar with the group, aside from the details there's not much new information in the documentary for me, but in the same way the Beatles Anthology documentary was the band's way of cementing their legacy on their own terms, Almost the Truth serves the same function, while also serving as validation of their importance to fans like myself. I always have been fascinated by the fact that the Pythons were all well educated, primarily coming out of Oxford and Cambridge (which has produced similar formidable respected comedians and actors like Emma Thomson and Hugh Laurie). You can see this reflected in their humor, which is incredibly verbal and littered with literary and historical references that you either get or don't. And though it's always a risk to dissect comedy, I've always enjoyed hearing how the several camps within the group certainly recognized they had their own styles of humor and strengths; but again like the Beatles, the sum of the whole added up to something much more than their individual parts.
Anyway, here's to Python. Watching the documentary and rewatching the shows have reminded me of how exciting it was to discover Python for the first time, and how much a role it played in my life when I was forming my own sense of humor and identity.