Legacy of The Flying Circus: Different, but were they funny?

'Spamalot', the musical version of 'Monty Python and The Holy Grail', opens in London tomorrow. We invited two writers to wrestle with a heretical question
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Yes, says Mark Steel

Monty Python deserve their place in the heights of classic culture because they annoyed my mum and dad. Not just them, but almost all my parents' generation seemed to hate it. For this was a generation that cherished stability and order. Boys should have short hair, gardens should be neat and symmetrical and the roast should be at two o' clock every Sunday, because that's how things were meant to be. I used to wonder if, when they were at school, if they got a question in a test such as: "Why can't you pass electricity through wood?", they'd answer: "BECAUSE YOU CAN'T."

Monty Python upset all those rules. Why was a newsreader behind a desk on the beach? Why would the Spanish Inquisition be on a bus? Characters would wander from one sketch to another, or a sketch would become a cartoon. And they didn't just poke fun at institutions, they made them surreally grotesque. When a company delivered a gas cooker to a woman, they then said they'd have to take it back because one word was spelt wrongly on the form, and they couldn't return for several weeks. The rules of comedy suggested the sketch had done its job. But in Monty Python, the delivery man then tells the woman he can help her, as a favour, by using the cooker to gas her, which will be classified as murder, and the murder department should get to her by later that afternoon. So the delivery man shoves the pipe in her mouth and gasses her, while in between gasps she splutters: "You're very kind."

To the ordered mind it made no sense. It was as if they'd come into my dad's garage and put all his tools in the wrong boxes. My mum wouldn't just say it wasn't funny, she'd snap "It's stupid." And my dad would pull the same face he'd use if he found me playing Led Zeppelin; a look that said: "I fought a war for you and this is how you repay me."

In return, a recurring target for Monty Python was the pomposity of the adult world. So a speech at an annual general meeting went: "It's been a good year for the Society of Putting Things on Top of Other Things." The Society solemnly claps and then a special mention goes to one branch that "this year has put no fewer than nine things on top of other things".

Similarly, when they parodied politicians, they didn't satirise specific figures but the self-importance of it. So they portray a minister on one of these austere political programmes that seem to be on all through Sunday, beginning his reply to an interviewer by saying: "I'd like to answer that question in two ways. Firstly in my normal voice, and then in a sort of high-pitched squeak." The interviewer adds: "And putting the case against the minister is a small patch of brown liquid."

On the mornings after an episode had been shown, a group of us would act out our favourite sketches at school. Some teachers would join in, while others told us to shut up, and it was a divide that matched exactly the ones that had imagination and those who had none. So there was little point in trying to convince anyone who didn't like it that they were wrong. I was reminded of this lesson during the first radio programme I ever wrote, which included a sketch about trying to deal with official twaddle. For example, I said, if you're trying to hire a car you have to produce passports and bank statements and gas bills, but no matter how prepared you are, eventually they'll catch you out. Because they'll say something like: "Right. Now have you got a swan with your name and address on?"

"Sorry."

"A swan. We can't let you take a car unless you provide us with a swan with your name and address on."

And the producer went mad. A swan isn't funny, he said, because it made no sense. It should be something believable such as a grandmother's library ticket. And so every day for two weeks an argument raged about this bloody swan.

It's not that either of us was right, it's just that in his world it didn't and couldn't make sense. So the battle goes on. Which makes it a great irony that among modern groups who insist on learning things by rote and taking themselves too seriously, are many of those who idolise Monty Python. It's as if the original anarchy of the programme has been taken over by fanatics, who insist on chanting: "We are the knights who say 'Ni'", several times a day.

One of the most iconic sketches for these types is the spam sketch, which has given its name to the new theatre show. But I can honestly say I saw it on the night it was first shown, and I cried and howled and my mum and dad looked bewildered which made it even funnier until I was utterly, helplessly hysterical. And I've no idea why it was so funny, and there was no message to it whatsoever. Except, possibly, that you should and must break the rules.

Mark Steel will be appearing at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London on 24-29 October. Telephone 0870 060 1742 for details.

No, says Adrian Turpin

And now for something completely different. There ought to be a name for the irrational adulation that Monty Python inspires in people: Pythonolatory? Pythonosis? Pythomania?

An academic psychologist could write a book about the phenomenon. The first thing they might observe is that a love of Python isn't usually about a love of comedy. Watching Flying Circus again, the first thing to strike you is how thin much of the material is. It is easy forget the fact that John Cleese made only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers because each of them is a comedy Tardis, so well put together that it's often a shock to discover that what you recalled as two separate shows are in fact one.

With Flying Circus, which ran to 45 episodes, the reverse is true. What one remembered as a lushly appointed comic mansion turns out to be a sparsely furnished Seventies bedsit. For every Spanish Inquisition and Nudge, Nudge sketch the audience was forced to endure hours of self-indulgent, half-baked, ill-edited, stream-of-consciousness ramblings.

Outside of Communist Czechoslovakia - which, to the best of my knowledge, never broadcast BBC2 - has anyone ever found Terry Gilliam's animations even mildly amusing? Carol Cleveland's succession of pneumatic blondes would not have been out of place on The Benny Hill Show. And was cross-dressing ever clever, even in the Seventies? At least Dick Emery never had pretensions to be anything other than a purveyor of seaside-postcard innuendo.

More than anything else, being a Python fan has always been about wanting to belong to a tribe, a nerdy secret society with all the rites that membership of such a body implies. Where the mason rolls up his trouser legs, the Pythonist displays his funny (I use the word loosely) walks and recites every word of "The Lumberjack Song". Some Pythonists - recreating the Gumby sketch - even roll up their trousers, too. To quote the Not The Nine O'Clock News skit "Python Worshipper": "In the words of John Cleese, whenever two or three are gathered together in one place, they shall perform the parrot sketch."

One benefit of this for the Pythonist is that it dispenses with the need to have a sense of humour. Lip-service paid to the gospel according to Python becomes a useful shorthand. "I like a laugh me," it says, "but not any old laugh. Not a Vicar of Dibley laugh or even, heaven forbid, a Two Ronnies laugh. My laugh of choice would not be understood by most other people [apart from the regiment of other Pythonists]. I'm quite wacky me."

The people who think like this are the same who believe that asking: "Do you remember Spangles and Buckaroo?", constitutes an original contribution to an evening's conversation. They're the ones who vote on Channel 4 polls listing the 50 best everything. They are comedy's equivalent of Coldplay fans, secretly relieved to find that their "unconventional" tastes are shared by everyone from the Prime Minister downwards. Contrary to popular belief, the nadir of the Thatcher years wasn't the poll tax or the Falklands War but the Iron Lady's decision to quote the dead parrot sketch during her conference speech in 1990.

The rarely spoken truth about the Pythons is that they have made little go a very long way. No doubt they helped to blow a breath of fresh air through television comedy when Flying Circus first aired in 1969. But even at the time their claims to originality were compromised: Spike Milligan's show Q10, which had appeared the year before, employed many of the same Post-Modern, fourth-wall busting tricks.

Since then, the Pythons' reputation has soared out of all proportion to their achievement. Of their four films, only two - Life of Brian and Monty Python and the Holy Grail - have trodden fresh ground from Flying Circus. Not that this has prevented the Pythons eking out their back catalogue with the re-releases, live CDs and special editions, not to mention the stage versions of films.

In this, at least, the Pythons were genuine innovators, marketing models for the Fast Shows and Little Britains who would come after. At least they had the good grace to call one album "The Final Rip-off".

And when the fictional material ran out, there was always the behind-the-scenes psychodrama to exploit. That off-stage soap opera - all simmering rows and hissy-fits over who was going to play Brian - has done as much to feed the myth of Python as anything that has happened on stage or screen.

Or perhaps I'm just failing to look on the bright side of life?

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