Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Monty Python Conquers America (Python [Monty] Pictures, Ltd., 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Monty Python Conquers America — also known as Monty Python: The Other British Invasion (other to what? 1775? 1812? 1964?) — is an hour-long TV special originally included as bonus content on a DVD mega-box of the complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus (at least all the shows that are known to exist). The box actually featured two documentaries, one on the prehistory of Monty Python — the various appearances the Pythoners made on BBC shows (including a children’s show called Do Not Adjust Your Set) and how they came together to form the comedy troupe we all know and love — and this one, dealing with the 1970-76 period during which Monty Python were established as American attractions despite the conviction of most of the U.S. entertainment business that the Pythons were too outré, too intellectual and just too damned British ever to win an American audience. One person rather stupidly says, “British humor just never went over in America” — to which my immediate reaction was, “Huh? Do the names ‘Charlie Chaplin’ and ‘Peter Sellers’ mean anything to you?” If there’s a flaw in Monty Python Conquers America it’s the usual one of biopics, especially biodocs: what I call “first-itis,” the assertion that the people you’re biographing are the first people to do something even though it’s relatively easy to trace other people who did it before.

As great as they are, Monty Python had a long string of antecedents in British comedy, some of them featuring people (including Peter Sellers and the Beatles) who became major U.S. stars. The real birthplace of the zany sort of British comedy — at least the earliest example I know of; there may be others even farther back (there are hints of the Python frame-breaking as early as Gracie Fields, who commemorated her move from EMI Records to the cheap Rex label by starting her first record for Rex, “Why don’t you buy my new Rex record? It’s only a bob!”) — was the Goon Squad, a BBC radio show in the early 1950’s starring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, which also produced a series of hit records for EMI’s Parlophone label that were produced by George Martin (and the heavy use of sound effects on the records by the Goon Squad was experience that stood Martin in good stead when he worked on records by his later stars, the Beatles). Martin’s autobiography All You Need Is Ears mentions one record that the Goons did that was a parody of the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, only at the last minute Columbia Pictures threatened to sue them if they used the name “Kwai,” so they changed the album title to The Bridge on the River Wye and Martin had to go through the master tape and carefully snip out the letter “K” in “Kwai” wherever it appeared. He also recalled taking a meat cleaver and various melons to the studio to determine which would create the most convincing sound effect of a prisoner of war being beheaded — much the way Alfred Hitchcock would a few years later to determine how to do the sound of Anthony Perkins stabbing Janet Leigh in Psycho. The success of the Goons spawned other British troupes, including Flanders and Swann (a duo who spoofed classical music and all sorts of other things) and probably the Pythons’ most obvious precursor, Beyond the Fringe (Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and yet another British comedian who became a major U.S. star, Dudley Moore), at least some of whom performed successfully in the U.S.

This strain of zany British humor was also seen in the Beatles’ movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, as well as the much-maligned Magical Mystery Tour, and so it shouldn’t have been as great a surprise as it was to a lot of people when, after some bizarre false starts (including a Buddah Records release of the Pythons’ first two record albums, Another Monty Python Record and Monty Python’s Previous Record, and an appearance on the Tonight Show in 1972 in which the Pythons’ humor just sailed over the heads of the studio audience), the Monty Python TV show finally was made available for syndication on U.S. stations in the early 1970’s. After the commercial networks passed, it ended up on PBS (where it probably belonged anyway; in the mid-1970’s PBS was running so many British shows, from Masterpiece Theatre to Upstairs, Downstairs, The Forsyte Saga, I, Claudius and the like, that some wags called it “BBC West”) and was first aired in the U.S. in October 1974 on KERA-TV in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Despite the legendary conservatism of Texas, this crazy show, with its bad drag queens and overall air of irreverence for the conventions of everything, including filmed comedy, somehow caught on and gave KERA literally the best ratings by far it had ever had as a PBS station. (“We had a 6! We’d never had a 6 before!” enthused the son of the program director who had ordered it aired.) The show details how Monty Python slowly built an audience, station by station and city by city, and how they already had a fanatical following in Canada (where they literally were treated by rock stars — their tour was promoted by someone who’d previously done Led Zeppelin and was relieved that the Pythons didn’t feel a compulsion to trash their hotel rooms after they got back from their gigs — and one of the Pythons joked that it was like being in a rock band except you didn’t get groupies: “The kinds of groupies who follow a comedy troupe aren’t the kind you’d want anything to do with anyway”) when the U.S. finally started to notice them.

I’d already heard of the Pythons before their show first aired on the San Francisco Bay Area PBS station KQED in the summer of 1975 — a friend of mine had given me a mix tape of various oddball British and German songs that ended with a brief snippet from one of the Monty Python LP’s (I forget what it was and it didn’t particularly impress me), and I’d seen the trailer for the first Python film, And Now for Something Completely Different (a compilation of sketches from the TV show — though refilmed and sometimes with considerable variations — produced by Playboy Enterprises’ film division and supposedly distributed by Columbia Pictures, who pretty much abandoned the film after it flopped in initial screenings), and wondered what that was about. But when the TV show came on, and the initial episode featured the talk-show spoof It’s A. Tree — “featuring the legendary intellectual, Arthur Tree” — and A. Tree turned out to be a real tree, with an animated mouth in the middle of its trunk, while his guests were “a block of wood, a patch of creosote and a piece of laminated plastic” — which hooked me then and forever on the Pythons’ relentless sense of humor. What’s amazing from this show is that there were a hard core of people who’d experienced Monty Python and believed there would be an American audience for it — and also the later comedians who were influenced by Python, though not always to their best: Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce, Judd Apatow, Jay Roach, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Paul Rudd, and Jimmy Fallon. As outrageous as Monty Python often got, they didn’t become in-your-face gross until their last project together, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — they had much to do with the “fart humor” that so dominates modern-day movie “comedy” as Wagner had to do with creating Guy Lombardo; what passes for comedy these days in movies and on TV has generally copied the Pythons’ irreverence but not their intellectual approach to humor or the breadth of knowledge that has allowed them at once to ridicule the clichés of comedy and to transcend them.