And Now For Something Completely Different

40 years ago, Monty Python brought deconstruction to the telly. Scott McLemee looks on the bright side of life.

November 11, 2009

To be sick for very long, confined to bed for days on end, is boring. Worse, you feel it making you boring. The world shrinks to the dimensions of the illness and its treatment. Recuperation means that things return to their proper scale; you remember that existence is more than the sum of all symptoms.

The past few weeks – while undergoing tests that ruled out H1N1 and narrowed the diagnosis to some especially enthusiastic strain of viral bronchitis – I began to suspect that the tuberculosis patients in Thomas Mann’s novel had it lucky. On the Magic Mountain, there was prophetic dialogue about the impending collapse of Western Civilization, and flirtation with Russian countesses over dinner. At the same time, even. By contrast, the range of my own conversation was dwindling down to the potential side-effects of my prescribed antibiotics. (“May cause tendons to disintegrate.”)

Things were getting pretty dire when the Independent Film Channel began showing a six-part documentary called "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut)." It was something like a happiness pill. Laughter, as the saying goes, is the best medicine. At least it won’t poison you.

The series, already available on DVD, is long on anecdote and short on cultural history -- which is probably for the best, given how the Pythons always treated professors and critics. Sure, it might add something to have Stuart Hall on screen to recount how the "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was received at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies when the show first aired in 1969. But they would have probably made him wear lingerie.

That said, there was something a bit donnish about the Python sensibility – as in the notion of a football match between Greek and German philosophers, or the All-England Summarize Proust Competition (with one contestant using up too much of his allotted fifteen seconds with an overview of major themes).

And to judge by the documentary, this lingering academic habitus extended beyond the Python’s knack for turning cultural capital into high silliness. While brainstorming for their feature films Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, the group enjoyed reading up on the Arthurian legends and the world of Roman-occupied Palestine. And it shows. The irreverence works because there is, to begin with, a core of reverence for the primary sources. That the Pythons could then create Dadaist collages out of Le Mort d’Arthur or the Dead Sea Scrolls – meanwhile doing things with the grammar of comedy it would take a seminar in Russian formalist critical theory even to begin to explain – is evidence of some kind of crazy collective genius.

While under the weather, I really wasn’t up to analyzing the Pythons. The idea was to let their humor lift my own. But sooner or later, the question was bound to come up: How had the professoriate responded to them?

At the Library of Congress, the earliest work I was able to get a look at was John O. Thompson’s Monty Python: Complete and Utter Theory of the Grotesque, published by the British Film Institute in 1982. This consisted of a series of excerpts from Python scripts juxtaposed with passages from Freud, Bakhtin, and other worthies. As a work of criticism, this was not that satisfying to read. It seemed less like a book than a packet of freeze-dried coffee crystals.

No surprise to find a volume of papers called Monty Python and Philosophy: Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think, published in 2006 by Open Court in its “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series. There are now at least three academic-press series of this sort, and it seems like matter of time before there is at least one volume on every prime-time TV program of the past half-century -- not excluding “Jonie Loves Chachi.” (Was the sitcom's worldview consequentialist or deontological? Discuss.)

With the Pythons, at least, there is an elective affinity between the show and philosophy as a discipline. I don’t know how much Wittgenstein any of them read while at Cambridge, but some of his work must have gotten through by osmosis. Many skits are examples of two or more language games in collision. And in an interview for the IFC documentary, John Cleese mentions that he’s always been impressed by Henri Bergson’s theory of the comic as a response to inflexible behavior.

The Open Court volume was a bit stronger than some of its ilk, but uneven. More consistently rewarding is Monty Python’s Flying Circus by Marcia Landy, published by Wayne State University Press in 2005. Landy,a professor of English and film studies at the University of Pittsburgh, gives an account of the ensemble's history, then provides a succinct analytic survey of the Pythons’ recurrent obsessions and themes, and explores their formal innovations, which owed as much to film and literature as to the history of television.

The book is thorough and very smart, and surprisingly compact. I read it in roughly the time required to eat a bowl of chicken soup. In some ways, Landy’s monograph seems like a primer for people who have never seen Python and wonder what the fuss is about. At the other extreme is Monty Python’s Flying Circus: An Utterly Complete, Thoroughly Unillustrated, Absolutely Unauthorized Guide to Possibly All the References From Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson to Zambesi by Darl Larsen, published last year by Scarecrow Press.

Larsen, an associate professor of media arts at Brigham Young University, records and annotates literally thousands of literary, cultural, and political references and allusions made in the course of the show’s 45 episodes. It is the ultimate nerd encyclopedia. (I mean that, of course, in a good way.)

In 2003, the author published Monty Python, Shakespeare, and English Renaissance Drama (McFarland), based on a dissertation accepted by Northern Illinois University three years earlier. Larsen’s earlier work was not simply that the TV show sent up the Bard, among other figures, but that both Shakespeare and the Pythons had created a vocabulary of “Englishness” -- a set of endlessly citable, easily recognizable elements that came to embody various aspects of British culture and history. Like Shakespeare, the Pythons deployed “elements of satire, the grotesque, carnival, and ribald wordplay.” And both played fast and loose with real history in the interest of entertainment.

With his reference book (which at 550 pages resembles a phone directory) Larsen carries his argument to the next level. He tracks the scores of contemporary references and cultural allusions in each episode, explicating them as systematically as another scholar might gloss the in-jokes found in an Elizabethan poem or play. It is the product of hundreds of hours, at least, of watching the program -- and thousands more of research to document and annotate the references.

Here we are in the zone where Pythonophilia turns into Pythonomania. I was in awe of the book, and got in touch with Larsen to find out how he’d come to compile it.

“As I'd watched the 'Flying Circus' episodes as a fan and then a researcher,” he wrote me by e-mail, “I was struck by how many of the references flew right past me. Maybe because I was too young? Or too American? Maybe, but there was much going on. This wasn't 'Benny Hill' with a silly costume and a fixed leer ‑‑ there was more. The Pythons were clearly waving their Oxbridge educations, their collective fascination with history and popular culture, their love/hate of the TV medium in the faces of stodgy BBC Directors General and Programme Planners and the general viewing public…. The episodes seemed ripe for annotation, simply, and I couldn't help myself.”

He had a model in mind: Larsen says that during his student years he was deeply impressed by the apparatus for A.C. Hamilton’s edition of The Faerie Queene. The extensive annotations brought Spenser’s allegorical poem “into real currency” for him, Larsen says, “and made studying for my comp exams much more bearable.”

His desire to map the Pythonian intertext was also driven by dissatisfaction. “It kind of irked me,” he explains, “that studying D.H. Lawrence was perfectly acceptable, but that we should avoid artists or works who reference or are influenced by Lawrence and his world, as the Pythons clearly were. The Pythons are as much about 20th century philosophy and Man's place in a lonely universe as they are about dead parrots and missing cheese…. Try and think of them this way: The Pythons were born in a time of world war, grew up in austerity and privation, and came of age just when people like Sartre and The Beatles were doing their best work.”

Well, no need to persuade me. As Eric Idle says in the spam sketch, “I love it.” But how did colleagues respond to his interest in Python?

As a graduate student, Larsen had the support of “the eminent Shakespearean scholar William Proctor Williams, who both suffered and championed me and the subject matter through the dissertation process.” But to continue with Python research after his first book was accepted for publication was not an obvious career-booster. At BYU, he says, “there were those who were concerned, perhaps rightly, that working on such things between a third and sixth‑year review might not be the best use of time, and they said so. Pig‑headed, I pushed on.”

Early proofs of his reference work were included when Larsen's sixth-year portfolio went for outside review. The response to his work “was very heartening (and I achieved rank and status), with one interesting anomaly. One reviewer praised the scope and depth of the scholarship before essentially shaking his head in wonderment at the ‘silly’ subject matter.”

Well, yes. Quite. Silliness being, after all, the point.

This weekend, having just recovered from my bout of illness, I attended a performance of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington. This play, written in 1610, contains a conspicuous number of proto- or quasi-Pythonesque elements: upper-class twits, religious fanatics, horny babes, a fake Spaniard, and improbable plotlines that collide like drunks on a bender. There was also at least one analingus joke. And it does help to know at least a little about alchemy, since the playwright is making fun of that, too.

The whole thing was very silly indeed. Anyone claiming otherwise just wasn’t paying attention. But there is the merely silly and the greatly silly. The great stuff lasts over time. It improves the quality of life. Unless, of course, it kills you.


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