The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Ira Glass has a quote on starting out in a field where he says: “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. … It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” One of the best things about doing this series of articles is getting to see the comedic legends go through this very process. We’ve seen Conan, Jon Stewart, even Woody Allen with some of their first public creations, and even though we can see that potential, in most cases, it’s not hitting the comedic strides that makes them the legends they are today.
In today’s article we’re going to take a look at the humble beginnings of another entry in the Comedy Hall of Fame: Monty Python. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which aired on the BBC in 1969, was the first project that Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and John Cleese had collaborated on as a six-headed unit, but each of them had been on television in some form or another prior. However, due to the lack of interest in archiving old television programs during that era, much of this material is lost.
At Last the 1948 Show, a proto-Python show that featured Graham Chapman, John Cleese as well as Tim Brooke-Taylor (later of the sketch group The Goodies) and Marty Feldman (you probably know him best as “Igor” in the movie Young Frankenstein), barely escaped the fate of being lost forever. (In fact, we almost lost Flying Circus to this process. In the recent documentary Monty Python: Almost the Truth, Terry Gilliam states that he purchased the tapes from the BBC when he heard they were going to be wiped.) The DVD release of At Last doesn’t actually feature true episodes of the program: instead they are five best-of episodes edited together for Swedish television. Ten episodes of the program exist today through a combination of diligent searching and careful restoration.
At Last the 1948 Show aired in 1967 (its title was a satirical dig at the BBC’s tendency to let shows sit on the shelf for months before airing) and began after David Frost (who would later have a movie written about the time he talked to Richard Nixon) approached the four about doing a sketch show. Graham, John and David were all on the radio show I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, along with Eric Idle, which had spun out of the college comedy show that they had written and performed at Cambridge. Frost suggested the addition of Marty Feldman who, up until that point, had been working strictly as a writer. At some point in the process, one other cast member was added to the show; a bubbly young actress from the West End by the name of Aimi MacDonald, who would open, close, and occasionally interrupt the show, usually in a bikini, to discuss how lovely she was. The phrase “the lovely Aimi MacDonald” became an enduring catch phrase in England. In fact, in her Wikipedia entry, there are citations for the phrase being used some fifty years after the show aired.
In the episode available at the Paley Center, the show certainly does feel like a pilot episode of Monty Python, minus two-thirds of the cast. For example, the first sketch of the show features the four cast members dressed in suits and bowler hats as hosts of the show “Let’s Speak English.” In it, each of the men speaks very slowly and very deliberately in an effort to be clear to the non-native speakers we assume are watching. “I AM A CHARTERED ACCOUNTANT,” says Graham Chapman. “I AM ALSO A CHARTERED ACCOUNTANT,” says Marty, and so on down the line until we get to John Cleese who breaks form and states, “I AM A GORILLA!” This pattern continues with each of the three giving vocabulary for the components of tea, with Cleese undermining them randomly. “THESE ARE SURGICAL TRUSSES.” “No, they are not surgical trusses. They are cakes.” This continues until Cleese stands up and explains, still in the slow, deliberate cadence, “THE GORILLA IS CROSS WITH THE WOP PRODUCER BECAUSE THE GORILLA IS UNDERPAID. IF HE WERE PAID MORE HE MIGHT BECOME A CHARTERED ACCOUNANT. THE GORILLA IS A REASONABLE MAN, BUT HE HAS BEEN PROVOKED.” A director rushes out and hands Cleese a stack of money, who promptly becomes a chartered accountant again.
Another very Python-y sketch features Graham Chapman as a talk show host who suffers from a flurry of strange tics. As he interviews Marty Feldman, who plays a beekeeper, he randomly shushes him. Marty is thrown off and Graham explains that if he actually wants him to stop talking he will say “shush,” which he eventually does accidentally when he simply meant to say “shhh.” Eventually this heightens as Graham begins to squawk whenever someone says the word “life” and ultimately we learn that he explodes whenever somebody mentions “pollen.”
The final sketch of this episode, while very Pythonesque in tone, featured something that very rarely occurred on the show: John Cleese singing. Cleese, who once when appearing on Late Night with David Letterman, described lip-syncing his way through an early acting job as a chorus boy in a Broadway show, is the soloist in a performance of what is billed as a “traditional English song.” Backing him there is a small four-piece orchestra and a chorus that echoes him as he sings such lyrics as “I’ve got a ferret sticking up my nose.” As the song continues, a string section is introduced, later a brass section, finally church bells ring in tune with the stupid, stupid song. When it ends, the audience gives a very emphatic round of applause, no doubt due to the large amount of effort put into such a silly song. YouTube has an earlier version of this song from the previously mentioned I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, which unfortunately is stripped of the bells and whistles, but still features the same ridiculous lyrics.
Though largely forgotten, At Last the 1948 Show serves as a bridge between the early days of Cleese and Chapman who performed their Cambridge show across England, and the later days in which the pair wrote along with the other Pythons such classic sketches as The Cheese Shop Sketch, The Dead Parrot Sketch, and so many others. While rough around the edges, that potential is there, and if nothing else, can serve as inspiration to those of us that are chipping away at our own projects. The more you make, the better you get.