Monday, October 05, 2009

Monty Python at 40

40 years ago this month Monty Python started running on the BBC. A few years later it appeared in America on PBS. On the station I watched, it showed up at 10:00 pm on Sunday.

I started watching it fairly early. My father had been channel surfing (with only a dozen channels available you went through everything pretty fast) and left it on this for a while. I heard him laughing and turned it on in the basement. I got hooked pretty fast.

The show was unlike anything preceding it and very little after it. The general formula was to get it, tell your joke, then get out before the sketch turned stale. Often sketches would be ended by a BBC announcer, an army officer, an armored knight armed with a rubber chicken, or an animation. There were often running gags such as the Spanish Inquisition which turned up when someone said, "I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition."

Back when the show was new it was also pretty obscure. Almost no one I knew watched it. When I started college I found more people were fans. Regardless, it took it a long time to seep into the public consciousness. A movie that was nothing but clips from the tv show toured campuses but I don't think it was shown in theaters. Monty Python and the Holy Grail showed for one week in Columbus in one small theater.

The show appealed to comic book fans and there were occasional references to it in comic books. In a short-lived revival of the Metal Men, Walter Simonson slipped in a chapter title named "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition". Iron Fist's girl friend carried a Colt Python with "Monty" engraved on the barrel.

Things changed in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. The Life of Brian got a lot of notice, mainly because many people assumed that it was a parody of Christ and called for it to be banned. A lot of people went to see what the fuss was about. PBS syndicated it nightly in most markets which gave it a lot of exposure. Still, I was quite surprised that my daughter's friends could recite scenes from Holy Grail.

Modern shows like SNL could learn a lot from Monty Python. SNL in particular relies on the one-joke sketch too much. In this, there is one joke. It takes around 40 seconds for the audience to get it but they continue the sketch for five minutes or more - long past when it stopped being funny. They could really use a pompous official coming on every now and then and proclaiming that the sketch had become silly or boring and needs to stop.

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