I’ve been thinking quite a bit, in preparation for dealing with the character I am playing in Spamalot, Sir Robin, about how Monty Python actually works. Why is it so funny, and why is it so damned relevant? I think we need look no further than The Holy Grail‘s Graham Chapman for that, and also my Uncle Exton.
You see, I didn’t grow up watching Monty Python, I only experienced it through my father’s older brother, my Uncle Exton. Yes, I understand that his is a most unusual name, making it thus more awesome to bring up in conversation, though this isn’t one. However, he used to quote Python laughingly time and again. Songs, skits, voices, funny walks, he did it all, falling over himself laughing, and then apologizing to his wife, my Aunt Melba, for embarrassing everyone. The funniest thing I can remember was looking through a book with my cousin that held God’s Report Card (Latin: 100%).
My proper introduction to Monty Python came in a roundabout way when I hooked up with an English Girl (now my wife) who adores John Cleese in Faulty Towers. Now we lovingly quote Manuel whenever someone says something boorish or with too much assumed authority.
I then started watching bits and pieces of sketches here and there on YouTube, rented The Meaning of Life from the video store, and eventually, after being cast as Robin, watched The Holy Grail on Netflix.
“Oh!” I may have been heard exclaiming to my wife. “It is funny, just look!” “No, it isn’t.”
And there you have the single most effective humor device used within Python. I call it the Semi-Calm Refusal to Comply, where the protagonist is denied his rite of passage through a given scene by a semi-calm antagonist. Picture the 5-Pound Argument scene, the Black Knight, and others. They all employ the Semi-calm Refusal to Comply. Delightful!
But why is it funny? “It isn’t.” Oh, shut up.
I leave you now with a portion of Cleese’s eulogy for Graham Chapman.
“And I guess that we’re all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness, for such unusual intelligence, should now so suddenly be spirited away at the age of only forty-eight, before he’d achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he’d had enough fun.
“Well, I feel that I should say, nonsense. Good riddance to the freeloading bastard. I hope he fries. And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn’t. If I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you on his behalf.”
Incidentally, Chapman’s animated, factually incorrect biography was released last year. I think we can learn something from that, only I’m not sure what.
Always look on the bright side of death….