Thomas Meehan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793

[The Pythons] have a singular genius for making nonsensical fun of all who are pompous, pretentious, humorless, or boring, or who take themselves too seriously. In short, people like me…. Since having watched Monty Python's TV election returns, I haven't been able to watch American TV election returns … without having to suppress a slight case of the giggles. They do that to you, the Pythons—so hilariously lampoon something like TV election returns that the real thing forever after seems strangely ludicrous.

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Unlike almost all other comedians these days, on TV or elsewhere, the Pythons are shamelessly willing to go in for absolute nonsense—to dress up in women's clothes, to talk in non sequiturs, and to be not only utterly silly but also often in outrageously bad taste…. "Undergraduate humor," scornfully say the Pythons' critics, but there is such off-the-wall originality and intelligence in most of what they do that it might better be called "overgraduate humor."

To watch a typical half-hour of Monty Python's Flying Circus is a bit like making a dizzying journey through a surreal fun house. Mixing filmed sketches that rarely last longer than a minute or two with bizarre pieces of animation, the program leaps wildly about in time and place…. Nothing is sacred to the Pythons, certainly not the church, the British Government, the Royal Family or even the wines of Australia, and there is something in their programs to offend virtually everyone. Also, with talk of bums, bottoms, private parts and a variety of bodily functions, often punctuated by what are euphemistically called rude noises, the Pythons are frequently almost schoolboyishly vulgar. Yet part of their infinite charm is that they're willing to try almost anything and to lampoon just about anyone.

To their further credit, the Pythons have neatly solved an artistic problem that has been plaguing the writers of comic sketches ever since the form was invented—i.e., how to find an ending to a sketch that will top it with a bigger laugh than all that has gone before. And their solution to the problem is simplicity itself—they don't end a sketch but instead stop it in mid-sentence whenever it appears to have worn out its comic welcome. (pp. 34-5)

A considerable number of the sketches are parodies of TV programs, especially of news, panel, interview and audience-participation shows. As an example there is "Interesting People," on which an egregiously smarmy host … introduces such "interesting people" as Ali Kazan, "an Egyptian who is stark raving mad," Ken Duff, "the most interesting man in Dorking," whose hobby is shouting and a man who, by coughing directly into their faces, "can give influenza to cats."… In the best tradition of the Pythons, "Interesting People" is utter nonsense, and yet, like so many of their sketches, it is also a devastatingly accurate parody—in this case, of the sort of TV audience-participation shows that have been putting bricks to sleep in Britain and the United States ever since television came along. (p. 35)

Why, I've been asked, do you think the Pythons are funny? Well, if comedy is surprise, the sudden intrusion of the incongruous and totally inappropriate, then the Pythons are unquestionably funny, for everything that they do and say is unexpected, incongruous and often outrageously inappropriate. Of course, I'd have to concede that they're not always funny—when one of the sketches is bad, in fact, it's godawful, although even at their worst they can never be accused of being trite or unoriginal. I realize, too, that there are people around who don't find anything in the least funny about the Pythons. But most of those who don't like the Pythons, I've observed, tend to be rather stuffy types—certified public accountants, corporation lawyers, Wall Street lawyers and others of the humorless sort…. In short, they are exactly the kind of pompous Americans whose British counterparts are made fun of by the Pythons, and who thus perhaps feel threatened by the Pythons. On the other hand, even someone with a fairly lively sense of humor has to have a high tolerance for nonsense in order to find the Pythons funny and maybe also has to be something of an Anglophile. For there is a tradition in England of nonsense—from Lewis Carroll to "The Goon Show" to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore—that pretty much doesn't exist in this country outside of the Marx Brothers' movies and the writings of Robert Benchley or, to a degree, S. J. Perelman and Woody Allen.

But now perhaps, [the American public] is at last ready to embrace nonsense. (p. 36)

Thomas Meehan, "And Now for Something Completely Different," in The New York Times Magazine (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 18, 1976, pp. 34-6.

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