Friday, October 5, 2012

Opening Inspired, Monty Python’s Flying Circus Vol. 1 Has Three Great Episodes!

The Good: Hilarious, Well-presented, A few interesting DVD bonus features
The Bad: Closed caption function, Light on extras, Use of medium
The Basics: Starting high, Monty Python’s Flying Circus Volume 1 has three episodes of sketch comedy that is only dated in its look!

There are few British (or American) sketch comedy shows that have made such an impression on the world as Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And while Saturday Night Live has arguably made more "stars" over the years, the ratio of great comics to mediocre performers is unrivaled on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Arguably, it is a tie; Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Kids In The Hall both had troupes that were made up of individuals who were experts at what they did and proficient in every possible way at making comedy. And while all three of these sketch comedy shows eventually ground themselves into a pulp, ending without their full potential evident (or continuing long, long after it was truly funny), Monty Python’s Flying Circus managed to preserve much of its genius throughout, ending with the same absurdist humor with which it began.

And that beginning comes on this DVD, Volume One, which includes the first three episodes of the series, "Whither Canada?," "Sex & Violence," and "How To Recognize Different Types Of Trees From Quite A Long Way Away." These three episodes introduce the comedic geniuses Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin as a cohesive acting and creative unit. Gilliam, for example, appears almost never on screen in these episodes, but he provides interstitial animations to move the show from one sketch to another. The men of Monty Python’s Flying Circus appear as most of the women in the show as well, dressing in drag and performing in ridiculous falsetto voices to flesh out the sketches that require the "feminine touch." This is often hilarious, as it is in the case of Cleese performing with his falsetto voice to portray a batty Englishwoman who cannot tell the difference between the taste of dead crab and Whizzo butter.

Though the entire first season could have been put on a single DVD, A&E opted to release them as volumes before bundling them together (a poor use of the medium's capacity). For those wondering what the hype of the troupe is, it is worth looking at the content of the episodes.

In "Whither Canada?" there is the running gag involving pigs getting squashed, shot or otherwise killed versus the pigs killing humans. The show takes a decidedly news-oriented bent when the coverage turns to the death of famous people. This includes the competitive deaths of Ghengis Khan, Lord Nelson and other notables. There is a "man on the street" interview which proves most British housewives cannot tell the difference between the taste of dead crab and Whizzo butter. An animated sequence follows, which uses stock photography which is manipulated for humorous intent, including having soldiers dancing and being eaten by their hats.

As well, there is a snide interviewer of a filmmaker, which quickly degenerates into a forum on putting one's interviewee at ease and then another interview where the interrogator becomes obsessed with the interviewee's nickname. Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson is roughed up by the interviewers and the show turns to a competition which is Pablo Picasso painting while riding a bicycle. The final sketch is a historical look at joke warfare and the joke that helped the British win World War II.

In "Sex & Violence," the disheveled old man runs and trips over dunes to announce the show, which then begins with a farmer talking to a visitor about sheep that are up in a tree. It seems the ringleader, Harold, is a smart sheep and it attempting to convince the other sheep to attempt to fly. What follows, then, is an explanation in utter gibberish between two French pantomimers in front of a sheep diagram explaining through utterances and gesticulations how the flying sheep could be used as mass transportation. The phrase "and now for something completely different . . ." is introduced into the series then with the introduction of a man with three buttocks, who then gives way to a man with two noses. This is followed by a musical interlude involving a man who plays specially trained mice by beating on them like a percussion instrument in order to elicit specific tones of squeaks.

After that monstrous display, there is a marriage guidance counselor who seduces the wife of the husband who brings her in for counseling. That sketch is followed by one of the Queen in an old silent movie which is slapstick in nature. Then there is a playwright who argues with his miner son for not following him into an intellectual profession. Their fight, including the son explaining working with tungsten carbide drills and the father defending his press tours, leads the playwright to kick his son out and consider writing a play about it. This is followed by a priest and a humanist wrestling to prove the existence of god and then an expose on those who dress up as mice and go to mouse parties.

After another extended opening, wherein the disheveled old man runs through a forest to introduce the show, "How To Recognize Different Types Of Trees From Quite A Long Way Away" begins with photographs of the larch. This is part of a lesson on recognizing trees at a distance and transforms to the court proceedings for Mr. Larch over a parking ticket. His attorney enters, puts a babbling woman on the stand, then a man who quickly becomes a corpse, before calling to the stand Cardinal Richelieu as a character witness for Mr. Larch. Inspector Dim (of the yard!) bursts in to uncover the fraudulent Cardinal before the Bicycle Repair Man sketch begins. In a world where everyone is Superman, one man leads a secret life as Bicycle Repair Man and he has to help one of the supermen repair his bike. This is followed by a children's storybook reader, who finds himself reading adult stories.

This is followed by the restaurant sketch in which a customer politely asks for his dirty fork to be replaced, which sets off a string of apologies from the headwaiter, manager, chef, etc. After a corny punchline, a milkman is lured into the home of a pretty woman, who has something else in mind. John Cleese then begins delivering the news in a monotone, which leads burglars to break in, abduct him and throw him off a pier while he continues delivering the news. Finally, there is a sketch - arguably one of the most famous ones the series ever did - wherein a man strikes up a conversation with another man about his wife and he speaks the body language as he leers. This is popularly known as the "nudge nudge" sketch and it is great fun.

Because this is sketch comedy, there are no recurring characters in these episodes, though the five on-screen performers (everyone but Gilliam) quickly become recognizable for their various talents. Chapman, for example, is gifted with a dry deadpan, Cleese is able to do deep sarcasm and Terry Jones shines as an extraordinary physical comedian. Idle and Palin have a great rapport with one another and many of their sketches have them playing good-natured everymen or slimy salespeople.

On DVD, Volume 1 contains biographies of all six of the regular "Monty Python" castmembers, with video clips as well. Each episode has a useless trivia fact and there is a dictionary of terms unique to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There is also a selection of clips of various silly occupations from throughout the series as well as a presentation of the "Nudge Nudge" sketch performed live! Unfortunately, the closed captioning on this disc (necessary when one is on the phone ignoring what pompous relatives are saying) is printed all in white, often over white scenery or clothing. The result is much of it cannot be adequately be seen.

Still, this is hardly a reason to not pick up this DVD; the men of Monty Python are downright brilliant and this disc illustrates how they started high with some absolutely genius sketch comedy.

[For a much better value, check out Monty Python's Flying Circus Season 1 on DVD, reviewed here, as it has the complete season, with nothing left to search for!]

For other sketch comedy shows, please check out my reviews of:
Da Ali G Show
The Kids In The Hall - Season 1
Saturday Night Live - Season 1


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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