22 FEB 2019: “I blow my nose at you [and] I fart in your general direction.” Classic. What could be funnier to my former 13-year-old self than the put-downs from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Python comedy troupe’s first full-length feature film in 1975.

It’s hard to believe the lads’ creation is now 50 years old, having debuted as the BBC TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969 and run for five years. The rest: films, record albums, stage shows, books, spin-offs and follow-ups (Fawlty Towers, Spamalot), is history. Clearly the Pythons’ brand of surrealist, absurd humour resonated beyond pre-teens.

Britain has blessed the world with a long list of comic geniuses, from the likes of Charlie Chaplin to Peter Sellers, Benny Hill, Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean and Black Adder), Margaret Thatcher (one of the Pythons in drag?) and John Oliver, but none has proved so enduring as the Python troupe – John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam (the sole American) and the late Graham Chapman. Indeed, their influence on comedy has been compared to The Beatles’ influence on music – a combination of wit, beyond-the-box thinking, innovative technique and downright silliness. Such as the iconic image of John Cleese lying on a desk in the woods wearing a woman’s bikini and declaring, “And now for something completely different,” or the variety of devices used to end a sketch when an ending couldn’t seemingly be found: a 16-ton weight simply being dropped on a character, a knight in armour arriving out of nowhere to beat someone with a rubber chicken, or a cutaway to a pompous army colonel simply declaring, “Stop it, this is silly!”

But extreme, almost unimaginable silliness was the point – the kind of stuff it seemed impossible to think up. There were upper class twits Hell’s grannies; the Ministry of Silly Walks; the Spanish Inquisition (in which an old woman is “tortured” with soft cushions and a comfy chair); and a deviously translated Hungarian-English dictionary in which a bid to buy cigarettes is rendered, “Do you want to come back to my place, bouncy, bouncy?”

Characters and jokes entered the lexicon of life. As recently this week, a political cartoon in the Toronto Star mined the classic line, “It’s just a flesh wound,” for some government-directed humour, while in 2016, the New Yorker magazine offered an illustration of bowler-hatted businessman John Cleese doing a high-stepping silly walk off a cliff to lampoon Britain’s Brexit vote.

Of course, the legendary Spam Sketch from 1970, in which a café hilariously offers only one menu time, the ubiquitous unwanted vintage luncheon meat, Spam, albeit in multiple incarnations, such as Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam (don’t even ask about the accompanying Viking choir) is generally agreed to have inspired the terminology used for today’s unwanted emails.

Everyone I knew memorized (or more appropriately, “absorbed” through constant exposure) and quoted Python. For example, upon becoming a bean counter, my pal Perry was endlessly reminded that he was, like the beleaguered accountant Mr. Anchovy who wanted a more exciting career as a lion tamer, in fact, “an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful. And whereas in most professions these would be considerable drawbacks, in chartered accountancy, they're a positive boon.”

How many times in my life, I wonder, have I uttered, or heard, the immortal and surprisingly useful lines: “I’ve come for an argument,” “Look at these shoes, I’ve only had them three weeks,” “What have the Romans ever done for us?” “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” “I had to get up at 10 o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed…” “Finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint,” and, of course, “When you’re walking home tonight and some great homicidal maniac comes after you with a bunch of loganberries, don’t come crying to me!”

There are, of course, so many classic characters: Arthur Pewty, Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion, the Knights who say ‘Ni,’ Conrad Poohs, Biggus Dickus, and all the cross-dressed women.

Who could forget John Cleese as the disgruntled customer in The Dead Parrot Sketch agonizingly trying to convince a disinterested pet store clerk that the parrot he had just bought was, in fact, dead? “It’s passed on! This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies! It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot!”

To which the clerk (Michael Palin) at last admitted: “I never wanted to do this in the first place! I wanted to be… a lumberjack, leaping from tree to tree! As they float down the mighty rivers of British Columbia!” and, breaking into song backed by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police choir, thereby giving Canada its moment in the Python’s sun.

Those songs, like the aforementioned “Lumberjack Song,” also became classics: Oh, I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay, I sleep all night and I work all day… I cut down trees, I eat my lunch, I go to the lavatree. On Wednesdays I go shoppin’ and have buttered scones for tea!

And “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” cheerfully whistled and chirped by a cast of outcasts as they are being crucified on the cross in The Life of Brian.

I once interviewed Terry Gilliam, who was responsible for Python’s unique animation (like the giant cartoon foot that squashed things), and later became a filmmaker in his own right, and asked him where the weird came from. “Just walk down the aisle of any cathedral and look at the walls. That’s weird!” he told me.

Which is to say that nothing was sacred to the Pythons, including religion. The unsurprisingly controversial 1979 film The Life of Brian, poked at organized religion by following the life of an ordinary bloke who, born in the manger next to Jesus, was mistaken for the messiah (“He’s not the messiah, he’s a naughty boy!” his mother corrected his mindless followers).

Devotion by broken telephone? The audience members at the back of the crowd are having trouble hearing the Sermon on the Mount: “I think [Jesus said], ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’! “What's so special about the cheesemakers?” “Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”

In The Meaning of Life, a gentleman explains to his wife that the main difference between Catholics and Protestants is that the latter can wear a condom to prevent conception during sex: “That's what being a Protestant's all about. That's why it's the church for me. I can go down the road any time I want and walk into Harry's and hold my head up high and say in a loud, steady voice, ‘Harry, I want you to sell me a condom. In fact, today, I think I'll have a French Tickler, for I am a Protestant.’”

Little escaped the Python’s curiosity, with pointed but rarely misplaced mocking particularly aimed at bureaucracy and pomposity in all many manifestations.

On academia: “All brontosauruses are thin at one end; much, much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end.” “Well, Anne, this theory of yours seems to have hit the nail right on the head!”

Philosophy: “Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle!”

The military: A joke so funny that anyone who encountered it immediately died of laughter was appropriated by the army to use as a weapon against Hitler. “I shall enter the house and attempt to remove the joke... I shall be aided by the sound of sombre music, played on gramophone records, and also by the chanting of laments by the men of Q Division... The atmosphere thus created should protect me in the eventuality of me reading the joke."

Homosexuality: The latent, implied homosexuality of characters was never far from the surface, and always used for humour; and it was okay because Graham Chapman was gay (one of the first celebrities to come out), though he always played the straight man.

The pinnacle of the Python’s powers were ultimately put to use in their final film to explain no less than life itself when, in The Meaning of Life, a pink-tuxedoed, white-haired Eric Idle seems to “hit the nail right on the head” (like Ann Elk of the Brontosaurus sketch) as he magically appears in an average housewife’s kitchen to sing her “The Galaxy Song”:

Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown,
And things seem hard or tough,
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
And you feel that you've had quite enough,
Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at 900 miles an hour….

Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars;
It's a hundred thousand light-years side to side…
And our galaxy itself is one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe...

So, remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!

Python were perfection. Are perfection. John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Graham Chapman we salute you. Here’s to 50 more years. Know what I mean, nudge nudge wink wink?

Check out the Classic Dead Parrot sketch above.

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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