Sunday, January 26, 2020

Only the Finest Baby Frogs

I would guess that I was somewhere between 8 and 10 when I first saw Monty Python.

I was at my grandmother’s house.  Back in those days, most people had color TVs, but only the “big” TV in the family room.  If there were any other TVs throughout the house (and, in many houses, there weren’t), they were still black-and-white.  They all had real, honest-to-god antennae, because no one had invented cable yet (and wouldn’t for another decade or so).  We had two “bands” on the TV just like we had two on the radio, except instead of FM and AM, it was VHF and UHF.1  The “normal” channels—CBS, NBC, and ABC—were on VHF and came in crystal clear, barring gale-force weather conditions.  In our small-ish town, we could get 2 channels on UHF, both hopelessly staticy unless the sky was completely cloudless and you managed to tweak the antenna just so.  One played religious programming like The 700 Club during the night, black-and-white comedies like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best during the day, and, weirdly, cool anime cartoons like Star Blazers and G-Force in the afternoons after school.  The other was the local PBS station, and its daytime and afternoons were filled with the typical fare: Sesame Street and The Electric Company and the occasional Romper Room rerun.  At a certain point gool ol’ channel 152 started playing boring crap like news and I would tune it out.  But, for some reason—undoubtedly desperation, meaning there must have been absolute shit on all the other channels—this one night, I decided to see what channel 15 had on at 8 or 9 at night.

And, what it was, was ... well, honestly, I had no idea what it was.  In those days, proper comedies had laugh tracks, so I knew they were funny.  This didn’t have that.  So maybe it wasn’t supposed to be funny?  But it certainly wasn’t meant to be taken seriously either.  Most of the sophisticated wordplay was over my head, none of the English class humor was landing, obviously,3 and surrealist comdey wasn’t something I’d ever been exposed to.  For that matter, was there surrealist comedy before Python?  I can’t think of any off the top of my head.  The point is, I was utterly unprepared to process what I saw that night.  I remember not “getting” it, not particularly liking it, and thinking I would probably never watch that crap again.  But of course I was wrong.

Throughout my life, there have been many comedies that I couldn’t appreciate upon first viewing, but which have since become central to my concept of humor: Beavis and Butthead springs to mind, as does The Mighy Boosh.  Oh, sure, sometimes it clicks right way: South Park, or the Young Ones, or Arrested Development ... all odd, but I felt right at home with them immediately.  But Ren & Stimpy took a few tries before I could fully appreciate it, and The State was certainly more confusing than amusing until I started to feel the rhythm of it.  Monty Python was my first, though, and they say you never forget your first.  It was the first time that my first viewing produced “this is crap” and my second produced “well, there a couple of good parts” and the third was perhaps “you know, it’s not half-bad” and by the time I hit four or five I was finding it utterly hilarious.4

The pinnacle, though, was my senior year in high school.  I distinctly remember getting together with my friends in the late summer before the school year: we had a picnic in one of the public parks in my hometown.  I had been an outcast all throughout my school career, until I switched schools in the middle of the 10th grade and had the good fortune to fall in with a fairly hip crowd.  But I still remembered what it was like to be on the other side of the Great High School Divide, and I was bemoaning all the cliques and all that.  “I wish there were parties where just anyone could come, and it didn’t matter who you were or who you hung out with or any of that,” I said.5  And someone said, why don’t you just throw a party like that?  And at first this didn’t make any sense to me, because, you know, I was hanging with the cool kids, but I wasn’t necessarily a cool kid myself—certainly not in my own mind, anyway.  So I was thinking, who would want to come to a party at my house, and also why the hell would my parents let me have a party at my house, also how would I pay for party supplies and whatnot ... it didn’t really seem rational.  But we started fleshing out a plan: they would be movie parties, so people would come because they wanted to check out the movies, and we had one of those fancy new “VCR” thingies so we could actually show the movies, and most other people didn’t have one of those so they’d have to come to my house because they couldn’t just sit at home and watch movies themselves, and we’d collect money at the door as contributions and that would pay for soda and popcorn and the actual movie rental and all that, and my parents ... well, honestly I can’t even remember how the hell I talked them into this, but I did.  And we came up with a manifesto, about how everyone was welcome and no one would ever be turned away (unless you didn’t bring your money for the cover charge) and, if you didn’t like it that you might bump into literally anyone from high school there, you just shouldn’t come.  And there were never invitations, just ... word of mouth.  Everyone knew that everyone could come, and most of ’em did, at least once.  We ended up doing this movie party thing maybe 3 times? maybe 4?  I can’t recall.  But I can absolutely tell you, for sure, what the movies were for the absolute first everyone-is-welcome movie-party at my house: we closed with Poltergeist, and we opened with Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Now, I wish I could take credit for having the idea to show this, Monty Python’s first “proper” movie,6 but I honestly think it was my best friend Mackey who suggested it.  If you are not familiar with it, the credits are all at the beginning of the movie—and interspersed with classic goofs in the middle of them, such as “A Møøse once bit my sister” and “The directors of the firm hired to continue the credits after the other people had been sacked, wish it to be known that they have just been sacked.”—and, at the end of the movie, there is nothing.  Just a song which repeats ad infinitum over a blank screen.  I mean, it was a videotape, so it couldn’t have literally gone on forever, but I’m a bit embarrassed to tell you how long we let it sit there and play before someone finally said, “shit! the credits were all at the beginning, rememeber!” and we all laughed at ourselves and initiated the bathroom break while we rewound the tape and set up for the next movie.

And that only goes to cover the very beginning and very end of this classic movie, which has since become one of my favorites.  In fact, I’m pretty cagey about picking an absolute favorite out of my top 10 or 20 favorite movies,7 but, realistically, Holy Grail is almost certainly at the top of that list.  It is, above all else, inifinitely quotable, and practically every line in it is classic: “I got better ...” and “your father smelt of elderberries!” and “what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” and “strange women lyin’ in ponds is no basis for a system of government” and “three, sir” and “let me go back in there and face the peril” and “I’ll just stay here, then, shall I?” and “brave Sir Robin bravely ran away” and “I think I’ll go for a walk” and “help! help! I’m being repressed!” and “of course it’s a good idea!” and “let’s not bicker and argue about ‘oo killed ‘oo” and “go away or I shall taunt you a second time!” and “get on with it!”  This paragraph could easily have been twice as long and I still would not have exhausted all the great lines in this movie.

When my eldest child was young we watched the entirety of the original series, including a couple of episodes I had somehow missed, and we watched Holy Grail often enough that we could recite the Black Knight scene by heart.  We would act it out with toy swords upon occasion: “It’s just a flesh wound”  “You’re a loony.”

Throughout all my life I have hated musicals.  With a great and unabiding passion.  And yet I know all the words to “The Lumberjack Song” and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and “Every Sperm is Sacred”:

Every sperm is sacred,
Every sperm is great.
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate.

I am a connoisseur of the Ministry of Silly Walks, and Teddy Salad, CIA man, and the music of Johann Gambolputty &c of Ulm, and The Bishop, and the Spanish Inquisition, and pet ants, and how not to be seen, and Norwegian Blue parrots, and argument clinics, and mouse organs, and sharp, pointy sticks, and Confuse-a-Cat Limited, and the Piranha Brothers, and most especially that time of the evening when it’s just gone eight o’clock and time for the penguin on top of your television set to explode.  I have watched, several times, A Fish Called Wanda and Time Bandits and Brazil and The Fisher King and, at least once, Clockwise and The Rutles and Yellowbeard and Fierce Creatures and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Jabberwocky.  It’s certainly possible that there is a group of six to ten people unrelated to me who have had a bigger influence on my cultural development than the members and contributors of Monty Python, but, if so, I can’t imagine who they are.

Graham Chapman died in late 1989, as I was preparing to make a major move in my life: from the small town where I had lived all but a single year of my life to the environs of my nation’s capital, where I would, after a 3-year absence, finally return to college.  I was too caught up in my own life to notice his passing, I fear, and I only mourned later, but not too much: so many of the members remained.  When Ian MacNaughton, director of all but 4 of the episodes of the Flying Circus and one of the several people to be referred to as “the seventh Python,” died in 2002, it wasn’t major news, sadly, and I never even noticed at all.  But, in the past month, we’ve lost two more: Neil Innes, who sang about brave, brave Sir Robin in Holy Grail and “I Must Be in Love” for the Rutles, and who was perhaps most credited with being the “seventh Python,” died only 3 days shy of seeing in the new decade, and Terry Jones—the Bishop, Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, Sir Bedevere, Mr. Creosote (he of the “wafer-thin” mint fame), last surviving undertaker, purveyor of strange stains and mysterious smells, and Cardinal Biggles, poker of innocent women with soft cushions—has, as I write this, been gone for less than a week.  I myself am now at that age where I’m really starting to notice the deaths of my heroes, and even moreso at that age where such deaths start to happen with somewhat depressing regularity.

At 76, Michael Palin is the youngest of the survivors, and the mighty John Cleese is already 80.  Eric Idle is just a few months older than Palin; Terry Gilliam just a year younger than Cleese; Carol Cleveland (wicked, bad, naughty Zoot!) is right in the center of them at 78.  So I suspect that I’ll be receiving 5 more of these little missives of obituarial melancholia, unless one or more of them manages to outlive me, which would not really be better, if I may be so selfish.  Still, I hope I may be forgiven my whinging just a bit.  These are the people who had the profoundest impact on shaping my concept of what “funny” means, who initiated my Anglophilia, thus leading me to Fry & Laurie and the Young Ones and French and Saunders and Blackadder and Red Dwarf and The IT Crowd.  These are the people who, in a small but significant way, made me who I am today.  I’ll miss them one by one as they move on, and I’ll especially miss them once they’re all gone for good.  The Pythons themselves seem prone to making jokes upon the occasion of each other’s deaths—Cleese supposedly said of Jones’ passing “two down and four to go”—and that’s appropriate.  I’m sure that once you’ve spent that many decades trying to make people laugh, you’ve got to be a bit irked if people can’t laugh after you’re gone.  But, still ... my laughter this month is tinged with a patina of sorrow.  These were giants to me ... if nothing else, a giant foot which squashed my boredom and had a policeman’s head on top of it saying “wot’s all this then?”

Or perhaps just ... “Dinsdale!”


1 The highly-underrated “Weird Al” movie of the same name immortalizes those times.
2 The VHF channels went from 2 to 13 (there was no channel 1, although I never really knew why); anything 14 or up was UHF.  Those channels went up to some large-ish number—78, maybe?—but the reception got crappier the higher they went, so mostly the channels would stay at the lower end of the band as much as possible.
3 As I was a stupid American who doesn’t “get” that sort of thing.
4 And perhaps we shouldn’t limit ourselves to television: the aforementioned “Weird Al” Yankovic was an acquired taste for me, as was This Is Spinal Tap.
5 Or, you know, words to that effect.  It was 35 years ago; don’t take “I distinctly remember” as meaning that I’m offering you a verbatim account of that day.
6 Python’s technically first movie is just a glorified clip show of the series, which I always found very disappointing, as by that time I knew all those sketches.
7 I often refer to them as my “Top X Movies,” because the number only ever gets bigger.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Grandiloquence of Otiosity

This week I completed another week of laptop recovery (because the computer gods hate me), and I finally started on the Smaller Animal‘s solo adventure for the family campaign.  It was also my first week back at $work, which went pretty well, I released several CPAN updates for my Perl modules, and the smallies are easing back into their school routine.  Overall not too exciting a week, but I’m fairly happy with the progress.

Tune in next week for a (hopefully) longer post.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Perl blog post #59

After more than a year off, I finally return to my Other Blog for a Perl post.  You’ve certainly heard of the Y2K bug ... perhaps you’ve even heard of the Y2038 bug ... but have you heard of the Y2020 bug?  No, of course you haven’t, because I just made it up.  But go over and check it out, if you’re so inclined.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Another decade bites the dust

Well, the holidays are over, and it’s time to get back to work.  On the one hand, I haven’t been to the office at $work for about 17 days now, so it’ll be nice to get back, and I’m sure my family is just as sick of having me around as I am of being around.  On the other hand, there’s something to the sentiment that The Mother expressed a few days ago: “I want it to be the week between Christmas and New Year’s for the rest of forever.”

From the I’m-Getting-Too-Old-for-This-Shit department:  Today I broke my 5th or 6th dish in the past few months.  It completely exploded (because of course it did)—as Neil once said, it was smashed into 15 million pieces, and every single one of those pieces was smashed into 15 million pieces, and, although at that point I stopped counting, I wouldn’t be surprised if ...  Apparently they make special dishes for old people that are easier to grip, so I reckon I’m going to have buy some of those.  Or at least dishes that don’t shatter on impact.

This year I’m looking forward to more sessions in the Family Campaign, and possibly getting some interesting Perl work done, and hopefully marking a few things off my todo list.  It’s a new decade, after all, and I’m sure many folks look at that as a fresh start.  But, you know, I’m not going to complain about a little more of the same ol’ thing, because, for me, the same ol’ thing is pretty nice.