By J. Walker
In the 1996 film That Thing You Do!, a young drummer meets his idol, a legendary jazz pianist, while binge drinking. The young guy’s band is on top of the charts, they’re poised to make their national television debut—they’re on top of the world. But the legend begs him caution: no band he’s been in, he says, has ever managed to stay together for very long. When the drummer insists that his band has something “special,” the old man just shrugs. It doesn’t matter how special a group is, their days are inevitably numbered. And it doesn’t matter what eventually drives them apart—money, fame, women—it will happen. Sadly, comedy troupes—even the greatest of them—aren’t immune from the eventual breakup.
Monty Python is certainly counted among the best. Formed in 1969, the sextet of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam were brought together by the BBC. They had worked in various combinations on mid-60s sketch comedy series like The Frost Report and Do Not Adjust Your Set, but finally achieved their collaborative vision with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, one of television’s most important landmarks. Forgoing any sort of traditional setup-punchline structure, each episode of Flying Circus presented a surrealist stream of every imaginable type of comedy, from wordplay to slapstick to absurdity to music, all connected by incongruous animation. Nothing quite like it had ever been produced for television, and nothing quite like it has been produced since. The series delivered three nearly perfect seasons, filled with sketches and moments that have influenced countless scores of comedians. Unfortunately, they then made a fourth season, and without one of their key voices.
It’s been argued that John Cleese is directly responsible for the group coming together in the first place. The BBC offered a show to the team of Jones, Gilliam, Idle and Palin, while at the same time offering another show to the pair of Cleese and Chapman. Cleese was hesitant about doing a two-man show, so he looked in to bring in Palin, with whom he’d worked before. Palin brought along Jones, and Jones brought along Gilliam, providing the final form of this comedy Voltron. The group tended to work in standard teams—Cleese with Chapman, Jones with Palin, with Idle alone and Gilliam putting together the cartoons—but the troupe put the final scripts together on a very egalitarian, democratic basis. If it was funny, it stayed; if it didn’t, it was thrown out. With minimal BBC interference, the Pythons were unburdened, letting their experiments take them wherever they could.
Each of the Pythons demonstrated their own styles, and the meritocratic writing system—along with a healthy lack of ego—allowed the team to ensure that the show played to all of their strengths. And while all of the Pythons demonstrated impressive versatility, it quickly became clear where those strengths were. While Palin was best in the role of the put-upon dweeb or the greasy slimeball, and Jones was the first choice to play one of the pepperpot old ladies, Cleese carved out an impressive niche as a stern voice of authority. No matter the character or situation, Cleese—aided, certainly, by how he towered over his castmates—gave all of his characters an undeniable superior edge. In his finest moments, that stern face would gradually begin to show cracks, through which would pour unimaginable rage; but just as often, Cleese would play the “straight man” (for lack of a better term), dishing out absurdity through a stone-faced facade, while his victim trembled in fear and anger. Cleese’s mastery of this kind of role turned the already brilliant scripts into masterpieces. Sure, the “Cheese Shop” sketch is priceless on the page, but Cleese elevates it in the way you can see his temperature rising, degree by degree, as each moment passes.
With that kind of legendary performer, it would have been easy to let Cleese dominate every episode. But fortunately for the Pythons, they had five other writers and actors who were just as talented, and Cleese’s fiery characters blended perfectly into the ensemble. To be sure, there were off-episodes and skits that didn’t quite land—such is the way of comedy, even from the greats—but when it was firing on all cylinders, Flying Circus was untouchable. The best episodes were charged with connective energy, even when the sketches didn’t necessarily connect at all…though some did, like the first season effort “You’re No Fun Anymore,” which featured a single story told through a series of linked skits.
The key to the success of Flying Circus proved to be balance. When the disparate influences and energies could be balanced, the show soared. Too much of one thing, not enough of another, and an episode could tilt away. It’s a testament to the talent of the Pythons that that so rarely happened. And often, those elements would line up perfectly: the third season episode “The Money Programme” piles lunacy atop lunacy, before climaxing with the “Argument Clinic,” perhaps the finest sketch ever written. But then even that is cut short by more gibbering craziness, only to have the episode’s various recurring gags collapse on themselves, slamming the door on the episode with an abrupt cut to black.
But after the third season, that balance fell apart. The Pythons had set out to make a completely unpredictable, indefinable show, and John Cleese felt they had lost their ability to innovate. When the group returned for their fourth season, Cleese did not join them. And for the first time, it became clear just how fragile that balance had been. To be clear, the other five Pythons are masterful comic writers and actors. But the six episodes of Circus‘s fourth season show badly the group needed to be a complete unit to function. Without Cleese as the stern, cold center, sketches drifted and stalled; silly concepts never became grounded enough to be funny.
The nadir came in the penultimate episode, “Mr. Neutron.” Much as they did in the first season in “You’re No Fun Anymore,” the Pythons attempt to tell a story through a series of sketches, this time about the title character (Chapman), an all-powerful villain who seems to be much more interested in gardening and local gossip than destroying planets. The narrator assures us that he could “destroy entire galaxies with his wrist,” but he’d rather be redecorating his den.
It sounds funny. But the concept never gels, largely because of the scattershot and bizarre nature of the characters. Eric Idle spends the bulk of the episode hunting down a CIA agent named Salad, named such only so that Idle can insist to strangers that he isn’t looking for a salad. Michael Palin’s American general is obsessed with his own body odor. The Prime Minister of England has what appears to be an Italian restaurant in his office. It’s all very wacky, but the episode merely drifts from one goofy concept to another, floating above and around jokes without remembering to make any. There’s never any edge, no central presence for the episode to revolve around. And like “The Money Programme,” it ends with an abrupt, fourth-wall-breaking wink at the audience, but it feels so very, very tired. “Mr. Neutron” is a comedy engine run completely out of fuel.
After the six-episode fourth season, the Pythons called it quits. All wasn’t lost, fortunately: they very soon reconvened, setting their sights on the silver screen. With John Cleese back on board, the balance was restored, and a series of classic films followed. Today, those fourth season episodes are a largely-forgotten footnote in their history; the exploits of Mr. Neutron have been forgiven in favor of honoring the high points, and rightly so.
It’s shocking to see how utterly and completely the show fell apart without Cleese. Again, the matter is simply one of balance. I think if any of the six had left, the result would have been similar. The Flying Circus needed all six of its pilots to fly; with only one taken away, the whole thing came crashing apart.
Previously on Same As It Ever Was?: Mulder vs. Flukeman – How Darin Morgan Taught The X-Files to Laugh at Itself