Thursday, November 5, 2009

Looking back at 40 years of Python



2009 marks the 40th anniversary of Monty Python's Flying Circus (the sketch comedy series that ran from 1969 to 1974). In honor of this milestone, IFC has been running a 6-hour documentary entitled Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut). I totally have not been watching that, but I am somewhat curious. It's supposedly chock full of all sorts of things you didn't know about the show and the Python crew. Maybe I'll have to netflix it, but -- then again -- do I really want to spend 6 hours of my life learning about Monty Python (6 hours that I could spend watching reality television)?

I have, however, listened to an episode of the Slate culture podcast (episode #57 dated Oct 21, 2009) in which they discuss the Python anniversary. I thought this raised an interesting question. Looking back on Monty Python's Flying Circus, 40 years later, how do we feel about the series? Is it still funny? Still relevant? Dated? Silly? Gendered? I really wanted to weigh in with my opinions, and I'm anxious to hear what everyone else thinks.


The Basics

For anyone who doesn't know, Monty Python is a 6-man comedy troupe comprised of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. With the exception of Gilliam -- who is American (did you know that?) and went to Occidental College in California --, all the Python boys are Oxbridge educated Brits who got involved in the performing arts at university. Together they created, wrote and starred in the Flying Circus as well as the later Python movies (the big three are the Holy Grail, the Life of Brian and the Meaning of Life).

It's also interesting to see what the Python crew has been up to since the Meaning of Life came out in 1983. Graham Chapman died of cancer in 1989. John Cleese went on to write and star in Fawlty Towers together with Connie Booth ("Polly," whom he was married to); he was also in A Fish Called Wanda (along with Michael Palin), and some more recent stuff like those Pierce Brosnan Bond films where he played Q. Michael Palin's become well known for his globe-trotting television programs. Eric Idle (and his voice) has also popped up in some movies, and he co-produced the musical Spamalot. Meanwhile, Terry Gilliam has gone on to have a noteworthy career as a film director, and Terry Jones helped write the screenplay for Jim Henson's Labyrinth.



Getting back to the Flying Circus, today it's fondly remembered and lauded as influential. But back in the day the show had a hard time finding a wide audience, and its future often seemed uncertain. In the documentary, Michael Palin recalls how the group was often on the verge of splitting up, and yet Monty Python seems to have shaped all their future careers and there's still Python-related projects and collaborations going on today.


The Pros

Subversive

In Almost the Truth, Eric Idle talks about "Beyond the Fringe," a comedy stage revue which included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and which inspired Monty Python. Idle says, "they attacked everything that I'd just spent 19 years being oppressed by: royalty, police, authorities, teachers -- every single authority figure was pilloried and destroyed, and my life just changed." We can of course say the same thing about the Flying Circus: among their favorite targets for lampooning are authority figures like policemen and the army as well as the bourgeoisie and the BBC establishment. In addition to being "angry young men" attacking authority figures, Monty Python can also be seen as representing the youth culture of the sixties rebelling against the staid, class-based society of post war years.

Intelligent

The fact that the Python crew are all university educated certainly comes through on the show: they reference the work of Marcel Proust, Latin conjugation, and philosophers like Descartes and Wittgenstein. One retrospective analysis I read (from the Independent) asked what show on TV today would dare to assume so much knowledge on the part of their audience; the critic also said that nowadays Python's name dropping would probably be descried as elitist. Nevertheless, I think all these schoolboy allusions are part of the reason that Monty Python still has a strong, cult following among nerdy high schoolers.

Innovative

Like the best sketch comedy shows, the Flying Circus usually connects its skits in some way. Sometimes there's a stream of consciousness flow where something mentioned at the end of one skit is picked up on in the next; other times the show keeps on coming back to a sketch that acts almost like a framing device. In still other episodes there may be a central theme or story that runs through the different segments. I suspect the Flying Circus may have been the first show to do this, and it influenced future programs like the Kids in the Hall, the State, Mr. Show and the Upright Citizens Brigade TV show.

Another innovative element is how the Flying Circus would play with the conventions of television. For example, sometimes the opening title sequence won't come on until well into the show and/or the closing credits would roll before the show was actually over. They'd also mimic the BBC interstitials with the spinning globe graphic and the announcer saying "Coming up next on BBC 2...."





Funny

Looking back, every bit of every episode of the Flying Circus may not be gold, but you're bound to find some skits that you still find hilarious. For my money, I've always enjoyed the longer skits like "The Funniest Joke in the World" from episode 1, Scott of the Antarctic, Dennis Moore (the story of a highwayman who steals from the rich and gives to the poor), Michael Ellis (the episode that revolves around a trip to the department store), the Golden Age of Ballooning, the Science Fiction episode where alien blancmanges attack. Another favorite of mine is "Happy Valley," which is a sort of fractured fairy tale. I was bummed to find out that that was not included on the ridiculous complete Flying Circus box set I bought on a whim in law school because it comes from a special made for German television.


The Cons

Silly

The absurdist nature of the Flying Circus might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I don't mind it. But, as that army general would say, some of the skits really are just silly. Occassionally Monty Python veers into slapstick or caterwalling in funny voices. Sometimes jokes are drawn out for so long that they try one's patience (I get restless just thinking about the interview of Johann Gambolputty...). And then there's those trippy cartoons which I more often than not find to be a snoozefest.

Sexist

Aah, now we're getting into the real sour note that you notice in retrospect. The Monty Python crew is obviously a boys club, and -- leaving aside how that might have affected the show's humor -- let's talk about the depiction of women on the Flying Circus. There are basically two types of female roles: attractive young women who at least half the time come off as ditzy. Even more often, these women are reduced to sex objects: they're frequently seen appearing in their underwear or making out with the (pasty, unattractive) Python boys.



The other type of female portrayed on the Flying Circus is the middle-aged, bourgeoise housewife played by one of the Python boys in drag -- employing that one-of-a-kind falsetto, familiar to anyone who's ever watched the show. More often than not, these ladies are shrewish and/or narrow-minded prudes, and they're usually the subject of ridicule.

Whether it keeps you from enjoying the show or not, I do think that it's hard to deny that by today's standards Monty Python's Flying Circus is pretty sexist. The only counterargument that I think one can make is that most of the male characters portrayed on the show are also ridiculed for being either stupid or pompous stuffed shirts (or both). I also think that the portrayal of women may have improved a bit in the Monty Python movies which came out in the '80s (cf. the female characters in the Life of Brian).

Homophobic

This goes along with the sexism charge. The Flying Circus sometimes depicts stereotypically effeminate, flamboyant homosexuals and cross-dressers for comedic effect. It's true that sometimes the true butt of the joke is actually the pompous, stuffed shirt homophobe (like the army general), but the campy homosexual is himself often held up for ridicule. After seeing the show again, probably for the first time since high school, I was really taken aback by this. Even the lumberjack song where it's revealed that the burly woodsman likes to "put on woman's clothing and hang around in bars" might be mildly off putting when viewed from this perspective.


Conclusion

Monty Python's Flying Circus was undeniably a ground breaking comedy show. Looking back, you'll find some skits that are still hilarious 40 years later, but there is also some filler and dull spots. Also, you'll definitely pick up on the fact that the Flying Circus is a product of the sixties and seventies and that our society's sensibilities about the depiction of women and gay people has changed a lot since then.

Bonus Question: If the Flying Circus is sexist than how racist is the character of Manuel from Fawlty Towers?!


Images: title image from Monty Python's flying circus; photo of Monty Python boys by AP found on the guardian website; photo of John Cleese and Graham Chapman and Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion from ew.com.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What can we (over)read into yesterday's election results?



So yesterday was election day in America. Here in Virginia, voters chose Republican Bob McDonell, who is apparently crazy socially conservative, as our next governor over blue dog Democrat Creigh Deeds by around 59% to 41% (boo!). In the Great State of New Jersey, unpopular Democratic incumbent John Corzine lost his job as governor to moderate Republican (and fat man) Chris Christie circa 49% to 45%.

On the other hand, in New York's 23rd Congressional District (the northeast corner of the state up by the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain which includes the towns of Oswego and Plattsburg), Bill Owens became the first Democrat to hold this seat since the 1870s. He was up against a Conservative third-party candidate whom Sarah Palin campaigned for after the moderate Republican chosen in the primary bowed out of the race.

New York City Mayor Bloomberg was elected to a third term, winning around 51% of votes. This is a slim margin given that he spent over $30 million dollars campaigning, and he wasn't facing a strong opponent. And then in Maine (where my friend Leigh-Anne almost got her first speeding ticket on Saturday), 53% of voters cast their ballot in favor of repealing the state law authorizing gay marriage. (My source for all these numbers is cnn.com).


The Spin

So the one positive note for liberals, in yesterday's only contest for national office, is that the Democrats picked up another seat in the House (in an historically Republican district to boot). One might also say that the fact that there was a centrist Republican candidate and a conservative third-party candidate at one point in that race is possibly indicative of a division in the wider Republican party.

Meanwhile, right-wingers are celebrating the election of two new Republican governors and saying that -- together with the vote to repeal gay marriage in Maine -- this suggests that perhaps the pendulum is swinging back to the right and some independents and moderates who voted for Obama last November may be losing faith in Democratic leadership. But is this maybe reading too much into things? In reponse to AP articles entitled "GOP Sweep," Newsweek's Seth Colter Wallace wrote (in the Awl):

Wait: Virginia elected a conservative? And a moderate in New Jersey was able to unseat an unpopular incumbent? And a gay marriage thing that's never happened before also didn't happen last night? Well, it's a good thing you have me—Mr. or Ms. Political Analyst!—around to detail all the many troubling implications these developments carry for the guy on the national stage who received 69 million votes last year!

So what do I think? Well, first off, the idea that some of the multitude of swing voters who cast their ballot for Obama and the Democrats last year may be having doubts sounds plausible. To some folks who voted for Obama it may seem like nothing is getting done (did you see that SNL sketch?) or that things aren't getting done fast enough. Others may now have reservations about the Democratic agenda (especially healthcare reform) after hearing a lot of vocal criticism from the right.

But do yesterday's results really support this theory? It's hard to read too much into the New Jersey governor race for various reason (both candidates were moderates, Corzine was unpopular and plagued by corruption scandals, etc.); Virginia, however, seems more promising for those wishing to prognosticate about future elections. Before last year, Virginia had been a solid red state (the last time they voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1964). But last November Virginia went to Obama, due in part to a fierce campaign offensive in the state, and perhaps also to demographic shifts. But now Virginia just elected a conservative, Republican governor (the Republicans actually won all the state offices up for grabs in VA): does this mean some of those Obama voters have abandoned the Democratic party?

Possibly. It's also possible that many Virginians based their decision on local issues. Likewise, I'd argue that Creigh Deeds -- a conservative, blue dog Democrat -- probably didn't energize the party's liberal base and that probably affected things somewhat.  The Wall Street Journal tells us that many independents voted for the Republican ticket this time, but also that the young people and Blacks who elected Obama were not enamored with Deeds.  So I don't know!


The Exit Polls

Last night I inadvertently caught a few irritating minutes of ABC Nightline where George Stephanopolous parsed the exit polls looking for clues. Ugh, exit polls! These are always used in order to make upsetting generalizations such as "people in red states [such as Louisiana where I lived at the time] are more likely to go to church and cast their vote based on 'values' rather than issues such as the economy, foreign wars, etc."

Incidentally, I was totally asked to participate in one of these yesterday morning as I was leaving the polling place, but I declined since I was in a hurry to get to work and I didn't really know/care all that much about the candidates in this election (That's right, AND I STILL VOTED! Want to make something of it?!). But now I half wish I did stop and put in my two cents.

So anyway, what did Nightline tell us. Question #1 was whether voters approved of President Obama: in NJ 57% answered "yes" and in VA 49% said they support the pres. Eh, not TOO troubling for Obama: that's a good approval rating among NJ voters and just shy of fifty percent in the Old Dominion (he might want to keep his eye on that one).

Question #2 was whether their opinion of the Pres affected their vote, and a majority in both states (60% in NJ and 56% in VA said "no"). Yeah, that right there tells you why the media shouldn't interpret every state election as a vote of confidence for the party in power in Washington.

"BUT WAIT," says Nightline, "let's look at Question #3 -- that's the big one! 89% of NJ voters and 85% of VA voters polled say they are worried about the economy. It's the economy stupid!" That last sentence was actually a direct quote spoken by dumbass Terry Moran. To this I say: NO SHIT! We're in a fucking recession; if they asked me if I was worried about the economy I would have answered "yes" too, and I still support Obama and the Democrats. What I'm saying is that the fact that someone is worried about the economy doesn't necessarily tell you how they're going to vote in the midterm elections next year. It's party neutral.  An article I read in the times online uses these numbers to support their article entitled "New Jersey and Virginia tells Obama -- we blame you for the economy" but that is quite a leap.

Stephanopolous' suggestion that yesterday's results might give some Democrats pause and might even lead to less votes by squeamish Congressmen in favor of healthcare reform is somewhat more sound. But still, we're talking about two governor races! People shouldn't read too much into this.


Patchwork Nation

You know what else I hate? Have you ever checked out that Patchwork Nation shit? This is a project sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor which divides the nation's counties into 12 different types of communities with names like "campus and careers" (lots of college students and young workers), "minority central," "boom town," "industrial metropolis" and "evangelical epicenter."

It is kind of interesting, but then I feel like they make broad statements about what's going on in "teenytowns" or whatever across the country and about how people there tend to vote. I think that this is just another way (albeit a somewhat more precise way) of making generalizations. For example: Arlington County, VA where I live and Westchester County, NY where my mom lives are both "Monied Burbs," but I think there are way more young professionals who are either single or just starting a family in Arlington and more older people in Westchester, and I doubt that we vote the same way on different issues. Likewise, New Orleans, LA (Orleans Parish) and neighboring Jefferson Parish are both labelled as "Minority Central," but there is a big difference in those two populations. John Kerry won over 75% of the votes in Orleans Parish and just 38% in the JP.


Conclusions

We shouldn't read too much into last night's results. When the smoke cleared there are two more Republican governors out there, gays can't get married in Maine anymore, and the Democrats picked up a seat in the House. VA and NJ might suggest support for the Democrats is waning among swing voters, but the numbers seem to discourage any big statements. Likewise, the race in NY-23 suggests that there may be a struggle for power between the conservative and centrist wings of the Republican party.

One thing we can all agree on, however, is that the media should stop trying to make every local election into a referendum on the party in power in Washington, and they should stop making gross generalizations about what Americans think based on exit polls.


Image: photo of Bob McDonnell celebrating his victory by Mark Wilson/Getty Images found on timesonline.