(On Cable TV, January 2019) My budding theory that I don’t actually like Monty Python all that much gets a shot in the arm with And now for Something Completely Different, a classic collection of Python sketches that, seen as a middle-aged man rather than a college student (which is when I first encountered Python), seems wildly uneven. One of the first things that struck me about the film is how violent some of the sketches can be, and how it serves to dissipate the comic atmosphere of the film. As the backstory goes, the film re-created sketches from the group’s TV show, aiming to package the humour for an American audience. Alas, the budget’s limits are often evident, and the very nature of a sketch movie means that it’s going to be uneven from beginning to end. There are some classic sketches here—the “nudge-nudge” one, “The Funniest Joke in the World”, “The Dead Parrot”, and so on, although not all of them have aged gracefully: “The Lumberjack Song”, for instance, feels cheaply transphobic now. I had perhaps more fun with lesser-known sketches: “Hell’s Grannies” and “Upper-Class Twit of the Year”, in particular, got a few grins out of me. Of course, laughter may not be the comedy group’s intention as much as absurdity and eeriness. Still, I’m holding on to my theory that sometime in the past twenty-five years, I’ve lost whatever made me think that Monty Python was funny.
(Second viewing, Netflix Streaming, September 2017) Middle-age is the time in our lives when we confront some of the things we thought we understood about ourselves, and as I finish watching The Meaning of Life, I struggle to articulate the possibility that … maybe… I just don’t like Monty Python as much as I thought I did. Heresy thus being stated, I’ll immediately backtrack by saying that the material in The Meaning of Life feels very familiar: Not only was Monty Python an omnipresent reference in my nerdy pre-web Internet hangouts back in the nineties, I watched the film back then and must have internalized most of it. Still, watching it today, I wasn’t particularly moved to laughter by the on-screen antics. While there is a lot of clever stuff, much of it feels said, overdone, or rather done better elsewhere. Leaving aside the seminal influence of the film over latter generations of comics, I found the musical numbers interminable and the comedy somewhat obvious. Now annoying more than amusing, The Meaning of Life has aged poorly not in its depiction of circa-1983 life, but in the grade of comedy being attempted. Here we have some very smart people trying for shock crude comedy and while the attempt to mesh comic philosophy with an assault on conventional values is interesting to discuss, the impact feels muted today. Out-shocked by its descendants, The Meaning of Life remains clever, but the crudity takes away what should have remained effective. Or maybe, facing the truth again for one ghastly moment, I simply don’t like Monty Python as much as I thought.
(On TV, August 2017) I really thought I’d enjoy Life of Brian more than I did. After all, I claim to have a fondness for British humour, iconoclasm, witty dialogue and absurd comedy—and Life of Brian has all of those in vast quantities. A creation of the Monty Python brain trust, it’s an affectionate poke at the story of Christianity, executed with surprisingly decent means as the film credibly recreates the usual atmosphere of biblical epics. Over and over again, the film uses this visual credibility as a mean through which to heighten the absurdity of its situations and dialogue—most notably in portraying a simple man getting tangled up in revolutionary politics and being mistaken for a profound messiah. But what, on paper, sounds remarkably funny only ends up being mildly amusing on-screen. Some of the less funny stuff (such as Ponce Pilatus’s speech impediment) is hammered until it becomes numbing, and the film does have a tendency to highlight its proudest moments rather than attempt to flow better. One of the consequences of coupling a serious presentation with absurd jokes is that there can be quite a lull between the jokes. As a result, I was more entertained than amused during the film, even though I kept recognizing how clever it was. I’m not saying that it’s a bad film—it’s quite successful at what it tries to do, and better conceived than most comedies. Transforming a tragic ending into an uplifting song number (that is still hummed today!) takes a mad genius … but it doesn’t mean that it will be successful from beginning to end. This being said, so many geeky references are made to Life of Brian than it remains practically mandatory viewing, no matter the effectiveness of the result.