The very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus ends with the funniest joke in the world. Not literally, alas. At the close of the debut transmission, on 5 October 1969, a spoof on the still-active genre of Second World War scientific secrets reveals that Allied commanders have funded a hush-hush project to perfect the “killer joke”. Propelled at German forces, the deadly gag would lead to near-instant death by laughter: “Tests on Salisbury Plain confirmed the joke’s devastating effectiveness at a range of up to 50 yards.”
This is not, perhaps, the infant Pythons’ finest hour or smartest wheeze. All the same, the young squad, tempered in the front lines of Oxbridge revue and BBC radio comedy, has enjoyed the last laugh. For it was they, as we can see in retrospect, who had launched the real killer joke.
News that the five surviving septuagenarians – John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Michael Palin – will re-form for a comeback gig next July has drawn excited cheers from fellow comedians and sniper fire from sceptics more exercised by the Pythons’ monetary squabbles and marital mishaps than by the decades of undimmed renown. Still devastatingly effective at a range of 40-plus years, a show written off in its early days as incurably parochial now not only spans the globe but reaches into space as well. Discovered in the Czech Republic – a prime example of a foreign culture whose offbeat humour chimes perfectly well with “English” whimsy – asteroid 13681 is officially named “Monty Python”.
Those of us who grew up with the Pythons – the four BBC series up to 1974, then the films with Life of Brian in 1979 as the culminating pinnacle and The Meaning of Life in 1983 as a so-so coda – can bore for Britain on the subject. Indeed, the stultifying pomposity of the media bore – as chat-show host, talking head, political pundit or mirthless comic – drives many Python sketches until the blessed relief of Gilliam’s 16-ton weight (first appearance: 26 October 1969) descends to put us out of our misery.
I’ll go easy on the for-instances. But, like some apocryphal book of the Bible (Brian’s version), the Pythons have an adage or analogy for every situation. So – bear with me – fans can’t witness a sectarian wrangle without thinking “Judean People’s Front, People’s Liberation Front of Judea”, or endure a government briefing without reference to the Ministry of Silly Walks, listen to any geeky obsessive without hearing Miss Anne Elk (“Well, this is what it is – my theory that I have, that is to say, which is mine, is mine”), confront a busybody jobsworth on a door without saying that we didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition, or watch one of those slavering homages to corporate greed without recalling the “money programme”: “I love money. All money. I’ve always wanted money … The smell of the rain-washed florin. The lure of the lira. The glitter and the glory of the guinea.” As for the upper-class twits of the year, also minted in 1969, Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smith, Nigel Incubator-Jones, Gervaise Brook-Hampster and their chums not only bray louder than ever in the swankier hostelries around the Fulham Road but – in the Made in Chelsea era – stumble through prime-time schedules too.
Some of the satire has either dated or else found itself flipped and skewered by history. A beautifully crafted early sketch about a working-class, D H Lawrence-style playwright shows the rough diamond of the subsided stage scolding the sensitive son who has taken up hi-tech mine engineering. “‘Aye, ’ampstead wasn’t good enough for you, was it? You had to go poncing off to Barnsley, you and yer coal-mining friends.’ ‘Coal-mining is a wonderful thing, Father, but it’s something you’ll never understand.’” In 2013, in a country probably boasting more dramatists than diggers, you think: if only.
Topical satire can lose its edge. But in the words of a choric duo of old ladies when Ron’s bid to tunnel from Godalming to Java ends in tragedy, “‘Shh. It’s satire.’ ‘No, it isn’t. This is zany madcap humour.’ ‘Oh, is it?’” It is, by and large, with a dusting of the language games and paradoxical logic that might appeal to students of Wittgenstein (yes, he of the Australian Philosophers’ Song: “Wittgenstein was a beery swine/ Who was just as sloshed as Schlegel”). The pure absurdity lasts best, whether in dead parrot form or in the magnificent cheese shop, whose bleak litany of absences achieves an existential abjection worthy of Beckett or Ionesco (“‘Any Norwegian Jarlsberger?’ ‘No.’ ‘Liptauer?’ ‘No.’ ‘Lancashire?’ ‘No.’ White Stilton?’ ‘No.’ ‘Danish Blue?’ ‘No.’ Double Gloucester?’ ‘No.’”)
So the Pythons orbit as inexorably as that eponymous asteroid. Beyond their own blazing talent, however, another gravitational force has helped to ensure their longevity. Look at the cult successes of 1969 – in TV, music or film – and their survival bears witness to that curious post-war phenomenon, the Permahit. Like the permafrost of Siberia, the Permahit is for ever. Pop culture used to flare and fade. Now, like unstained gold or nuclear waste, it never says goodbye.
Like fish in their invisible sea, we live surrounded by Permahits. The albums of 1969 included The Beatles’ Abbey Road, The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, The Who’s Tommy, Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and the first two recordings by Led Zeppelin. How about films? Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Italian Job and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, starring the already seasoned Maggie Smith. I wonder what became of her.
Leathery and pickled they may look, but many of the rock stars still play to adoring hordes. The actors still perform, basking for ever in the aura of iconic roles. In the past, nostalgia, sentiment and fandom permitted a limited revival of stars and shows. This is – er – something completely different: not resurrection, but eternal life. These deathless luminaries now spread their demographic wings to recruit younger disciples. Their art also tends to rise up the scale of esteem. David Bowie, who released the single of “Space Oddity” in July 1969, has become the subject of a blockbuster exhibition at the V&A.
What explains the Permahit? Disgruntled juniors complain about the iron grip exerted by baby-boomer executives on broadcasters, newspapers, record labels, film companies, museums. They celebrate and perpetuate the breakthroughs in taste of their own fondly indulged youth. True, up to a point. But digital media less in thrall to the class of ’68 – or the class of ’69 – find new ways to prolong the charmed life of the Permahit. In fact, the proliferation of technologies may explain more about its robustness than the idea of a stranglehold imposed by a limpet-like generation of cultural bed-blockers.
These undead acts and works began in the age of vinyl, tape and celluloid. As the media of preservation and transmission both multiplied and then migrated into the digital cloud, they became more readily accessible with every passing year. Downloaded, iPod-ed, Spotified and Netflix-streamed, the viral cults of the past hitch rides on new vectors. Even superseded technologies now obstinately refuse to die. Amazon will sell you VHS tapes of the Python movies. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, the veteran artistes themselves tend to stick around and keep working far longer than their predecessors. For the sprightly dinosaurs of baby-boom showbiz, life in the multi-media millennium must feel like one big Jurassic Park.
Try a little thought experiment. How would people in 1969 have regarded the popular culture of 1925, the same distance away as 1969 is from us? That year’s landmarks certainly had cult status as the Sixties closed: Bessie Smith singing the “St Louis Blues”; Louis Armstrong forming his first Hot Five; Sergei Eisenstein (if he counts) filming Battleship Potemkin. Fans of the musical comedy would still have appreciated No, No Nanette (top number? “Tea for Two”).
However much they enjoyed the entertainment of 44 years back, no one in 1969 would have viewed these as contemporary works. They remained the domain of nostalgists, aficionados and revivalists. Whereas Dylan and the Stones still tour, Dame Maggie dominates our Sunday nights, Michael Caine for ever blows the bloody doors off and, next summer, the Pythons will ride again. The quality and quantity of media do make a difference to this revolution in remembering. Above all, though, a fiery curtain of history separates 1969 from 1925: the Second World War.
Cocooned by decades both of peace and (for all our cyclical shocks) prosperity, affluent consumers in the West will feel much closer to the cult hits of 1969, even if these predate their birth. Despite our fetishism about change, no vast gulf of blood and loss divides fans, new or old, from the Permahits of four decades ago.
Let’s go back to October 1969. Monty Python’s Flying Circus begins with the judging panel on a game show about celebrity deaths, a kind of Strictly Come Dying: “9.1, 9.3, 9.7, that’s 28.1 for Genghis Khan. Bad luck, Genghis. Nice to have you on the show.” Plus ça change. And how do the Pythons on television conclude, in December 1974? With a parody of David Attenborough on a wildlife trek: “After six months and three days we’ve caught up with the legendary walking tree of Dahomey, Quercus Nicholas Parsonus, resting here for a moment on its long journey south.” Truly, we live in the age of the immortals.