The Full Monty

Every sketch comedy nerd has that one group that defines the development of their comic sensibility. It might be The Kids in the Hall or Firesign Theatre, or for kids who are closer to being actual kids than me, Key and Peele. It’s adolescent humor that comes along at just the right point in actual adolescence and speaks to you. It’s the thing that only you and your close friends get, their defining jokes and taglines acting as passwords to a secret society. For me it was Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

In the 1970s, PBS stations all over America started airing episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In Detroit, where I grew up, they aired on Channel 56 Thursday nights at 9:00 pm. There had never been a sketch show like it before. Scenes sometimes ended, sometimes didn’t. Many times the action would be interrupted by a member of the military, or a naked man playing the organ, or a hand reaching in to add a cut-out drawing leading to a surreal animation sequence. They were happy to break the fourth wall and then stomp on the rubble.

Then there were the sketches themselves, usually both cerebral and silly. The Summarizing Proust Competition where the prize is awarded to the girl with the biggest tits. Scott of the Antarctic, a sweeping cinematic epic improved by the addition of an electric penguin, twenty feet high, with long green tentacles that reach out and sting people. Karl Marx, founder of modern socialism and author of the Communist Manifesto, being quizzed about the nicknames of English football teams. Let’s face it, for a teenager growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, a lot of the British references went flying over my head. But that didn’t stop me from knowing there was something funny about name-dropping that member of Parliament.

Without the advantage of YouTube, DVDs, or even a VCR, my friends and I were forced to pay attention to every line, so that the next day in first period band class we could try and recreate the sketches word-for-word, correcting each other where appropriate. Alternatively, we bought record albums of some of the best sketches to listen to over and over again. That was where I discovered Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief, my first three-sided album. Three-sided? Yes, one side had two parallel grooves. You could listen to it all the way through, and then put the needle back at the beginning and hear another completely different set of sketches. Mind. Blown. There was also Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, Monty Python Live at City Center. I bought them all. There was even The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Which brings us to the movies…

Monty Python and the Holy Grail wasn’t the first of the troupe’s films I saw. That would be And Now for Something Completely Different, projected on the cinder block wall of my middle school gym as a Saturday afternoon matinee. But Holy Grail would define the group for me. It was the first time I had seen a bunch of sketches strung into a (mostly) coherent storyline. I saw it multiple times in theatres and watched it every chance I got when it was shown on TV – again usually on Channel 56. (Thank you PBS!) To this day, I can recite most of the movie from memory (whether I want to or not).
But Monty Python and the Holy Grail was nothing compared to Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Here were sketches every bit as funny as Holy Grail, but with real bite. Life of Brian took down organized religion as a whole, holding it up for ridicule and showing the danger in blind allegiance to any ism. And the storyline, only loosely based on the life of Jesus (despite what the protesters said), had real feeling and depth, and a story arc their other films lacked. As far as I’m concerned, it was the culmination of their career.

Sure there would be The Meaning of Life. And an Aspen reunion. And the recent final reunion stage show in London. But it was the Python of my – and their – youth that I will always be grateful for. For showing me that you could be smart and silly. For demonstrating that “no ending” can trump a weak ending. For making sketch comedy that was truly the highest form of the lowest art. Thank you John, Michael, Graham, Eric, Terry, and Terry. Thank goodness Monty Python is not dead yet.

Comedy Matters

I was fortunate enough to be a performer for The Second City in my hometown of Detroit for two years. Whenever someone in the cast said something particularly memorable – a flub, an inspired line of improv, a comment on a drunk in the audience – we’d scrawl it on the wall of our dressing room with a magic marker. One quote I’ll always remember is “We are the highest form of the lowest art.”

The kind of comedy I’ve always been attracted to – sketch, improv, farce – has its basis in street performing, not in the kind of theatre that concerns itself with the indecisiveness of melancholy Danish Princes and Greek heroes who sleep with their mothers. Our forebears had to get laughs – fast and often – in order to get paid, at best, or not be driven out of town, at worst.

Still, knowing all that, it can be easy to undervalue comedy. God knows Hollywood does. They rake in wheelbarrows full of cash from comedies every year. But will they give them an award? Nope. So whenever you sit down to write comedy, you have to clear that first mental hurdle: Does it matter? Shouldn’t I be writing something “important” that will bring down tyrants, lift up the downtrodden, and be so syllabus-worthy that it will live on to bore high school students who haven’t even been born yet?

Occasionally, when I wasn’t in a scene in a Second City revue, I’d go backstage and peek out through a gap in the set or a hole in the curtain. (Yes, all theatre curtains have holes. Producers hate spending money on curtains.) And I had the opportunity to watch members of the audience laugh at one of my castmates. The best kind were the involuntary belly laughs, people throwing their heads back, mouths wide open, literally roaring with laughter. I’d imagine that guy in the suit had come to the show from a job he hated where the boss had just chewed him out for not meeting his numbers. Maybe the lady on the aisle had gotten bad news about her mom earlier in the week and was overwhelmed by the choices she’d need to face. Maybe that couple in the back were having their first date night out in a year. And, even if it was just for a couple hours, we’d helped them forget their troubles, put things in perspective, and lower their blood pressure.

Does comedy matter? Hell yeah it does.