23 Jul 2014
basac's picture

I watched Monty Python live the other night... okay I was in my local cinema, one of that audience of 60,000 who chose to view the swansong from the cheaper seats. I've seen exactly enough live comedy in a big stadium (one gig) to know I never want that experience again.

I don't intend to 'review' the show, there's been enough of that, I'm happy to go with the consensus which seemed to be - not many weapons of surprise, and anyway nobody expected surprise, they wanted pretty much exactly what they got. And who can blame the team? Which of you out there would turn down the offer of squillions to reprise something you created 40 odd years ago?

I quite liked the TV show when it came out although at the time I preferred their contemporaries like Dave Allen, Tommy Cooper, Mel Brooks and the sitcoms of Galton and Simpson. For me the most remarkable aspect of Python has been the amazing body of work they created once they stopped making the stuff that was mainly showcased at the O2, including ‘The Rutles’, ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Ripping Yarns’, ‘Brazil’, ‘Time Bandits’, and ‘Life Of Brian’, still up there in my top five 'favourite movies of all time' list.

Watching the Greatest Hits show, what really interested me was how it fitted in to the comedy scene in 2014. What does it mean for those of you starting on the road to making a living in the profession?

What have the Pythons ever done for you?

Sketch Comedy

Still popular, still one of the quickest ways to enter the profession. What this show proved is that the best sketch comedy is about character. I'm sure  there's no one left in the world who will say “That 'dead parrot' sketch still cracks me up” - but the reason it's not embarrassing to watch is because we're enjoying two classic British comedy characters - the sarcy git and the pathological liar.  Or maybe two sides to one character, called Basil Fawlty.

Sarcasm

I was trying to work out while watching, why every time John Cleese appered the energy of the show went up a notch. They're a team, of course, they've produced a huge brilliant body of work between them, but you can see why, when Steve Martin in his stand-up pomp was asked 'who's the funniest person in the world?' he answered with barely a moment's hesitation, "John Cleese".

But it's also because Cleese is the embodiment of sarcasm. Other traits may come and go (see below) but sarcasm remains at the heart of British comedy. Every character he ever played drips with sarcasm. Much of the show felt dated but Cleese's ennui felt as fresh as ever. When I was a lad sarcasm was always referred to as the lowest form of wit, which only encouraged me to sneer and write more of it. Audiences love it too, if you haven't got a sarcasm-writing muscle, you should develop one.

Wordplay

Eric Idle was famed for his modern updating of classic Two Ronnies wordplay sketches. 'Nudge nudge' still just about survived into 2014 but these days clever language is generally consigned to Twitter. It's a shame because the writing of dazzling wordplay is a great art, only it comes across these days as too twee for current TV tastes.

Comedy Songs

Neil Innes has been my comedy hero since I first heard The Bonzos and watched ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’, around the same time. Nice to see him getting a big fat songwriting credit. Comedy songs are great aren't they? I love them. I think TV commissioners  should commission more of them. Using the current social media catchphrase, if you disagree with me then I'll have to stop being your friend.

Men Dressing Up As Women

Three years ago we could happily have gone about our comedy business knowing the arguments had been won, people had stopped asking 'can women be funny?', women were being funny on radio and telly on their own terms, and the only male comedian in female clothing was Eddie Izzard. Now, thanks to ‘Mrs Brown's Boys’, men dressing up badly as women is allowed once more. Watching those Townswomen Guild 'ladies' reminded me how strong those Vaudeville roots were in Python. I hope what we witnessed on Sunday was a blip, not the start of a trend.

History Is Funny

‘Blackadder’, ‘Horrible Histories’, ‘Plebs’, we all owe a debt to the Python approach to history.  Three or four years ago if you submitted a historical sitcom to the telly they told you there was no chance of such shows ever  gettting made. So a reminder that everything goes in cycles (including men dressing up  as women, unfortunately).

Straights Being Camp

Since the Pythons heyday it has become acceptable for camp presenters to be out gay. I'm not sure I would have included the cross-dressing judges sketch in 2014, it was dated on so many levels. I remember the outrage that sketch caused at the time, but that was in the 1970s when Britain, as the TV show 'Life On Mars' showed, was another planet. Even allowing for comedy cycles surely we should never have to watch a straight man pretending to be gay by dressing in swimsuit and saying 'ooh I've had a bitch of a day'. (Now one of you will go off and write a 'camp man being 1970s gay' character that will be loved by ironically post modern TV execs.)

Class

The famed surrealism of the Pythons always had that edge of being satirical, about something, notably the class system that had so effectively brought them together at the nation's top universities. Our obsession with class lives on now through panel shows such as ‘Have I Got News’, ‘Would I Lie To You’ and ‘QI’, but is no longer the staple of our sitcoms. If you're writing a class-based sitcom now, bear in mind you're competing with the perenially popular Merton v Hislop, Mack v Mitchell and Fry v Davies.

Suburban Dullards

The Palin speciality really feels like a relic from a bygone era. I always loved those characters because he invested even the least likeable of them with a subtle humanity. The caricatures of Harry Enfield and Matt Lucas were a lot funnier and crueller but that has made it harder to revisit such people without adding a layer of evil or macabre.

Nerds Rule

A reminder that the word 'spam' earned its current coinage from the Python sketch, along with cameo appearances from Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking, help explain the massively enduring success of 'Monnie Pie Thon', as the Americans call it. The people who control everything we read and write, scour all our emails and texts and know everything about our purchases and perversities, wiled away their sad friendless years learning the parrot sketch and shouting 'ni' to each other. So don't diss the Pythons online or you could find your Google history being passed on to your mum.

Stadium Comedy

Python were the original rock star comedians. Veterans of the Hollywood Bowl and west end runs made them an obvious fit for the O2. I still dislike seeing comedy in that setting but there are hundreds of thousands of fans who like it that way, and millions more who'll buy the DVD.

That's something for those of you starting out in comedy to ponder, as you seek to make a living. At the start of your career, there are countless opportunities via radio, stage, the internet and satellite TV to enter the business. But it's getting harder to survive for longer periods. The big money in comedy these days is in the stadia. Some still manage to make a living playing the mid-range comedy circuit, or writing for hire on TV and radio sketch shows, but the opportunities seem fewer than five or ten years ago. Sorry to be the bearer of this news.

Finally...

Communal cinema show watching is a great idea

Is this the future of comedy? I opted for the cinema because a couple of weeks earlier I'd seen ‘The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night’, live at my local cinema, and it was a great experience.

I'm sure Python would have been as well if there'd been a slightly more pissed audience. The middle-aged middle-class bunch I watched with were never going to sing along to ‘Always Look On The Bright Side’.

But the potential is there for cinema to give live comedy a boost, and is about to be tested with some showings taking place during the Edinburgh Fringe. Stand-up and sketches will work well, but I reckon there may also be a place for narrative comedy. SInce most of us go to the cinema most of the time for narratives, maybe someone will work out how to put them on in front of an audience, and five cameras.

Monnie Pie Thon Heralds Audience Sitcom Revival? Who knows...?