Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Seasons of Love: "Monty Python's Flying Circus," Season Two, 1970


First in a series

I was the first person I knew that was into Monty Python. I discovered them around the time of my 9th birthday; in hindsight that might have been too young, but their singular impact on me was much too great to let age be a consideration. I remember watching the show's 20th anniversary special (several years after its first airing, mind you) one night on PBS and it struck my curiosity enough that I started renting tapes from Blockbuster a couple of days later. The absurdity and silliness was what lured me in; the intellectual undercurrent was what keep me watching. Where most of my peers discovered "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" a year or two after I did, my gateway was the original series.

For the first of my "Seasons of Love" essays, I have chosen the second and arguably most immaculate season of Monty Python's Flying Circus. If MPFC instigated the "classic rock" era of British comedy, than the second series is Led Zeppelin II, Exile on Main Street, and Who's Next rolled into one. All thirteen episodes are A-quality or very close to it; I can count the number of sketches and bits I didn't like on one hand. If the first series set the tone for breaking conventions and destroying the familiar, year two reinforced the anarchy. The sweet spot between surreal interference and coherent set-pieces is hit more regularly, and without getting pummeled. The chaos is more fluid, more focused, and just about seamless. Where the third and fourth series grow increasingly hit and miss (especially after John Cleese's departure) the second series is peak Python.

To understand Monty Python at the peak of its powers is to see how the show's talent took specific roles and played that part to the hilt. John Cleese, the alpha male; Graham Chapman, the straight man; Eric Idle, cheeky and playful; Michael Palin, alternately nice and smarmy; Terry Jones, the pompous pushover; and Terry Gilliam, taciturn yet feral. Writing and creating their own material, the Pythons had totally different personalities: Cleese and Chapman collaborated on sketches that mixed foibles and juxtaposition; Palin and Jones co-wrote longer sketches that turned into meandering character studies; Idle kept it short and silly. The spine of the zaniness was Gilliam's intricate animation fills, stop-motion cutouts mixed with zaftig, macabre caricatures.

To bring home my point, here are (in chronological order) the five strongest episodes of season two:

"Face the Press," episode one of the season, 14th overall. Best known for "Ministry of Silly Walks," one of the few overly physical sketches in the Python canon, "Press" also features the Piranaha Brothers documentary spoof, which consumes the final third of the episode. A gag involving an absurd number of deliverymen installing a new gas cooker (er, oven) gives the season premiere a figurative and literally serpentine runner to bring everything together. "Dinsdale!"

"The Spanish Inquisition," episode two, 15th overall. AV Club suggested this as your Python Gateway to Geekery, and I can't disagree.  Palin is aces as the hapless Cardinal Ximenez, turning the titular 15th century religious persecution into feckless, mustache-twirling villainy. They aim for evil, but they settle for mild annoyance. Beyond the inquisition this is just a collection of sketch great sketches, including "The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights" and "Tax on Thingy."

"It's a Living," episode six, 19th overall. There's no recurring theme or wraparound this time, it's just a great series of sketches. "Timmy Williams' Coffee Time" is a dead-on parody of David Frost, a bite-the-hand-that-feeds moment for an early champion of Python's work. The final quarter of the episode is again dedicated a lengthier piece, a send-up of live election coverage --a Party Political Broadcast, if you will-- that pits the Silly Party against the Sensible Party.

"Spam," episode 12, 25th overall. Any Python fan worth their salt knows the title sketch and its accompanying sing-along, but this is another top-to-bottom cavalcade of scenes. "Ypres 1914" evokes Ernest Hemingway and features a great individual performance from Chapman. "Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook" is fairly quotable, and "Communist Quiz" and "Gumby Flower Arranging" later became staples of Python's live act.

"Royal Episode 13," 26th overall. "The Queen is watching," the show's announcer warns upfront. Any assumption that Python will play it safe is thrown out almost immediately; the tasteless "Cannibal Lifeboat" sketch segues into the even more abhorrent "Cannibal Undertaker" sketch, and gross-out humor dominates the proceedings. Inspired as it may have been, the perceived limits of good taste forced the BBC's censors to pay closer attention. There was a limit to what Monty Python could get away with after all.

Of course, by choosing five episodes from one season I can't touch every base. The other eight episodes of Python's second series have all sorts of great sketches, ranging from the game show spoof "Blackmail" to "The Killer Cars" to "How Not to Be Seen." "Scott of the Antarctic," perhaps the weakest episode of the season, is a tad arch and slow-moving at times, but its strongest elements trump the weaknesses. Regardless, whenever someone watches "Holy Grail" or "Life of Brian" want to know where to go next, season two is normally where I steer them.

With any luck, "Seasons of Love" will turn into a monthly feature on this blog. There are plenty of shows I like, past and present, that are worth writing about; at the same time, I'm also open to suggestions.

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2 comments:

  1. Well put, Stu. I just rewatched the first season a few weeks ago. It always amazes me how rich the episodes are, and although the obvious sketches always remain in mind, so many of the "forgotten" sketches jump out to confirm that MPFC was probably the greatest comedy show ever.

    I also have little doubt that it was a big influence on the early years of SNL. MPFC had been airing on PBS and set the bar for cutting-edge comedy before the first episode of SNL ever appeared, and was must-watch TV for us youngsters at the time.

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