Proust, Hardy, and Spam: 10 Things I Learned About Literature from Monty Python

As many gawky teens discovered in their misspent youths, there was comedy and then there was Monty Python. Exploding penguins, a crime-fighting bishop, and Karl Marx struggling to answer questions about soccer on a TV quiz show; it was all surreal grist for their mill. Fully embodying the high culture/low humor synthesis that produced the better countercultural artifacts of the 1970s, their TV series, films, concerts, and books embedded arch literary references inside a dense framework of Dada performance art-pieces, cultural satire, and broadly silly skits in a classically comedic idiom.

They were a flagrantly well-read bunch, with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, who could ace a quiz on the Western Canon blindfolded, excepting one rogue American member (the not quite-as-well-read Terry Gilliam, who would nevertheless spend many years of his post-Python life trying to realize an accident-plagued film adaptation of Don Quixote). They remain a bookish lot today, witness the richly diverse reading list that Eric Idle keeps on his website.

The Pythons would later steadfastly claim that they weren’t interested in satire or making grand statements; as might be borne out by things like the “Spam” sketch, whose humor rotated mostly around singing Vikings and repeating “spam” as many times as possible. That being said, they were fervently opposed to pandering. If you didn’t have at least a glancing awareness of, say, the evils of the Spanish Inquisition or the verbosity of Marcel Proust, many of the gags would fly right over your head. Still, if one was an inquisitive and bookish youth, as many fans were, even if you didn’t quite get the reference, the Pythons’ manic goofiness and high-velocity smarts intrigued you to find out more.

Herewith, a few things one might discover about literature and the English language from the collected works of Python, Monty:

 

1 — The Correct French Pronunciation of Marcel Proust’s Masterpiece

In the “Fish License” sketch from Season 2 of Flying Circus, a pestering and pinched little oddball (John Cleese) demands that a shopkeeper issue him a license for his pet halibut. Finding some opposition to this request (“You don’t need one,” the shopkeeper pleads), the customer despairs about being called a “looney” just for having a pet fish, claiming as backup that Proust had a pet haddock. This results in the shopkeeper calling him a looney. Providing a handy pronunciation lesson for every future English major, the customer then proclaims the shopkeeper to be in fact slandering the great Proust: “If you’re calling the author of A la recherche du temps perdu a looney, I shall have to ask you to step outside!”

 

2 — The True Misery of a Playwright’s Life

A snarky little gem from the second episode of Flying Circus, “Working-Class Playwright” starts off as classic kitchen-sink melodrama of the kind littering postwar British culture. But it upends the expected generational labor-versus-culture struggle by having the crusty father (Graham Chapman) sneering at his soft-spoken son (Eric Idle) for “poncing off” to be a coal-miner and not understanding just what soul-sucking labor is involved with being a playwright: “What do you know about getting up at five o’clock in the morning to fly to Paris and then back at the Old Vic for drinks at twelve, sweating the day through press interviews? … That’s a full working day, lad!” The son belts back, “One day you’ll realize there’s more to life than culture!” The skit ends without rapprochment, the father wincing with writer’s cramp but realizing “there’s a play here.” It shows that not only is writing hard work, but that you can make something out of nothing, as the Pythons usually did.

 

3 — Arthurian Legends Understand Nothing About Governance

One reads T.H. White and Malory for their depiction of a glorious world of heroism, battles, love, and tragedy. Just as clearly, one should not read the Arthurian mythos for lessons on running stable governments. A case in point from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: a testy King Arthur (Chapman) is lectured by an autodidact Marxist peasant (Michael Palin) who upsets the world’s entire assumed feudal power structure—rarely questioned by its readers. First, he questions the very idea of a monarchy (“we’re living in a dictatorship! A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working class is exploited…”). Then, he challenges the “divine providence” that put Arthur on the throne, casting suspicion on that whole Lady of the Lake scenario: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” Noam Chomsky and Frantz Fanon couldn’t have put it better.

 

4 Chekov is Best Performed by the Literate

With their handerchief-covered heads, round spectacles, Hitler mustaches, demolition derby physical comedy, and monosyllabic lockjaw dialogue (“my brain hurts!”), the Gumbys were one of Python’s more sublimely silly creations; no Python concert was complete without a few Gumby cosplay fans. But when they tried their hand at adaptations of classic theater, as with the Gumby take on Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in the “Gumby Theatre” sketch on Another Monty Python Record, the results were about as literary as the Stooges crashing a poetry reading. While the genteel radio host gamely narrates the action (“meanwhile, in St Petersburg …”), the Gumbys smash through walls and windows, and howl and bellow at each other in a way that’s gaspingly funny to Python fans and merely annoying to most everybody else. Like “Fish License” with Proust, this sketch made clear to young listeners who didn’t have the Pythons’ schooling that if they didn’t know who Chekov was, they’d better figure it out—to better understand the gag, if nothing else.

 

5 — Elizabethan England was Just Flooded with Pornography

Episode 36 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus tells the thrilling story of Superintendent Gaskell (Palin) of the Vice Squad, tasked with stopping foreign pornography from polluting the minds of Elizabethan England. But smut knew no boundaries, infiltrating even the works of the Bard himself. Gaskell returns home from a busy day of vice raiding to find his wife reading one of Shakespeare’s “latest works: Gay Boys in Bondage.” “What is it, comedy, tragedy?” Gaskell asks innocently. “It’s, er, a story of a man’s great love for … his fellow man,” she replies tentatively. “How fortunate we are indeed to have such a poet on these shores!” He exclaims. Now, while Shakespeare most likely did not write Gay Boys in Bondage (that we know of…), his contemporary Thomas Nash was penning clandestine erotic poetry for the noble “Lord Strange” at around the same time the Bard was composing The Taming of the Shrew. So the Python boys were partially right: there was smutty writing in Elizabethan England, only it was home-grown.

 

6 — Never Trust Your Foreign Language Handbook

Short and pungent, like the best, most surreal Flying Circus flash-bombs, “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” starts with a screen crawl in gothic script (“In 1970, the British Empire lay in ruins”) before opening on a tobacconist’s in which a tall Hungarian (John Cleese) is attempting to use the strangled English provided in his phrasebook (“My hovercraft is full of eels,” “you have beautiful thighs”). A wise imprecation to not believe everything you read.

 

 

 

7 — Thomas Hardy’s Favorite Articles

Anarchists and dynamiters of conventional humor they might have been, but even the Python boys had a few standbys they frequently fell back on. One of their favorite tricks was a simple bit of contrast: take a cherished piece of high culture, drop it into a bucket of lowbrow muck, and play with the resulting fizz. That’s how Karl Marx got stuck answering questions about sports and pop music on a game show and German and Greek philosophers battled in a soccer match officiated by Confucius. The “Novel Writing” skit from the 1973 Python album Matching Tie & Handkerchief fits right into that subgenre.

Eric Idle and Michael Palin play announcers calling what sounds like a cricket match but turns out to be a radio broadcast of Thomas Hardy writing The Return of the Native in front of a “very good crowd … on this very pleasant July morning.” The crowd murmurs along as Hardy starts, stops, and starts again, to the announcers’ growing agitation. (Graham Chapman, popping in for some color, grumbles that “It looks like Tess of the D’Urbervilles all over.”) While giving the anxiety to any writer imagining writing under such conditions (“it looks like he’s going for the sentence!”), the skit does at least imagine a world where canonic authors and their decision to, say, start a novel with a definite article, are treated with at least the same amount of breathless hyperbole as a cricketer.

 

8 — All the Greatest Philosophers Were Boozers

Sure, everybody knows most of the words to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” the cheery number from the crucifixion scene at the end of the Pythons’ organized religion satire Life of Brian. That one is so popular, in fact, that when the HMS Sheffield was critically damaged during the Falklands War, British sailors sang it on deck while waiting for rescue. However, the real Pythonians make it a point of pride to known the even catchier “Philosopher’s Song” from the beloved “Bruces” concert sketch, by heart. It’s educational, after all, teaching that not only could “David Hume outconsume Freidrich Hagel” but that “Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could drink you under the table” and “John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy got particularly ill.”

 

9 — There is No Ninth Thing

 

10 — The Difference Between an Anagram and a Spoonerism

The most memorable skit in Episode 30 of Flying Circus is a classic roundelay of Pythonian word-play. After the titular character (Idle) in “The Man Who Speaks in Anagrams” answers a few standard-issue questions on a TV talk show like “what’s your name?” (“Hamrag, Hamrag Yatlerot”), he starts talking about the anagram versions of Shakespeare plays that he’s working on (“The Mating of the Wersh,” “Thamle”) only to have it pointed out that one of his lines isn’t actually an anagram but a spoonerism. If you had to go and look that up right now, you wouldn’t be the first or the last. See? You learned something.

 

 

Chris Barsanti is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in Film Journal International, The Virginia Quarterly Review, PopMatters, The Millions, Playboy, and The Chicago Tribune. He co-wrote, with the estimable Brian Cogan and Jeff Massey, the Monty Python FAQ, and has been known to say “Ni!” when perturbed. Find him at chrisbarsanti.net.

 

 

 

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