Are We Too Dumb For Python Now?

London, Media, The Arts

Monty Python

A BBC boss has claimed that modern audiences would be left baffled by the humour in Monty Python film The Life Of Brian – because they have such ‘poor religious literacy’. A few months back, some Engish teachers had mentioned that nearly all of the jokes in the series would go over the heads of today’s kids. Well, I saw Monty Python first time around as a kid, and remember that the day after we would all use the dialogue in class, so what’s changed?

I went back through a couple of the programmes to see if they really were that hard to understand. In the first two episodes I picked (20 & 21) there are jokes about:

Attila The Hun and the Visigoths, the Commonwealth of Nations, the Black Rod (ceremonial position at the Houses of Parliament), West Indian test cricket, the Pennine mountain range, Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, Parliamentary back-benchers, ICI dividends, Eton and Sandhurst, the Epsom Derby, Lord’s Cricket Ground, reactionary politicians, archeology, insanity, the Tories, the Queen’s Counsel, Beethoven, Michaelangelo, Goethe, Wagner, the Scottish Assizes, Mozart and, er, underwater goats.

Now we have ‘Miranda’, who falls over a lot. (I wish she’d fall down for good.)

Python was always, to some extent, a minority taste, but it didn’t seem that hard to understand, even though everyone’s parents hated it. Python created a true generation divide. Without jokes to cling to, many audiences found themselves adrift, and an older generation used to punchlines involving black people, the Irish and mothers-in-law turned off in droves. Python was not the only bizarre comedy around; Charlie Drake’s highly experimental TV series ‘The Worker’ also reflected British playwrights’ fascination with stripping back reality into surrealist arguments and set pieces and, incredibly, ran for several decades, which says a lot about the British mindset.

Python has dated (although those backstreets haven’t at all – see picture). I don”t think we’re dimmer. If anything, the internet has made us more wide-ranging in our ideas. But we’re possibly less academic, and a lot less surreal. Comedy has largely evolved into a subtle beast dealing the the concerns of the Me Generation – fear of embarrassment, relationships and so on. There are still a few satire shows, but what it doesn’t do is charge freely across the field of knowledge.

So, is Monty Python now only for egg-heads? Ask me again in five years’ time.

21 comments on “Are We Too Dumb For Python Now?”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    I grew up on ‘Python’ and still like it. ‘Miranda’, though, you can shove in a bucket of bleach.

  2. Alison says:

    I confess I hated Python, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t understand it.

  3. Jo W says:

    Loved and still love ‘Python’. Nothing like it now,more’s the pity. Wonder if they were doing the old castration joke in that scene above? Still, it doesn’t hurt unless you get your thumbs trapped! Sorry,old joke from old person!

  4. Jo W says:

    Oops! Forgot to wish you well, Admin, for the Awards tonight!

  5. J. Folgard says:

    Several years ago my colleagues & I attended a school showing of ‘Holy Grail’ with a big group of students, aged 12 to 16 with extremely diverse backgrounds and literacy levels. Some of them got a laugh from the slapstick, others got off with the whimsical and absurd dialogue but all of them liked it. When we discussed it in class afterwards, some of them thought it was “a bit daft, but it was alright” while others thought they had discovered an old gem: several former pupils still give me a heads-up when it’s on TV these days!
    It’s also true it indicates a certain like-mindedness: one of my best friends is a huge Python nut, he knows whole parts by heart and even took a photograph of the castle in Scotland while on his wedding trip. It was a simple gift but I treasure it.

  6. pheeny says:

    Python was past my bedtime the first time around. I enjoyed the repeats as a teenager, but now I find it rather dated.

    Having said which I don’t think you have to “get” all the clever references to find it funny any more than you have to understand polari to laugh at “Round the Horne”

  7. pheeny says:

    Glad I am not the only one that finds Miranda terminally unfunny – give me Jo Brand or Victoria Woods any day!

  8. Henry Ricardo says:

    Python made demands on your awareness of the world, including literature and philosophy. I don’t think as many young people today would appreciate the YouTube clip of the soccer match between Greek and German philosophers. (P.S. I’m a Yank who likes Miranda.)

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    Dah on me. Who is Miranda?
    I like Python, although a lot of the British references went by me. I do miss subtlety and surrealism in humour and life. It seems lost on the recent generations abounding around me now. In many ways, we are back to ‘The Great Pie Fight’ of Laurel & Hardy which was great fun, but not subtle. (It was funny, but is now seen as dumb by most and is certainly missing from daily conversation.)
    As someone once said: “That joke was off the wall and down the hall before I got it.”

  10. Matthew Davis says:

    Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, is the person who made these comments. “Private Eye” has spent the last year or so painting him as an ignorant buffoon incapable of understanding the damnds of his post. So you may want to take his opinion with a grain of salt.

  11. Debs says:

    I loved Python as a kid and still can crack myself up just by remembering sketches in my head. I was a fiend for all things Greek and Julio-Claudian at the time that I saw Life of Brian, so the Latin graffiti bit made me fall over laughing…
    I think that the absurdist humor can turn people off- my Python test for newbies is always the Fish-Slapping Dance sketch. If they snicker into a belly laugh by the end, they’re good for the whole shebang.
    Now excuse me, there’s a Penguin on the telly. P’raps it’s migrating.
    (/wanders off the hall, crying out “BURMA!”)

  12. chazza says:

    Python: Still funny – in parts – but I can’t fall off my sofa with laughter like I did originally – and frequently.
    As for Miranda – replace waterboarding as a torture with endless repeats of Miranda interviws Bruce Forsyth. Should have the same affect. Include anything starring David Walliams as well.

  13. Dan Terrell says:

    Chazza – shouldn’t Miranda have her rights? I couldn’t help myself, sorry. A bit of semi-deep American humour .

  14. John says:

    My brothers and I loved Python growing up in 1970s Connecticut. The only thing that went over my head back then were frequent references to Reginald Maudling and some other Parliamentary jibes. We were pretty insular in my 1970s US high school. Hadn’t a clue what was going on anywhere else outside the USA other than in Viet Nam and Southeast Asia which seemed to be the only global news we got back then. I prefer my comedy smart with as many “egghead” allusions as possible. Though I loved farce when I was younger I’m fairly weary of it now.

    BTW – I liked Miranda Hart in Call the Midwife. She should turn to character acting and give up on sitcom farce.

  15. snowy says:

    Now the telling question would be exactly which bits of dialogue survived in the mind long enough to make it into the playground the next day?

    “It’s an ex-…”
    “Say no more…”
    “Albatross!, …”
    “… with a pointed stick?”
    “Nobody!, expects …”

    Only the last has a historical hook, and that is revealed and discarded in the first seconds.

    The TV shows were very patchy, but ran at such a pace that the flat gags were forgotten.

    The move into films forced a change to a coherent narrative, [Get me!, all long words today! It won’t last.] And the films will be the things that endure.

    I’m struggling to think of another sketch that leant heavily on religious knowledge. Ummm.

    [Ah! Found it! Link above, no region lock. But it’s slightly out of sync. Ignore the visuals they are not essential.]

  16. James says:

    Now? Maybe in the UK. Australia is a different story. Twenty years ago I can remember being in lounge rooms full of people watching TV, and whenever a Python movie came on it was met with stone faced silence, shortly followed by calls to change the channel. I was often the only one laughing, and people would turn to look at me with expressions of utter confusion or even fear. Most people did not even understand that Python was comedy; they just thought it was some stupid boring documentary.

  17. admin says:

    ‘Australians thought Monty Python Was A Documentary’ – best line of the week!

  18. Keith says:

    Firstly, I hate Miranda.
    Comedy today? Have I got news for you? Dylan Moran? An Idiot Abroad? The Mighty Boosh? Burnistoun (some of those sketches were genius). Though few shows have ever come close to Monty Python. I think we are a lot less surreal. The surreal stuff is out there, but harder to find.
    People liking and sharing the most brain-dead humour on Youtube is disturbing.
    Good piece Chris.

  19. Alan Morgan says:

    Lots of old comedy I read scripts of before ever seeing, or hearing on Radio4Extra/7 in more recent years. Python and even Fawlty Towers were just that little bit before my time in age, we had the Young Ones and Not The 9 o’clock News, Spitting Image and so forth. The 90s had Spaced, League of Gentlemen, Black Books a bit later. More recently though, um. Count Arthur Strong is the only one that springs to mind. I loved it on the radio and the tele series got somewhat surreal (I still giggle over the Jack The Ripper tours in an ice cream van) as it was allowed to progress.

  20. John Griffin says:

    I watched some Python in the US in late 78 while visiting uni there – the Yanks seemed to laugh in all the wrong places. I was very puzzled, but I don’t think some English absurd comedy travels at all.

  21. snowy says:

    Didn’t warm to CAS, but humour is very subjective, and radio comedy has to work much harder to get laughs. Prefered ‘Cabin Pressure’,[a link to ep.1 above the ‘timestamp’, no region lock.]

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