Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Gold Standard Of Sketch Comedy: Monty Python’s Flying Circus

The Good: Hilarious sketch comedy, Great writing, Comic timing
The Bad: Somewhat lame DVD extras, Physically bulky, Last season is a real bust
The Basics: Despite a lack of engaging DVD extras, this expensive boxed set is worth every penny, pound, or euro for its classic sketch comedy!

If you're a geek or someone who loves a geek or has friends who are geeks, you'll already know who Monty Python is. You'll also be looking at this review wondering if the giant boxed set of DVDs is right for you or your friend(s). If you don't know who Monty Python is and what Monty Python's Flying Circus is, then you're possible wondering who would shell out over $150 (as it originally was, it’s down under $50 now!) for a DVD set. Perhaps you're wondering what could possible make a DVD set worth so much hard earned money.

First off, there is no "Monty Python." It's just the name of the comedy troupe comprised of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones that did sketch comedy back in the early 70's in Britain. Unlike most vintage television shows, that I walk by in Media Play and wonder "Why did they bother to put THAT on DVD?!", Monty Python’s Flying Circus is a worthy addition to just about any comedy library because it was so audacious and funny when it first aired and it is still cutting edge now, some thirty years later!

Monty Python’s Flying Circus is (rightfully) considered genius because the men of Monty Python had an amazing knack for making universally funny sketches and the wide range of talents of the six men makes for a wonderful chemistry between them that comes through on the screen in every bit. So, for example, while Saturday Night Live's weekly News sketch is often quite funny (though, not lately), two years down the line, much of the humor is dated and the specific incidents that those living in the moment find funny, will be less funny down the line. If you don't believe me, take a look at some of the early SNL news segments; they'll flash a picture up of a Senator and if you weren't there then, you'll have no idea who it is they're talking about. There are almost no bits like that in Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Instead of lambasting current politicians of the day (which happens once or twice in the entire 45 episode run), various Monty Python sketches attack politics in general and general flaws in the political systems of the UK (many of which are universally applicable). For example, in one episode, there is a hilarious court case wherein a mass murderer gets six months probation by simply flattering everyone in the courtroom.

The reason to shell out the hundred plus dollars on this boxed set of DVDs is that it's better than any comedy on television now and that includes The Simpsons. The edge Monty Python’s Flying Circus has over The Simpsons is that with only 45 half hour episodes, the troupe managed to keep the comedy sharp the entire run of the series. Even the most devout The Simpsons fan must admit that the show does not have the edge and impact it did in its first three seasons and that it only got some of it back following the cancellation of Family Guy. The truth is, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is an amazing collection of satire, slapstick, puns, non sequitors and weird, trippy animation (many different sketches are connected by Terry Gilliam's animations).

Moreover, despite how outrageous the first viewing of each episode is, this is a series that endures remarkably well over multiple viewings. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is comprised of sketches that are classic ("The Lumberjack Song" and "How Not To Be Seen") and obscure ("Buying an Ant" and "The Money Programme"), but all of them are brilliant. Indeed, out of the 45 episodes, only one struck me as a dud ("The Cycling Tour," which was one of the few Monty Python concept shows where the basically did one sketch for the entire episode).

A further strength of the series is that the performers are the writers of the material and they do an excellent job of keeping the characters different. While there are a few recurring characters, like the Gumbys, for the most part, each episode has an entirely different slate of humorous personas. So, unlike something like Mad TV or In Living Color, where the producers discovered the popularity of Mrs. Snow and Homey the Clown, and then did sketch after endless sketch with the character until they were so far beyond not being funny that the audience tuned them out, Monty Python’s Flying Circus utilized different characters each episode.

The down side of this massive boxed set, other than it taking up quite a bit of space on your shelf, is in the DVD extras. I'm a big DVD-phile. I love the medium and I think there's a lot of great stuff one may do with it. Even when this set came out, there was a lot that could be done with DVDs. The episodes lack any commentary, which is a huge disappointment, and the extras are mostly comprised of clips.

Yes, that's right, for $150 - $200 you get 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and as a bonus, you get clips from other episodes of the series that you'd already have. In truth, I understand this, but I still think it stinks. The massive boxed set is basically a collection of all of the 2-disc sets that had been previously released. When one bought a 2-disc set (half a season), the makers of the discs were hoping to make more sales, so they'd do themed clips on the disc you bought, clearly indicating which disc the episode clip you were watching was on (so, for example, one disc has clips from sports-themed sketches), and then you'd go out and buy another set.

In this context, however, buying it all as one big boxed set, the clips make for a pretty lousy extra. Indeed, each episode contains a "Useless tidbit," trivia for those who are interested in behind-the-scenes information. The problem is that toward the end, they begin to re-use some of them (like Carol Cleveland being considered the "7th Python"). Even worse is that some indicate sketches that were cut by the censors and then the viewer is not given the opportunity to see the sketch! That's pretty irritating.

On the plus side, by buying the boxed set, odds are you'll not need to buy the separate disc Live at the Hollywood Bowl, as many of the discs include live scenes from that presentation. If you watch all of the discs' bonus material, you're bound to have seen the whole Hollywood Bowl show.

Is it worth it? Yes. If you're concerned you might not like it, watch an episode on Comedy Central. If you like one episode, you're bound to like them all. If you don't like the episode you see, watch another one. If you like that episode, the not liking the first one was a fluke and you're bound to like the boxed set, go out and buy it! If you don't like the second episode you watch, then . . .. SPLAT!

For a much more thorough understanding of the contents of this boxed set, please check out my reviews of the individual episodes through the volumes at:

Vol. 1 - "Whither Canada?," "Sex & Violence," and "How To Recognize Different Types Of Trees From Quite A Long Way Away"
Vol. 2 - "Owl-Stretching Time," "Man's Crisis Of Identity In The Latter Half Of The Twentieth Century," and "It's The Arts"
Vol. 3 - "You're No Fun Anymore," "Full Frontal Nudity," and "The Ant, An Introduction"
Vol. 4 - "Untitled," "The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes To The Bathroom," "The Naked Ant," and "Intermission”
Vol. 5 - "Face The Press," "The Spanish Inquisition," "and "Deja Vu"
Vol. 6 - "The Buzz Aldrin Show," "Live From The Grill-O-Mat," and "It's A Living"
Vol. 7 - "The Attila The Hun Show," "Archeology Today," and "How To Recognize Different Parts Of The Body"
Vol. 8 - "Scott Of The Antarctic," "How Not To Be Seen," "Spam," and "Royal Episode 13"
Vol. 9 - "Whicker's World," "Mr. And Mrs. Brian Norris' Ford Popular," "The Money Programme"
Vol. 10 - "Blood, Devastation, Death, War, And Horror," "The All-England Summarize Proust Competition," and "The War Against Pornography"
Vol. 11/12 - "Salad Days," "The Cycling Tour," "The Nude Organist," "E. Henry Thripshaw's Disease," "Dennis Moore," "A Book At Bedtime," and "Grandstand"
Vol. 20 - "The Golden Age Of Ballooning" and "Michael Ellis"
Vol. 21 - "The Light Entertainment War" and "Hamlet"
Vol. 22 - "Mr. Neutron" and "Party Political Broadcast"


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

© 2012, 2007, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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