‘The great thing about Python,” Terry Jones once said, “was that it was somewhere where we could use up all that material that everybody else had said was too silly.”
For Jones and the five other young members of the group — John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Graham Chapman — “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” offered the chance to be seriously absurd, to use their Oxbridge degrees (and in Gilliam’s case a degree from Occidental College in California) to subvert authority in amusing ways. And ever since the show debuted on the BBC in October 1969, fans have been dedicated aficionados of this silliness, busily consuming the varied material Monty Python has created. Some of these fans have become comedians themselves; others have been inspired to create documentaries, books and Web site tributes.
The latest admiring work is Brian Cogan and Jeff Massey’s “Everything I Ever Needed to Know About ______* I Learned from Monty Python,” which has as its asterisked subtitle: “History, Art, Poetry, Communism, Philosophy, the Media, Birth, Death, Religion, Literature, Latin, Transvestites, Botany, the French, Class Systems, Mythology, Fish Slapping, and Many More!”
One of Cogan’s previous books was “The Encyclopedia of Punk” (2008), a hefty, impressively illustrated history of punk music and culture. With this latest but not completely different subject, he affirms his affinity for Anglo-American anarchist types. Here, however, Cogan and Massey flaunt their academic credentials (PhD’s) on the book’s cover as well as throughout its pages, quoting everyone from Pierre Bourdieu and Susan Sontag to Terry Jones and his scholarly study of Chaucer.
The book starts off a little shakily, with a stab at the oddly aggressive and resentful tone that Cleese first perfected in the sketches he wrote with Chapman and then performed. “INTRODUCTION (Trade): Have you paid your bleeding twenty-five dollars for the book yet? Are you looking through the book in a bookstore (homeless, eh?) or — God forbid — a library (shudder)?” Next comes the longer, fawning introduction to the imaginary “Executive Edition,” which doesn’t quite work either.
Once the authors delve into the actual TV sketches and movie scenes, the book becomes diverting. Cogan and Massey’s focus is on the various philosophies and facts that undergird Monty Python’s comedy — in part, “to give our readers a greater appreciation of how Python subversively used complex theories for cheap laughs.” But they acknowledge a deeper debt, too: “In letting us feel that we can laugh at the world instead of mourning its inequity, that we can expose evil through the light of satire and can banish hatred by laughing at the idiocy of the bully, Python has taught us more than almost anything we ever learned in school.” The authors get the jokes as well as the anger behind many of them.
In their opening disclaimer, Cogan and Massey say they “don’t want to spoil the joke for anyone by overanalyzing the humor of Monty Python,” but it’s somehow appropriate that they are soon analyzing to death the “Funniest Joke in the World” sketch, which closed out the first episode of “Flying Circus.”
In essence, Ernest Scribbler (Michael Palin) comes up with a joke that is so hilarious that the British deploy it as if it were an atomic bomb. They win World War II in 1944 as a result. The authors devote eight pages to explaining the skit’s World War II-film tropes, its Manhattan Project allusions and the possible origins of the name Ernest Scribbler. On the bright side of life, such treatment gives one an excuse to revisit the original sketches on YouTube and elsewhere; any excess information is forgiven.
In addition to explicating the myriad historical references Monty Python has made, the authors give credit to the troupe for unleashing that Internet standby, the mash-up. “Historical figures dislocated from their original context” — like communist leaders competing on a rigged game show — “are not simply referents for a punch line, but by being taken out of context, reimagined, and mashed up, history itself is made fresh and new.”
One of the recurring Python themes has involved tackling the challenges of human communication — literally in the case of the Batley Townswomen’s Guild’s re-creation of Pearl Harbor, which consists of elderly women (Python in smart skirts and matching jackets) throwing themselves upon one another. And in many ways, Monty Python has fought its way into the mainstream. “Nowadays I miss people who hate us,” Idle has said. “We have sadly become nice, safe, and acceptable now, which shows how clever an Establishment really is, opening up to make room inside itself.” With helpful books like this one, readers may be made more alert to the persistent absurdities of modern life and to the bracing anarchy preached by Monty Python.
Nolan writes about pop culture for various publications.
EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT _____* I LEARNED FROM MONTY PYTHON
By Brian Cogan and Jeff Massey
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 320 pp. $25.99