Monty Python

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Richard A. Blake

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Monty Python's Flying Circus is a disease, one of those mad maladies propagated by public television, the same people who hooked audiences on Julia Child's personality by promising them an educational cooking show, The French Chef. In fact, the Flying Circus has less to do with the three rings of Barnum and Bailey fame than does a boarding-house bathtub.

The success of the Flying Circus is an anomaly. It is so terribly, terribly British that the political and social satire soars archly over the heads of an American audience….

Yet, despite its incorrigible and mysterious Britishness, Monty Python's Flying Circus threatens to become an authentic hit…. Cleese and his collaborators have … captured a sense of the television medium itself. To revert to a mildly quaint McLuhanism, they have exploited the medium so completely that the Albion-bound message is really reduced to an insignificant position of importance. Who cares if I don't understand the joke? They tell it so damnably well.

Like its linear ancestor on American television, Laugh In, the Flying Circus has mastered the principle of television timing. It uses the commercial as the measure of the longest possible attention span of its audience…. Like commercials, the units are quick and discrete, in the Aristotelean sense, but far from discreet in the Victorian. A viewer can tune in at any point in the program and not miss any background, an editor can jumble the parts and rearrange them in any sequence and nothing would be lost. (p. 348)

Part of the fascination is wondering what the point of all this nonsense is, and then wondering what has been missed when no point emerges. It is a voyage into the absurd on a Humean raft. Experience means nothing, since all laws of logical sequence have been suspended. Does, for example, a music-hall song about transvestite lumberjacks really mock transvestites, lumberjacks or the bleary-minded viewer trying to make sense out of this Mad Hatter world?

With such pogo-stick pacing, Monty Python's Flying Circus moves too quickly to offend, to shock, to provoke or even to enrage. It merely bewilders. In a world of television, American or British, when every creator of electronic schlock feels he must make a point, the fictional Monty Python has again reasserted the primacy of the pointless. Not a bad commentary on television itself. (p. 349)

Richard A. Blake, "Python, Python, Burning Bright," in America (© America Press, 1975; all rights reserved), Vol. 132, No. 17, May 3, 1975, pp. 348-49.

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