The Cross-Generational Appeal Of Monty Python

I introduced my mother to the joys of Monty Python a while back. She knows who, say, George Carlin is, but had never seen anything but Monty Python’s (IMVHO) least-accessible film (Meaning of Life). Should have seen Holy Grail or Life of Brian instead, I think.

Anyway, she was treated to dead parrots, homicidal barbers who pine to be lumberjacks, Mr. Gumby, the Spanish Inquisition, Arthur Name (by name but not reputation) and Mr. Equator, Hell’s Grannies, saucy barristers, and silly walks, all of which met with mixed approval.

Next time, we will explore The Larch, dead vicars, SPAM, buying an argument, word aversion sketches, and much more.

The Fine Art of Professional Argument.

It led to an interesting discussion concerning “Why British Comedy Is, Generally Speaking, Much Funnier Than American Comedy,” wherein it was determined that British humor is verbally more dry and subtle, and assumes the audience is moderately well-educated and aware of other countries’ cultures and habits and languages, while visually it is broad, relying on cross-dressing, deadpan facial expressions, surreal settings and physical comedy. American comics tend to try and reach common ground with an audience, going for the easy reference and observational “didja ever wonder” commentary and assumes the audience is barely literate but pop culture-obsessed, while visually the comedians tend to be restrained (with a few notable exceptions like Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams), and even then, their exaggerated expressions tend to be facial. Carlin was mostly restrained, Emo Phillips and Steven Wright were practically comatose, and so on. Compare to Brit comic Benny Hill: big on slapstick.

It’s a very broad and somewhat flawed generalization, to be sure. One could easily cite the Marx Brothers or Stooges as being big on slapstick.

The debate will continue.

The main difference seems to be in choice of references, and willingness to be absurd and surreal. Brits apparently have longer attention spans, are more aware of historical references, are long-accustomed to men in drag as a comedy/panto staple, and are more willing to wait for the payoff in a skit.

On a personal note, I used to try to watch Monty Python on PBS long before we had cable…long before anyone had cable, possibly. PBS typically was piped in from a neighboring county, and sometimes I could get audio but no video (or I’d get staticky spaghetti, sort of like that seen on the possessed television set in Poltergeist, where you think you might have seen something recognizable there, but perhaps not). This resulted in me knowing what many of the MP shows SOUNDED like, but the visuals were lost, so when viewing them on DVD, the sketches were simultaneously very familiar and new.

Some sketches suddenly made much more sense, as they relied solely on the visual clash of costume / location and dialogue (example: “Wuthering Heights in semaphore” is funny as an idea, but much, much funnier when you can SEE it).

I had to explain this to my mother multiple times, as she has some weird objection to viewing something with me that I have already seen before. I could also have told her that merely being friends with geeks and nerdy types will expose you to every single MP skit known to mankind, recounted word for word endlessly, but it would take too long to explain the phenomenon to her, so I refrained. 🙂

Here’s my version of The Dead Parrot sketch, done with Strip Generator.

To see the whole strip, click this link. It’s not that exciting.

I mentioned the “American comedy v. British comedy” discussion elsewhere, and my friend Kimberly D. had some interesting and insightful comments:

I’ve always understood the difference to be British comedy takes outrageous situations and normalizes them; American comedy takes normal situations and makes them outrageous.

Hence, Monty Python gets laughs for silly walks being a regular department of government, and george Carlin gets laughs for business being turned into “servicing the customer” with all its dirty innuendo in tact.

And then there’s Canadian comedy, which blends the best of both worlds. Hence, you get Bob and Doug MacKenzie (“take off to the great white north!”) and the Head Crusher from Kids in the Hall.

Of course, none of that explains Brit-coms v. American sit-coms…which is another short thesis….and one I’ve not analyzed well yet. I know there is some correlation between all the ‘family’ comedies – whether the pedestrian As Time Goes By or the sticky sweet Full House. I’m certain there is something unique about Blackadder/Chef/Father Ted…something not found in American comedies. And except for The Office, the shows don’t translate well (see the disastrous American version of Coupling, which was supposedly the UK’s answer to Friends).

Can you tell I’m a student of comedy? I actually worked professionally as an improvisational comedian for a few years, and as a director, have done my fair share of comedies.

Clearly, she knows her stuff. Me? I’ve only ever taken an elective in college that explored the anatomy of Comedy, and what makes something funny (e.g., absurdity, surprise, juxtaposition of unexpected elements, and so on). Didn’t make anything funnier, mind you. 🙂 Something about dissecting a comedy routine into component parts is very like watching sausages getting made. 

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