Hands Up, Who Like Me?: The Holy Grail of British Comedy

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In this weekly column, I’ll introduce you to the world of British comedy in the chronology of how I, an American anglophile, discovered it in my life. This week: Monty Python.

There are many subgenuses of loser when you’re growing up. You’ve got your Math Geeks, your Summer Reading Nerds and, of course, the pathetic Sports Dork, a kid who knows every sport stat, but can’t play any them himself.

Now, there’s a lot of cross-pollination in the Loser Kingdom. Some kids are Math Geeks and Summer Reading Nerds. Some kids are Sports Dorks and…well, actually, Sports Dorks are pretty much just Sports Dorks. But one of the great unifying forces that bind almost all nerds together is the seminal British sketch ensemble Monty Python.

Discovering Monty Python is pretty much a rite of passage for all fledgling pencil-necks. Their absurdist, surreal voice offers a welcome alternative to stifling and saccharine mainstream comedy fluff. Keep in mind, they were pre-cable and Internet, so for many people (including myself) finding Monty Python was like finding a hilarious Narnia in the back of your television set.

But don’t let the geeky Python uber-fans turn you off (and their cringe-worthy dedication to quoting the group certainly will).

Monty Python was intellectual, idiotic, subversive and of course outrageously funny. They were also very hip and cutting edge. Their TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus ran from 1969 to 1974 on the BBC, but I didn’t see it until the early 80’s on my local PBS affiliate. When I did, it opened my tender young mind to what funny could be. It also affirmed my own off-beat sensibility and assured me there were people out there, ADULT people, who were even weirder than myself. A very comforting thought for a pre-teen geek growing up in bland suburbia.

So much has already been said about Monty Python, that I feel a little silly including them in this column. Like all geniuses, they transcend nationality and are so influential that they subdivide comedy in a biblical way. Subjectively speaking, for me there’s B.M.P and A.M.P.

Here are three of their better-known sketches…

Twit of the Year:

Dead Parrot Sketch (essentially the, Free Bird of comedy sketches. No pun intended):

The Lumberjack Song:

They made several brilliant films together, and I’ll rank my favorites as follows:

1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail -– An absolute classic and the first Python movie I ever saw. It retells, with sublime absurdity, the Arthurian Grail myth. Knights who say, “Ni,” taunting French tower guards and a flying killer rabbit? You can’t lose.

2. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Many would argue that this collection of sketches meditating on the ultimate human question is the lesser of Python’s film efforts. I beg to differ. Granted there are some clunky moments, but there are also moments of Monty Python at their absolute best. The Galaxy song, The Meaning of War and Part VII: Death are all personal faves.

3)The Life of Brian – Life of Brian has gone through something of a resurgence in popularity the last few years. Many now consider it Python’s finest film. I do love it, but it’s just not my favorite. Could be all that sand. I dunno. However, it does feature one of most perfect bits of Python humor and quite possibly their funniest musical number, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Literal gallows humor at its finest.

With the exception of Graham Chapman who passed away from cancer in 1989, the members of Python, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam have all gone on to create outstanding bodies of work that rank highly in their own right (and will be talked about in future editions of this column).

It goes without saying that Monty Python is essential viewing not just for British comedy fans, but for all comedy fans everywhere.

I leave you with links to two of the strangest sketches they ever made. Find the Fish actually made me nauseous when I first saw it as a kid. It was that powerfully weird!

Confuse a Cat:

Find the Fish:

Curtis Gwinn is a writer and comedian living in LA. He’s written for The Onion, MTV’s Human Giant, Comedy Central and FOX Searchlight Pictures. He also co-starred in and co-wrote Fat Guy Stuck in Internet on Adult Swim.