This week at the Pop Culture Club the plan was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Or was it? In my endless masochistic desire to get us to objectively rejudge our nostalgic favorites (Vacation? Yes. Meatballs? No), I wanted to see whether the Python TV series still held up. After all, comedy has had 40 years of evolution since we first heard the word “It’s…”; putting aside how ingenious you might have found the show when you first discovered it, you have to concede the possibility that it could all seem very slow, flat, or dated by now. As @jeanettert tweeted to me (@EWJoshWolk!) last week, “My father is convinced that Laugh-In was funny.” All apologies to Jo Anne Worley — and this isn’t the first time I’ve had to apologize to her — I dare you to try to watch a rerun of that now.
Anyway, I went into this week’s assignment with great trepidation. Allow me to present my nerdly Monty Python credentials: I discovered the show in 1985, back when I was in tenth grade, and became an instant acolyte. The following summer my family took a trip to England, and I could not have cared less about the Tower of London, Big Ben, or Parliament: All I wanted to do was track down every Python book, record, or cassette, from Live at Drury Lane to The Brand New Monty Python Papperbok. My parents were slightly aggrieved to find out that my only goal on my trip abroad was to collect British comedy, but hey, if they wanted to block me from pop culture, they should have taken me somewhere that didn’t speak English.
After this week’s experiment, I can safely say, Rest easy, 15-year-old Josh Wolk, Python still holds up. I took down my Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus Collector’s Edition DVD and randomly selected three episodes — “How to Recognize Different Types of Trees from Quite a Long Way Away,” “Mr. and Mrs. Brian Norris’ Ford Popular,” and “Whicker’s World” for all you fellow completists keeping score — and was relieved to find out that they still felt fresh. Did they make me laugh? Well, no, but that’s just because I’d seen these episodes hundreds of times; comedy is all about surprise, and they’ve long since lost their ability to surprise me. Now I simply smile knowingly in anticipation, kind of like a coach watching a gymnast go out and kill with the routine he knows is flawless. But even if they don’t surprise me, they still feel exactly like the kind of comedy I’d like to see today. (Speaking of which, considering that I’m sure that most of the Saturday Night Live grew up on Python, I’d like to ask them why they’ve learned nothing.)
There’s no topicality in the old Python shows, which is part of why they age so well. There are no dated pop culture references to make them seem overtly out of touch. (A side note: topical humor was also mostly anathema to the brilliant Kids in the Hall. Unfortunately, KITH reruns feel more dated to me just because of the late-’80s/early ’90s clothing, through no fault of their own. The Pythons’ big sideburns and skinny ties don’t jolt me out of time the same way: Now, I watch Bruce McCulloch singing “These are the Daves I know,” and all I can think is, “For God’s sake, untuck that shirt! And are your jeans’ waist chafing your nipples?”)
The Python writing is still smart and unexpected (again…assuming you don’t have all these shows memorized). When you think about sketch comedy over the last ten years or so, who’s doing anything that Python didn’t already do, and just as well? The brilliant Mr. Show was just an updated Python, complete with non-sequitor segues and fourth-wall destruction. If anything, the more forward-thinking “progressive” comedy is swerving back toward Python. Look at Tim & Eric’s Awesome Show Great Job!. Their purposefully cheap aesthetic feels like a Terry Gilliam animation, but done with old VCRs.
Ahhh, dissecting comedy, there’s nothing funnier! But in conclusion: hooray for Python, as relevant as ever, and congratulations to it for making me feel like a dope as an adult for still not getting all the jokes about philosophers. Okay, so I should have paid more attention in college!
So what did you all think rewatching Python? Do you feel like it holds up? What sketch shows do you think will have the same longevity? And what about other subsequent groundbreaking TV comedy: Do you think we’ll be looking back at Tom Green and Jackass in 40 years thinking they’re just as funny as they were in the ’90s?
Now for next week’s assignment: Let’s check out the premiere of USA’s White Collar, which is a new Catch Me If You Can-type drama about a crook brought in to help solve crimes. Wait, that can’t be right: crooks do crimes. But it’s so crazy it just might work! Or, it might not: TV, you are an unpredictable bastard. Anyway, it airs Friday night at 10 p.m., so check it out and we’ll meet back here next Thursday to discuss. And I’d like you all to have more input on what we watch every week, so tweet me your suggestions at @EWJoshWolk (wait, are the “at” and “@” redundant? Technology and grammar are fighting!) Okay, now on to Monty Python…
PHOTO CREDIT: Everett Collection