Oh, the outrage. Decades after Monty Python’s Norwegian blue parrot was declared ‘deprived of life’ and ‘went to meet its maker’, the show is back on TV.
For the first time in 34 years, Britain’s most surreal comedy export is airing on a free-to-air channel. Classic nostalgia station That’s TV will air the four Python series – in pairs of episodes for an hour a day – starting at 9pm tonight.
And in a controversial move, the channel vowed not to cut a word.
“Monty Python’s Flying Circus has always provoked howls of protest,” says Daniel Cass, general manager of That’s TV. “It was supposed to be outrageous. We wouldn’t be true to its spirit if we started censoring it.
For the first time in 34 years, Britain’s most surreal comedy export is airing on a free-to-air channel
But if Python was a raspberry in the face of decency when it launched in 1969, how will a generation of young viewers who’ve never heard of crunchy chocolate-covered frogs or the dancing fish fare? ?
It’s not just the offensiveness of the Scattergun. At its best, Monty Python is still hilarious enough to give you spasms and tie your intestines around your lungs.
Young viewers just aren’t used to it. They don’t expect to laugh out of breath.
The first duty of comedy today is to pay homage to current moral fashions. Jokes don’t have to be funny as long as they poke fun at Brexit, praise socialist ideals, denounce transphobia and wave a rainbow flag for diversity.
Any show that can handle all of that and raise more than a soft chuckle is a rarity.
The usual result is dross such as The Witchfinder, a sitcom which launched on BBC2 last week. Set during the English Civil War, it features Tim Key as a freelance detective, on the hunt for women to accuse of witchcraft.
To say it’s “unfunny” is like saying Southern Railways is “unreliable”: true, but the reality is far worse than that. The Witchfinder is so miserable in its inability to make people laugh, it’s downright depressing.
The Witchfinder is so miserable in its inability to make people laugh, it’s downright depressing
It hasn’t been repeated on the BBC since 1988, prompting John Cleese to lament recently that many young viewers have never heard of it: “It seems strange, because I think they would like Python”
And yet it is considered by the Beeb as ambitious because it has a substantial budget. There are star costumes and names, including Daisy May Cooper and Jessica Hynes.
Mostly what passes for entertainment is a procession of dreary panel shows such as Mock The Week, The Ranganation and Frankie Boyle’s New World Order – retreading the same jokes and filling every half hour with complaints fueled by swear about conservatives.
It’s billed as a comedy, but no one should laugh. The right reaction is to raise your clenched left fist and shout, “Straight on, comrade!”
This has been true for six years, since the Brexit referendum plunged the Liberal establishment into the agony of recriminations. But that’s been building since the advent of alternative comedy in the 1980s.
Never mind that Monty Python was as alternative as anyone could want. It hasn’t been repeated on the BBC since 1988, prompting John Cleese to lament recently that many young viewers have never even heard of it: “That seems odd, because I think they would like Python. “
The bosses of That’s TV, which launched on Freeview last summer, certainly believe they will. Up to 20% of their audience are millennials and Generation Z, i.e. those under 40.
“We aired The Kenny Everett Video Show and people are emailing and calling to say how much they love it and can’t believe they’ve never heard of it before,” says Daniel Cass. “We expect a similar reaction with Python.”
The channel is unapologetic in its dedication to mainstream comedy. It even airs TV compilations of The Benny Hill Show – including those beyond-parody sequences in which a lustful Benny chases scantily-clad young women in the park, to the Yakety Sax soundtrack.
In my opinion, Benny Hill was innocent filth. Some will disagree: today, like many 1970s comedies, it may seem unforgivably sexist. What was meant to be light-hearted fun sometimes seems almost dangerous now, in the way it objectifies women or seems to condone sexual violence.
In my opinion, Benny Hill was innocent filth. Some will disagree: today, like many 1970s comedies, it may seem unforgivably sexist
Python has always sought to offend – never more so than in Undertaker’s Sketch which closed out the second series.
In it, Cleese takes a bag containing her mother’s corpse to a funeral home, where the undertaker (Graham Chapman) offers to “bury her, burn her” or “throw her in the Thames”.
Then he peeks into the bag and says, “She looks quite young. . . we have an eater. . . It would be delicious with some fries, a little stuffing.
Horrified, Beeb executives allowed the team to tape the skit only on the condition that a live audience be heard booing throughout.
The BBC’s features manager called the show “disgusting” and the channel’s controller condemned it as “appallingly bad taste” and the head of light entertainment complained that the Pythons “seemed to have a sort of death wish.
This sketch still stands out for its sheer nausea. Oddly enough, however, the skits most likely to spark a woke storm are those that were relatively innocuous when first aired.
There’s Michael Palin, now Sir Michael and a national treasure, proclaiming his love for cross-dressing in The Lumberjack’s Song: “I chop down trees, I hop and jump, I like squeezing wildflowers.” I put on women’s clothes and hang out in bars.
Even more disturbing now, although considered harmless at the time, is the sight of Graham Chapman as a member of an African tribe, wearing a feathered headdress and loincloth.
His name is Eamonn and, returning home to a suburban bungalow, he is greeted by his white mother (Terry Jones in curlers).
Come to that, there’s the nightmarish sequence where Palin is a stockbroker on her daily commute. He is unaware of all the sexual perversions and murders happening around him, including Jones himself as a Zulu warrior, running through a man with an assegai at the bus stop.
Comedy stars from David Walliams and Matt Lucas on Little Britain, to arch-leftist David Baddiel, have issued a public apology for donning blackface in the past and it’s no longer considered remotely funny.
How will modern – and especially younger – audiences react to breaking this taboo, let alone all the others that the Pythons have deliberately set out to break?
Suicide is one. During another skit, Cleese and Eric Idle play two office workers in a tower, taking bets on which of their colleagues will be the next to collapse until they die.
“Three people have just fallen in front of this window,” remarks one. “It must be a board meeting,” remarks the other.
“It was Wilkins from finance,” said one. ‘Very good golfer. Rotten to finances. It will be Parkinson next. . . How much do you bet it won’t, a five? . . . Come on Parky. Jump Parky jump!’
The mere idea of jokes like these in a modern BBC comedy is absurd. The line on the lampshades in Mr Hilter’s sketch is of course a reference to the monstrous barbarism of the Nazi extermination camps
The Nazis are another. It’s Cleese again, this time as Adolf Hitler – living in a bed and breakfast in Minehead. He declares: “I am not racist but. . . zis is a big but. . .’
When his landlady (Jones, of course) receives a phone call from “that nice Mr. McGoering” about bombers, Hitler exclaims, “If he opens his big mouth again, it’s time for ‘lampshade !
The mere idea of jokes like these in a modern BBC comedy is absurd. The line on the lampshades of course refers to the monstrous barbarism of the Nazi extermination camps.
What writer would now dare to suggest such a gag in a script meeting?
When Python returns, there will be outrage from the humorless, just as there was from an older generation when the series debuted. But I predict they will also be drowned out once again by the sound of laughter.