Sep 5, 2015

Watching Monty Python's Flying Circus

When PBS came to Rock Island in the 1970s, it brought us a full-fledged British invasion. Sitcoms (Father Dear Father, Good Neighbors), science fiction (The Prisoner, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), costume drama (Upstairs Downstairs) -- and since they were on PBS, they were all educational, approved even by teachers who derided all other tv as "mindless trash."

Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74) was the most bizarre of the lot.  Ostensibly a comedy-sketch show with a regular troupe of performers, like Saturday Night Live, it had sketches that bled into other sketches, or stopped halfway through, weird semi-animated characters commenting on the action, visual puns, in-jokes, moments of sudden chaos.  In Britain, there were antecedents in The Goon Show  and This Was the Week That Was, but in America we had never seen anything like it.

And we loved it.  We repeated catch phrases over and over (I still use "Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!").

We discussed the inner significance of sketches with the zeal of literature scholars.

We sang "The Lumberjack Song" and "Spam!"

We went to the movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979).

In retrospect, we didn't like Monty Python very often.  Many sketches were incomprehensible, too bizarre, too busy savaging British programming conventions that we had never heard of.  And why are men in drag portraying elderly women with Yorkshire accents by definition hilarious?

But some of the sketches were -- and still are --anarchic gems.

Dead Parrot ("This is an ex-parrot!")

Hungarian Translation ("My hovercraft is full of eels.")

Nudge Nudge Wink Wink ("Is your wife...into photographs?")

Spam ("No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!")

There was a fair amount of nudity, many more exposed chests and abs than you would ever see on American tv.  Eric Idle (left) was particularly likely to be displayed in the altogether.

And, surprisingly for the 1970s, there were no swishy stereotyped gay characters, After Graham Chapman came out to the other troupe members in 1967, they were careful to avoid overt stereotyping of gay men, although their distaste for transvestism is often apparent.

In fact, a number of sketches skewered homophobia, as when one character suspects that another is a "poof," and casually shoots him.  Or a "Prejudice Game," in which anti-gay prejudice is placed on equal footing with racial and religious prejudice -- revolutionary in the 1970s.

See also: Saturday Night Live.