An enduring franchise that continues to influence and shape the world of comedy is the Monty Python ensemble. From 1969 to the early 1980s, the British comedy sextet of John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam (the sole American in the British company) were high entertainment in the U.K. United States, and much of the English speaking world. But what made them so great back then, and are they still funny today?
While I grew up with Monty Python (because of my parents), I’ve noticed that many people from my generation believe that Monty Python productions are pointless and have no real purpose other than attempting—and failing—to be funny. Although some of my friends look at an old Flying Circus episode and feel it is just stupid or outdated, I believe that Monty Python is brilliant comedy that remains relevant to today. To understand what the Monty Python company is doing, you have to understand the theory behind what they are doing.
In a Python movie or shorter piece of comedy, they are not just doing random things and hoping for the best. Robin Hemley argues in his essay “Relaxing the Rules of Reason” that comedy depends on three things: your age, your social standing, and your culture, so it’s understandable that certain people find certain movies, shows, and skits funny while others do not. However, as Hemley’s title suggest, there is a relationship between the recognizable world that the comic presents and how he or she bends the rules of that world to create humor. This is evident in Monty Python’s skit “Silly Job Interview.”
As strange as this dramatized situation is, an interview that has no other purpose other than to humiliate the applicant, it is still a form that is familiar to all of us: wanting to please the person doing the evaluation, wanting to put our ‘best foot forward,’ hoping we have a fair chance while fearing that we do not, and so on. The comedy comes when we see that the embarrassment of the applicant is not an accident but the desired outcome, which comes when the rules of reason are relaxed and bent for this skit.
To understand Monty Python productions, it is important to understand a few key concepts they used to accomplish their great comedic feats: two techniques they used include what sociologist Murray Davis refers to as incongruities and ambiguities. An incongruity is when a comedian introduces a concept and then drops that known system or turns it into something different where it does not fit (Diogenes 28). One (among hundreds) of instances where Monty Python uses incongruity for a comedic effect is in their “Dirty Fork” skit.
Notice how the writers start with a certain genre, romantic comedy with the man and woman in the forefront. Then the writers bring in the dysfunctional restaurant staff, and the skit turns into a drama with elements of a murder mystery show. While all of this is happening, the main characters in the forefront still believe they are in a romantic comedy (and thus the punchline), and so these incongruities between genres creates chaos which causes all sorts of humor.
An ambiguity differs from incongruity because ambiguity is when writers take two separate systems, combine them, and then destroy them both to create humor (Diogenes 28). An example of how Monty Python uses ambiguity to create comedy can be experienced in their skit “Bicycle Repairman.”
Notice how Monty Python takes the concept of superheroes and turns it on its head. Instead of the majority of people being normal, everyone is a superhero, and since they are all super, they don’t have anyone to do common tasks, like fix a bicycle. So, the actual superhero, as we know the term to mean, is a bicycle repairman who saves the day by fixing a “superhero’s” bike. This is so backwards the audience cannot help but laugh a little at the inverted situation. Not only is this amusing, it is also inspirational. It creates humor while inspiring the so-called normal everyday person to not give up; he does have an important role in this world. The directors of Monty Python knew how to create something that would not only cause people to laugh, but also cause people to reflect, either in an inspirational way or in a critical way.
Monty Python’s creators always seemed to grasp that there is a delicate balance to how much comedy to add to a movie or show, how to follow it and how to tip the scale. In his essay “The Comic Touch in the Movies,” Gilbert Seldes explains that most audiences do in fact want comedy, but they do not always know how much or to what extent. It can be hard to be sure when enough is enough and when to move on to the next scene. Seldes suggests that producers should only use little “comic touches” in order to accomplish the goal of being funny without going overboard and overwhelming the audience. Monty Python’s writers are consistent with this in certain skits, but most Monty Python productions are continuous “comic touches.” They understand what atmosphere they are trying to create within a certain scene, and they execute it accordingly. Most of what these skits are meant to do is be overboard and overwhelming in order to get the audience’s attention.
Nevertheless, slight comic touches wouldn’t be able to accomplish what the producers want out of their skits, especially scenes like the “Black Knight.” In their classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there is a scene where King Arthur fights the notorious Black Knight.
[Warning for language and fake gore.]
Arthur ends up cutting off all of the Knight’s limbs, but the Knight, who is just a torso, wants to continue fighting though he physically cannot. This is way overboard, but Monty Python takes it a step further and lets the Knight live through he continues to proclaim that it’s “just a flesh wound.” Monty Python producers understood what they wanted to accomplish, which was an atmosphere of complete nonsense that would make sense to the proper viewer, and they executed it by “relaxing the rules of reason” (Diogenes 50).
According to Hemley, comedy is not always logical because “we laugh at what we find strange, unusual, illogical” (Diogenes 52). Since Monty Python is certainly strange and unusual, I doubt that any fan would disagree with Hemley’s statement. What makes Monty Python pure genius is that the writers meant for it to be illogical. They didn’t want something cut and dry that would make sense to people. They wanted to create something that was funny in a very illogical way that most wouldn’t get, but they knew there would be a select few that would understand and see the humor.
For example, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, all of the knights “ride horses” which are really just their sidekicks clomping together empty coconut shells as they both trout along and the knights pretend to ride a horse.
Many of us as children might have dome something similar when we were pretending with our friends, but we don’t usually expect such imitation in a studio-produced film that is supposed to depict grown men on a quest. This could be seen as just a dash of comedy, but to some this is too much; I doubt we’d ever see Seldes producing a movie with such a profound “comic touch.” Monty Python knew how to work the system, using just enough, which in some cases means what Seldes would call too much, in order to produce a beautiful piece of movie magic that would help shape what we now call comedy.
While the movie industry is usually more interested in the number of viewers and box office sales, the Monty Python company often seems more concerned with getting a point across. In his article “Sixteen Tons of Fun,” Dave Eggers explains that to the Monty Python writers, it was not all about comedy or gaining a bigger audience; it was about expressing something they found important while making it into something they found funny and hoped others would too. Monty Python was not meant to be taken seriously at face value; there is a satirical underlying meaning behind their skits.
Monty Python productions have a hidden meaning that for the most part only educated British men and women would have gotten back when it was first produced. Since Monty Python was made in Britain with British actors and actresses, most of the issues portrayed in the movies were about issues specific to British culture. At times, there would be a snide comment or skit making fun of the movie industry as a whole, showing that the movie industry is too overblown and overboard with their costumes and certain techniques to gain viewers. This along with ridiculing British culture was one of the cornerstones to Monty Python’s productions.
Ridicule is an effective tool against your enemy because it “eliminates the enemy’s image of invincibility” (Diogenes 75). J. Michael Waller explains in his essay “Ridicule: An Instrument in the War on Terrorism” that ridiculing your enemy, in this case British culture and the movie industry, is a good way to defeat them. They lose their power over you when you are able to point out the flaws they would rather keep hidden. The way Monty Python uses ridicule is effective in bringing to the audience’s attention that British culture is not perfect or even good at times. It also alerts people to the pitfalls of the movie industry, which is what we see in their “Splunge” skit.
This ridicule shows that the producers do in fact have a purpose behind what they are doing, showing the world that their beloved movie industry is not as flawless or conventional as some may think. Indeed, as we are learning from the current negative coverage of Hollywood and the media industry, the problems within our entertainment might be a projection of the problems within those who create it.
Beyond the United Kingdom, Monty Python realized that the audience that would most understand their humor was those in the college-aged Baby Boomers. As soon as these productions hit the United States in the 1970s, college students ate it up. They loved the way Monty Python ignored authority and old culture to bring them a new type of comedy. David Noonan explained in his article “The Way We Laughed” that the Baby Boomer generation and their kids desperately wanted comedy that poked fun at authority figures and the concepts that their parents told them to respect. Since authority was seen as something to defy and not follow, these young adults wanted their culture to exemplify their feelings, and Monty Python was that for them.
Some Monty Python productions were about how unfit and dysfunctional the elite gentry class (and thus those who ran government offices, newspapers and movie studios, and most of the U.K.’s institutions) was. For example, in their “Upper-class Twit of the Year” skit, Monty Python actors must complete an obstacle course that includes ridiculous tasks like walking along a straight line without falling over, removing a bra from a manikin, and shoot a rabbit, all of which the characters struggle to do.
While normal people might believe that the upper-class persons are better than they are, Monty Python characterizes them as just ridiculous people trying to fool others into thinking they are the cream of the crop. This skit would have hit home with the college students in the 1970s because it is making fun of a society that those students would have found ridiculous too. However, this brings us to a point of how the culture of the late 1960s and 1970s is often different than today.
Today, rather than asking if a piece of comedy is funny or not, we are often more concerned about whether something could be offensive. We are more likely to wonder how politically correct a statement is instead of looking past that and seeing the humor. That’s our problem today, that we are so worried about what hurts our feelings that we have abandoned much of our creative freedoms and capabilities. This is a big factor when evaluating how Monty Python humor affects my generation. Monty Python humor can be seen as crude and offensive, so it makes perfect sense why people my age don’t enjoy this humor.
Caitlin Flanagan in “That’s Not Funny!” explains that college students today are very difficult to please when it comes to comedy, and many do not understand how comedic techniques can be used to raise serious issues for discussion. But too many people my age just see a movie about knights who ride imaginary horses through a countryside with no true purpose, when in fact those imaginary horses are a commentary on the absurd lengths a movie will go to create a needed atmosphere (when in fact you could just use your imagination which costs much less than the price of the movie ticket).
Monty Python productions were made in a much simpler time when people could say what they wanted: when making a joke meant that people would understand that it was just that—a joke. It is understandable why so many in my generation cannot see Monty Python as humorous; we tend to take things too much to heart and have a hard time being able to laugh at ourselves, which is exactly what Monty Python productions cause many people to do.
By laughing at certain jokes, you are laughing at yourself which is hard for many Millennials and Generation Zers to do. But Monty Python also shows us that taking ourselves less seriously can be both healthy and healing. And good comedy doesn’t have to cost a fortune, but can come (of all things) from a fake dead parrot.
(1). Diogenes, Marvin. Laughing matters: a Longman topics reader. New York, Pearson Longman, 2009
(2). Eggers, Dave. “Sixteen Tons of Fun.” The New Yorker, vol. 80, no. 40, 20 Dec. 2004, p. 166.
(3). Flanagan, Caitlin. “That’s Not Funny!.” Atlantic, vol. 316, no. 2, Sept. 2015, p. 54.
(4). Noonan, David. “The Way We Laughed.” Newsweek, vol. 149, no. 8, 19 Feb. 2007, p.54.
(5). Seldes, Gilbert. “The Comic Touch in the Movies.” Nation, vol. 120, no. 3129, 24 June 1925, p. 723.