Sunday, 27 March 2016

Feeding the Pythons - John Cleese and Eric Idle




Sometimes you discover a performance that you know that you should go to, even if it probably isn't something that you are all that interested in. This was the case when Simon and Garfunkle, years after they had split up, decided to do a reunion tour and come to Adelaide. I'd never been all that interested in their music, however I knew that not only was it going to be something that my brother would enjoy (he did), but it was one of those experiences that I knew wasn't going to come around again. As it turns out that seems to be the case because rumour has it that Paul Simon isn't really all that fit to be able to go on tour again (though I could be wrong).

However, I'm not actually writing about Simon and Garfunkle, but rather about another duo that I fortuitously discovered where making and appearance in Australia – John Cleese and Eric Idle. I have to admit that after seeing Jimeoin perform live I have always been really dubious about going to a live comedy show. When a friend and I decided to go and see a one at the Adelaide fringe we decided to pick Jimeoin because we were under the impression that out of all of the acts that were on at the time, he was probably going to be the most tame. As it turned out he wasn't, and to say that it was a huge disappointment is an understatement. The same was the case when we were watching a Billy Connelly video – while a friend was rolling on the ground in laughter we were just sitting there trying to work out why he found his jokes so funny.

Mind you, I would say that it was with some trepidation that I went to purchase tickets to see two of the Monty Python team perform live, but I have to admit that it wasn't the case. In fact, as soon as I discovered that they were performing live, when I got home I jumped onto the internet and booked the first ticket available, which unfortunately turned out to be a Sunday night (namely because Friday and Saturday had already sold out). While I don't like staying out too late on a school night, it was John Cleese and Eric Idle, so this was going to be an exception.

Pythonesque Humour

I have to admit that despite seeing the first couple of seasons of Monty Python a number of times, I have to admit that there aren't a huge number of laugh out loud moments. This is also the case with the couple of movies that they released afterwards (with the exception of Meaning of Life – I've never really liked A Meaning of Life). However Monty Python isn't really known for their laugh out loud moments. Sure, the first time you see the Parrot Sketch you are probably on the floor laughing, but with a lot of humour you end up getting used to it. However that doesn't mean that it stops being funny. Take Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels for instance – the first couple of times I watched it I thought it was hilarious. However, after the first three times the humour starts wearing off, but that doesn't mean that it ceases being funny. While you may not laugh the same way that you did at first (because comedy does rely a lot on the unexpected) you still enjoy the humour that the movie produces.

Humour does rely a lot on the unexpected, however humour also relies upon making us uncomfortable. As John Cleese explained, we laugh at sex, violence, and religion because it makes us uncomfortable (even in today's sex mad society), and we deal with that feeling of discomfort by laughing. Mind you, it is not that violence, or sex, is funny, but rather the way that the comedian portrays it. They tells us a joke and we know that we shouldn't find this funny, but we will laugh at it anyway. Another aspect is how a situation may be absolutely preposterous – such as the Dead Parrot sketch. The idea is so absurd, that of a customer discovering that the pet shop owner has pulled a fast one by selling him a dead parrot, yet continues to treat the customer as an idiot by pretending that the parrot isn't dead, it is just resting it's eyes, so we laugh.


The Background

The performance wasn't just a series of jokes being told by Cleese and Idle, though there were a number of trips down memory lane, which included Idle playing some of our favourite songs, but it was also, in part, their story. In fact it was the back story as to how they came together that I found interesting. Mind you, we are talking about the celebrity sphere here, so it is not surprising that the Python crew had connections with other famous British comedians such as the two Ronnies (does anybody actually remember those guys, or am I the only one who recalls watching their sketch show) and the Goodies (being Graham Gardener, Tim Brook-Taylor, and Bill Oddie). In fact Cleese and Idle were involved in a comedy review at university with two of the Goodies (and later met up with the third when they travelled to Scotland for another show). I would suggest that this show was their big break, but it wasn't. While it was a hit in the West End, when they travelled to New York they received one bad review, however it was in the New York Times, which unfortunately carries a lot of weight in the theatre scene.



The interesting thing was that their big break came when David Frost (a celebrity that always seemed to be the butt of jokes on the Goodies, and I suspect Monty Python as well) invited them to participate in one of his shows, and this ended up morphing into what eventually became Monty Python. The thing that they found surprising was that the executives at the BBC literally gave them free reign, but they were also put on the late time slot, which meant that not many people would have been watching them (especially the TV executives, though I sometimes wander whether they actually watch half the shows that they put on television). From there the crew became the stars that we know and love to this day.

The Good Old Irish

John Cleese had a little to say about racial humour, and when he makes a comment about laughing at that which makes us uncomfortable, this is one area which in today's society it is very taboo. Yet Cleese was more than happy to show an old video of him pretending to be a Swede who was promoting Swedish Fun week (which sort of suggests that the Swedes aren't really all that fun). Mind you, back in the days of Monty Python, racial humour wasn't frowned upon as much, however in today's society of radical political correctness it seems that only somebody with the calibre of John Cleese could get away with it.

Yet there is a thing about racial humour that makes it bad. Okay, there is the racial stereotype where the joke really only applies to a particular people group, and then there are the jokes (such as the Irish jokes) that are designed to denigrate the current flavour of the month. I still remember as a kid running around telling Irish jokes, and there were even books full of them in the school library. As an example (which I can hopefully get away with) here is a clip from the Goodies:


The question is why? Well, I suspect that stems back to the long struggle between the English and the Irish, and even then when I was young Belfast was still in the midst of war and IRA terrorists would every so often strike at London. However it wasn't so much that they were enemies - in the way that the Germans were enemies during World War II - they were rebels, fighting a guerilla war against the British. Yet it also has a lot to do with denigrating an entire race of people - which is similar to some of the aboriginal jokes that would be told here in Australia. In the end I have to admit that I really don't like racial jokes (despite the fact that I did laugh at Cleese's) namely because it is another way of getting a cheap laugh at somebody else's expense.

Am I Getting Old?

Actually, I don't like to think about getting old, not because I don't like the idea of growing old, but rather because I feel that the whole idea of age is simply one of those preposterous ideas that society throws on us to make us feel useless. However when you start to see Facebook posts that talk about contemporary musicians not having any talent and contemporary comedians simply not being funny, you suddenly begin to wander whether you have entered that period of life that you sneered at your parents for being. Mind you, I have always moved with the times, or at least believed that I have, but I am starting to question whether it is the case where I have moved to that stage of life where I'm starting to see that the talent I saw in the 80s is no longer around.


The reason I suggest this is because, unfortunately, comedy isn't the same anymore. Sure, Monty Python was quite rude, either implicitly, or, as in the case of the Penis Song, very explicit. However, when I consider many of the modern comedies that are appearing these days it seems as if all they are doing is going for cheap laughs. Sure, my Dad never watched Monty Python when I was younger, though I still remember shows such as The Goodies, or the sketch shows such as Fast Foward and the Comedy Company. Many of these shows relied upon the eccentricities of the characters, such as Con the Fruiterer, or Uncle Arthur. It seems that this is no longer the case these days, especially where we consider the antics of the modern comedians such as Seth Rogan and his ilk. Sure, I have found his films funny, but I am questioning whether the comedy is actually funny, or is it simply making us laugh by being grouse.


It seems as if Cleese's statement that we laugh because something makes us feel uncomfortable, and it is a natural defence mechanism to laugh when we feel uncomfortable. Mind you, I'm not all that inclined to agree with him because these uncomfortable events need to be painted in a particular way for us to laugh – horror movies make us uncomfortable but I hardly see people bursting out in hysteria when watching Stephen King's Misery. No, it is not that we laugh when we are uncomfortable, we laugh because the comedian makes a mockery of something, and we laugh because we learn to see the funny side of things.

I guess this is probably why Life of Brian ends with this now famous song:


Actually, I should finish off with a little anecdote about this song. I remember, when I was in high school (I went to a fairly strict Christian school) that Life of Brian was on one Sunday night, and I watched it. As was expected, the next morning that famous song was running through my head. Actually, it was running through everybody's head, to the point that we all started singing it at school, to the horror of the teachers. Not only did the song contain the 's' word, but it came from a movie that many of the teachers considered to be blasphemous. As such, in a panic (as they always did) they immediately banned anybody from singing the song. Mind you, that gut reaction ended up making us like the film even more, simply because our teachers didn't want us singing that song.

I do wonder, though, what would have happened if it had been the penis song instead?


Creative Commons License

Feeding the Pythons - John Cleese and Eric Idle by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

Billy Connelly By Eva Rinaldi

3 comments:

  1. I discovered Monty Python in my early 20s along with my (now) wife. So many quotable and memorable lines. I think they did a better job of taking human foibles to the absurdest point possible.

    If you haven't already discovered them, I also enjoy A Bit of Fry and Laurie. The sex ed sketch is a classic.

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  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I haven't heard of them. I'll try to look them up.

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  3. Most people know Hugh Laurie from the TV series House, and Stephen Fry for, well, maybe his turn in The Hobbit?

    The two of them did incredible work together in Jeeves and Wooster, based on the P. G. Wodehouse books. Simply classic - you must see it if you haven't. But before that, they did A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Great stuff.

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