Just calling attention to David Free’s “The Beatles of Comedy” (January/February 2013), which takes on the impossible task of attempting to quantify just what’s so special about Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There’s probably not all that much that’s new here for hardcore fans who already know how the group was formed, or how close the BBC came to wiping the master tapes after the series had run its course (which means you might actually want to pledge money the next time their savior, PBS, comes a-callin’), though Free gets some nice jabs in at the disclamatory comments editor Luke Dempsey makes for them in Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Complete and Annotated . . . All the Bits: “At times, Dempsey sounds like a Victorian editor of Shakespeare, scolding the Bard for making Hamlet say bawdy Elizabethan things.”
However, the most interesting takeaway comes from this glimpse back to how far comedy has changed since this 45-episode series ran in the late ’60s/early ’70s: we’re far less cultured than we were before, more prone to pop-cultural put-downs and lowest-common-denominator humor (at least, if we want to stay on the air for ten seasons like a Chuck Lorre sitcom), and much more reluctant to offend without simultaneously winking or apologizing to the audience for the joke. According to Free (and what a great name given the subject matter): “There has been plenty of excellent comedy since Python’s work, but most of it has been the comedy of social anxiety: comedy that walks the tightrope between what we can and cannot say.” Likewise, “We’ve lost something, too–a general laid-backness and goodwill. It’s hard to rewatch Python’s old shows without feeling a nostalgic pang for a time when the world had a better sense of humor. Those guys didn’t need to insert disclaimers to indicate that they were, when they pretended to strangle women, only joking.” In our post-racial but oversensitive and politically correct culture, Michael Richards and Tracy Morgan are forced to issue apologies for bad jokes (instead of being allowed to move on to the next one). Larry David and Ricky Gervais can get away with it only within laboriously paced and intentionally awkward frameworks (and Gervais’s latest show, Derek, got a lot of sight-unseen flak on the off-chance that it might offend the disabled). Louie‘s most outrageous sequences are often highly stylized, so as to set them apart from his heightened (or “lowened” reality, depending on who you ask), and Comedy Bang Bang is probably the closest thing out there right now to Monty Python‘s irreverence.
Speaking of which, Free makes an excellent point about the weightless way in which “irreverence” is now tossed around, as if it were nothing more than “a mere synonym for cheeky.”
The Pythons were irreverent in the deepest sense. They had automatic respect for nothing. Everything was fit matter for comedy: religion, national differences, cannibalism, Hitler, torture, death, crucifixion. They created a parallel world in which nothing was serious. They were like boys: they not only weren’t afraid, they didn’t know they should be afraid.
Their own parallel world, indeed. Not for nothing does that first episode begin with a man laboriously swimming ashore onto an empty island, a place where comedy is still free to run rampant, or where circuses are free to be untethered by the laws of gravity, let alone the rules of comic timing. (If only Saturday Night Live could escape its need to find suitable endings to its sketches, or if it did not so readily and lazily rely upon recurring, one-joke characters.) As far as I’m concerned Free’s essay makes only one mistake, and that’s in apparently taking the infamous undertaker sketch at face value: it’s fairly clear that the audience’s invade-the-set reaction was staged (as a way of appeasing uncomfortable censors at the BBC), so while the following conclusion is poetic and probably true of the show in general, it doesn’t really hold up for this example:
The undertaker sketch was a deliberate assault on a universal taboo. It was therefore appropriate that the audience members were seen looking offended–if they hadn’t been offended, there would have been something wrong with them. A lot of them were laughing, too: proof that being offended isn’t the end of the world, and might even be a healthy thing.
Perhaps that’s something else that’s changed in comedy over the years–cringe and shock humor, thanks to MTV’s endless parade of shows like Jackass or Jersey Shore (some intentional, some not), doesn’t really have much of an effect on me; you could hardly be offended by the things Graham Chapman says in the skit, especially if you believe in this safe and “parallel” world, though you could certainly be disgusted by the idea of eating one’s own dead and decomposing mother. At least when the Pythons grossed us out, it seemed more eruditely done than in cheap frat comedies like American Pie. Life may not be a piece of shit / when you look at it, but a world without the freedom of laughter would surely be one drowning, respectfully, in its own filth. Everything is a little bit ridiculous (and everyone’s a little bit racist, as Avenue Q concedes), so I’ll just run with Free’s closing argument, that ridiculing the world “is a deeply subversive attitude–and a deeply liberating one.”