Michael Palin has finally admitted what many of us have known in our hearts for some time: a lot of Monty Python’s material was “crap.”
“People forgive you the things that don’t work. A lot of Python was crap, it really was,” said Palin, yesterday, at the launch of a tour called “Travelling To Work” announced at the London Book Fair.
“We put stuff in there that was not really that good, but fortunately there were a couple of things that everyone remembers while they’ve forgotten the dross,” he said.
Palin is dead right, of course. As a child in the 1970s I remember sitting stony-faced through entire episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But at the time, and ever since, there has existed a powerful omerta whereby no one can admit to finding Monty Python unfunny for fear of being thought humourless or not part of the gang.
Monty Python’s inflated reputation derives as much as anything, I think, from a combination of obsessive repetition and peer pressure. That is, a lot of their sketches are not particularly funny in and of themselves, but have been conferred the status of classics as a result of being endlessly repeated by drunken students who brandish their knowledge of Python sketches as a way of acquiring cult credibility.
I know this because it’s exactly what I did myself at university in the mid-Eighties.
I knew by heart the lyrics to songs like Finland, Finland, Finland (“the country where I want to be/pony trekking or camping/or just watching TV”) and Sit On My Face (And Tell Me That You Love Me); and about the Knights who say “Ni” and the rabbit with “nasty, pointy teeth” and “a mean streak a mile wide”; and about insults like “I fart in your general direction” and “your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries”. So did lots of my drinking contemporaries. It was a sign that you belonged.
But funny? No – as Palin says – an awful lot of it wasn’t. And that includes the massively overrated Dead Parrot Sketch which, as often with Python’s sketches, drags on too long, doesn’t know how to finish, and is too laboured and stilted to be up there with the greats.
Then there are the films. The Pythons only actually made one, fully-realised, near-perfect one The Life Of Brian. The Holy Grail was much more patchy; The Meaning Of Life probably has only one really good moment in it – Mr Creosote and the “waffer-theen mint”, which is funny-disgusting and funny-catch-phrase but not in any way funny-clever or funny-sophisticated.
Which isn’t to say that Monty Python doesn’t have its truly great moments – many of them in their masterpiece The Life of Brian, which appears to have distilled everything that was best about their humour.
Here are five of my favourite Monty Python sketches. (If I were really honest, every one would come from Life of Brian, but I’ve picked some outsiders just for variety)
The Biggus Dickus scene (Life of Brian) – “he wanks as high as any Wome”.
What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us (Life of Brian) – (“And the sanitation…”)
The Black Knight (Grail) – (“I’ll bite your legs off!”)
Decomposing composers (song) – “Beethoven’s gone but his music lives on/And Mozart don’t go shopping no more/You’ll never meet Liszt or Brahms again/And Elgar doesn’t answer the door.”
Kamikaze Scotsmen (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) – “So successful has been the training of the kamikaze regiment that their numbers have dwindled from 30,000 to just over a dozen in three weeks.”
The surviving Monty Python team will be reuniting on stage for what they claim is the very last time at a series of dates in London at the O2 Arena this summer. But if I were you, I think I’d take Michael Palin’s hint and blow your money on something more worthwhile like Kate Bush.