(Also, you should read Zack Handlen’s Monty Python reviews over at the A.V. Club.)
Videoport loves Monty Python. That may be self-evident, of course, since we are Videoport, and have a sense of humor, and are not stupid. Still, some people occasionally remark upon the fact that we don’t currently stock the last season of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (and haven’t for some time.) I dunno if they died (because someone TOUCHED THE FREAKING SHINY SIDE) or because we’ve, for some reason, never had it. Regardless, I can understand your confusion, your disappointment, perhaps even your burgeoning, Hulk-like fury. And I cower before it.
But I’m here to tell you to calm down.
Recently, I made the plunge and finally broke down and bought the entire series on DVD (and of course, Videoport will give you a free rental if you do the same from us- PLUG!) And so the lovely Ms. Elsa S. Customer and I have spent a nerdily-delirious week plowing through the entire, giggle-fit-inducing, awe-inspiring sketch comedy legend, because we are Python fanatics and comedy geeks (and because my lovely wife indulges my geekiness to an almost saintly degree.)
Until we came to season 4.
A couple of facts you might not know about this, final, Python season:
1. John Cleese had left the show after season 3.
2. It will bum you out.
See, Cleese (ever the most restless and prickly member of the group) took a long look after the third series completed and thought they were starting to repeat themselves and that he wanted to do other things. Well, he did (it was a little show called “Fawlty Towers”), and he was, it turns out, completely
right. As E & I eagerly revisited season 4 (which I only vaguely remembered, relying as I did on the patchwork of late night PBS episodes I’d seen as a lad)…oh dear. I count about three and a half acceptable sketches in the entire series. It’s pretty shocking, really. It doesn’t reduce my admiration and love of the Pythons (or the entity called “Python”) one bit; it just makes me wish I had never seen any of it. So here, in lieu of you having to go through any of this personally, is my semi-detailed rundown of the last, best-swept-under-the-rug season of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” (Any attempt to get you to stop asking us to get this season on DVD is just a bonus. Trust me- you don’t want it.)
Season 4, episode 1: “The Golden Age of Ballooning” The Montgolfier brothers- “This always felt more like a rehearsal”- Elsa. Palin’s suspiciously Scottish Louis XIV is hilarious. The pace on the whole, however, is a bit slack. The party political broadcast from the Norwegian Party is okay. The whole ballooning thing running through the episode recalls the stylistic, episode-long experiment that was the “Cycling Tour” episode, which is part of the problem (and what John Cleese cited as one of his reasons for wanting to leave)- by this point it seems like Python is recycling some ideas.
Season 4, episode 2: “The Michael Ellis/The Ant” episode. The end credits come right after the opening credits. Is this the first time they’ve done that? The silly department store recycles several other “silly customer service” sketches, recycles the long-form all-episode idea again, and yet it builds up its own eerie, unnerving momentum in absurdity. In this case, the hollow spaces around the laughs are largely intentional, and serve to enhance the episode’s general air of insane creepiness. Terry Gilliam appears in a smallish role , but it’s larger than we’re used to; it’s a role Cleese might have done and it just points up the fact that TG is not really a performer. On the other hand, Idle, anchoring the episode as the bewildered ant enthusiast/complainer gives what I think is his best performance of the series. Bewilderment suits him- it serves to temper his slight propensity to go for the joke. And the meta, multiple-choice ending anticipated Waynes World by 30 years or so. “Yeah, I think seeing this episode as a kid single-handedly prepared me for Mulholland Dr.“- Elsa.
Season 4, episode 3: “The Light Entertainment War.” I’m gradually becoming aware of the absence of Cleese’s voice. The flier jargon sketch is the first one this season that seems up to scratch, like a classic Python sketch of old. Although now the Palin-Chapman-Jones-Idle quartet grouping in each sketch is looking a little thin sometimes (and the ascended screen time of Gilliam and a larger number of speaking extras, again just points out the severe Cleese-lack.) The military courtroom scene drags on in shrill repetition, and gets a little obvious before heading off into an absurdity that, for a change, seems a little desperate rather than audacious. Credits come in the middle. The TV executive sketch just plods along. The the “woody and tinny” sketch: all about Chapman’s performance selling an absurd but weirdly resonant idea. The audience titters uncertainly over the Neil Innes song at the end; it’s a lovely little song, but I get the point. Moderately-funny, class-conscious credits come out of nowhere at the end.
Season 4, episode 4: “Hamlet.” He’s tired of being asked to do his “greatest hits” monologues and goes to his psychiatrist to complain. But he’s not Hamlet, he’s an actor playing Hamlet. Or is he? Python sketches work best when their randomness emerges from a situation with some internal logic. It does morph into a funnier bit about bogus psychiatrists who keep asking the same question, “Now you’ve got the girl right there on the bed, she’s all ready, and her feet are up on the mantelpiece” which eventually works up some good ol’ loony momentum. Then to Idle with another limp set-up (about a talk show about sitting comfortably in chairs unwilling to change its format when WWIII breaks out) which throws out to Graham on location in a comfy chair on a bridge interrupted by Palin’s unscrupulous bobby who keeps wantonly stealing things from passers-by. Palin, as ever, is effortlessly funny as a fast-gabbling Cockney type, but the sketch, along with the successive pan over to Carol Cleveland and Jones making out on the bridge and creating a link to the next scene is, again, full of dead spots, and slackly paced. That scene, with Graham as Carol’s father who’s come to live with them (and share their bed) has a solid laugh, when you see what he’s been making in the dark, and then the credits come in halfway through again. Loop back to Hamlet, whose Ophelia asks the same rude psychiatrist question. Then a boxer sketch, with Palin’s pugnacious promoter talking fast and ignoring the fact that his boxer’s head keep getting punched off. Again, Palin’s always entertaining doing this type, but it’s pretty thin (and there are more ascended extras that add nothing, and small, but bigger than previous, roles for Carol and Gilliam [in a weirdly unnecessary blackface bit] which serve to point up the thinness.) Then, after a nothing scene where doctors listen to the next (headless) fight on radio, the Python’s literally resurrect John Cleese via a snatch of an earlier pepperpot sketch with he and Graham talking about shopping. Eek. Then more current pepperpot action, worth a chuckle. This segues to a series of talking heads enthusiastically promoting the economic opportunities of the town of Epsom, which just made me think of the much better intrusion of the town of Malden into the “Njorl’s Saga” sketch. Bummer. Then an extended Idle interviewer sketch making the comic point that jockeys are short. Umm. The Queen Victoria steeplechase is brief, but funny. Now the sport commentators (including another ascended extra) are dressed as Queen Victoria, to little effect, really. Then back to Hamlet, all actors dressed as QV. Connie Booth is there as Ophelia…but not her husband.
Season 4, episode 4: “Mr. Neutron.”We open with Michael Palin (doing his Arthur Putey voice and emphasizing the word “box”) announcing a royals-attended opening to a new mailbox. Then repeating his speech in French and emphasizing the word “boite.” It’s fine. Then he starts in German, which gets
a laugh- I like it when a joke goes on and on to the point that it’s not funny, and then keeps going until the funny comes around again. Graham comes off a train as the ludicrously-obviously-costumed supervillain Mr. Neutron who seems quite nice enough sitting down to tea with his boring neighbors. Some Dr. Strangelovian American generals (Palin, gabbling amusingly and sniffing his armpit) panicking. Meanwhile, Mr. Neutron remains complacently chatty with neighbors. Another long-form sketch is dragging, as Idle’s soldier is sent to the Yukon to find the ex-secret agent to fight Mr. Neutron, but instead finds Graham as a gay lumberjack ballet fan and Graham as a…sigh. This is just dragging, man. They’re spending a lot on location shooting this season (and even Gilliam’s animations, though more infrequent, are more elaborate), but it’s all to very little purpose, as the writing just is not here. Plus, the colors are more garish, the direction more prosaic somehow- it’s sapping energy from almost every scene. It’s depressing. Then an utterly pointless scene with Terry Jones as an Italian violinist singing tunelessly for what seems like ten minutes. The US bombs the world to get Mr. Neutron, but he’s in love with the neighbor’s cleaning lady (Terry J.) A long scene watching the money spent on a dog puppet ramble on. More bombing, the world is destroyed. Idle sums up the rest of the plot from the “Radio Times” which bears the sadly-inaccurate headline “Python Soars.” A tag with Michael in funny eyeballs is funny, for a moment. The end. Of perhaps the worst Python episode. Sigh. “Who would’ve thought that Cleese was the voice of compassion? This season seems mean; the way these are just riddled with contempt is surprising.”- Elsa
Season 4, episode 6: “Party Political Broadcast.” Opening on a scene of squalor that looks like ‘The Young Ones,” but shrill, gross, and, frankly, beneath everyone involved. Spots, filth, talk of bowel movements, and Terry G bloated and covered in baked beans; if that’s your bag, well, you probably prefer “Little Britain”to “Python” anyway, so enjoy. A segue to a game show looking for the “most awful family in Britain” does nothing to redeem the five minutes I just had to sit through. Next, a squawking upper class family attempts to undercut the classism of the first. Then a cut to another shrill, terrible lower-class family watching the show and complaining that they’re more horrible, which they may be (and the scabby cat puppet is straight “Young Ones” as well.) “So their plan for this year was ‘everyone yells all the time’? I’m against it.”- Elsa. Three out of four sketches featuring Terry G. in a performing capacity- I don’t think anyone in the group thought that was ideal. Now Terry J. in a doctor sketch is bleeding (in Dan Akyroyd as Julia Child volume) for a few minutes while Graham yells at him. It is not as funny as an SNL sketch. That is just wrong. Then Eric in a tutu and Michael
dressed as a bishop play soldiers in love. Eh. Then a long, static, and very uninspiring Gilliam cartoon with a tuneless opera singer and no payoff. Then a very flat sketch with Graham making an appeal for sympathy for the very rich. The “finishing sentences” sketch has a nice idea and a little snap. Hooray! Long, pointless link. Long, pointless, safari sketch that segues into a violent cricket sketch which may be a statement on colonialism or might be slightly racist, but definitely isn’t funny at all. A halting, string-plucking version of the end theme gives over to the rousing “Liberty Bell” we all know. Frankly, the first one seems a more appropriate epitaph. Instead, a tag with Idle as a newsreader saying nothing imaginative or funny, but at least we can watch Carol do a saucy dance on a table in the background. And that’s it for the greatest sketch comedy series of all time (and it’s not even close, by the way.) Not a bang, not even a whimper really. A wheeze of once-unnecessary effort. And now I’m off to watch one of their movies (all of which were made after the series ended and all of which proved irrefutably that they were all still, collectively, the funniest fellows in the world.) Anyway, trust me- you’re not missing anything.