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” channel
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 mysel
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 movi
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 Jone
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 death
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 numbe
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.