As a long time Monty Python fan, I have been looking forward to the fourth and final musical in this summer’s series from the Maine State Music Theater. We buy season tickets every year and are never disappointed by the great shows put on in Brunswick, Maine. Sunday we saw Spamalot, and it was fantastic.
They captured the essence of what made Monty Python humor so great, which of course is no surprise since Eric Idle wrote the ‘book and lyrics.’ Still, they executed it perfectly. Daniella Dalli was a standout as “the lady of the lake,” and the rest of the cast donned Python personas and appearances almost to perfection. It wasn’t forced, it was a fun and when you left the theater, you couldn’t help but feel a bit happier, less worried, and a bit uplifted by a dose of silliness, music and humor.
All this got me to thinking about what made Monty Python such a great comedy troop. Part of it was simple talent: Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam were all consummate performers and comedians. They also had the benefit of timing. Their totally irreverent mix of intellectual word play, slap stick physical humor, and social commentary infused with silliness could not have aired any time before the late sixties when they came to the BBC. As such they were ground breaking, quickly capturing a large audience in the US and Europe.
The also turned their TV sketches into well thought out films, cementing their popularity. In Search of the Holy Grail is an all time classic upon which Spamalot was based. My favorite is The Life of Brian which is a brilliant yet silly satirical look at both religion and skepticism. It’s still my favorite film of all time. The Meaning of Life is also classic.
I think what stands out to me is that like all great humorists, Python made silly what society takes serious. In so doing, they helped people see our own social norms, rules and traditions from the outside — they exposed the arbitrary silliness of what seems “normal” and got us to look beyond the perspective we grow up believing. There were no sacred cows.
Moreover their humor was on multiple overlapping levels. They’d be making puns about Marxian political economy while doing slapstick bits and mocking the Prime Minister. Some of their most brilliant bits were easy to miss. In Life of Brian Brian is standing before a crowd of people who think he is the messiah. “No, you don’t need to follow me,” he tells them. In unison they respond, “we don’t need to follow you.” Irritated he continues, “You don’t need to follow anyone, you’re all individuals.” They respond in unison: “We’re all individuals.” Then one voice quietly asserts “I’m not.”
Yet while their mocking of all things sacred to society was biting and uncompromising, they were never mean spirited or nasty. They didn’t get laughs by swearing or crude sex. Yes, they did enjoy physical humor built around farts, vomit, and nose picking. And, of course, sexual references were numerous. But they were built into the humor, like John Cleese and his supposed wife performing sex at a boys’ school to teach the boys how to satisfy a woman. The boys, of course, were bored and acting as if it were math class. And soldiers, clergy, judges and cops suddenly going from stern to very “gay” was a staple. It was silly fun, but if you thought about it, it was exposing how silly and arbitrary those rules are that seem to define how we should behave. In that sense, it was revolutionary.
To be sure, their thirty minute BBC show was of mixed quality. Some of their sketches were much better than others, the task of putting together a show every week is intense. But their films, and the musical Spamalot, really brings out the essence of one of the best humor acts of the 20th century.
Only George Carlin stands out in my mind above Python — and that’s not really a fair comparison because he’s an individual and they were a troop. But Carlin did the same thing, using language. He tore apart the weird conventions we have about words we say and use — as well as behaviors and social rules — by making fun of them.
And, when you think about it, given the ability we have to make serious arguments to defend any point, it’s hard to really convince people to think critically about what they hold as “natural” and “normal” through reasoned argumentation. People tune that out. Humor may be the most effective form of social commentary, and perhaps the most revolutionary way to change the way people view themselves and their society.