“All brontosauruses are thin on one end…”
PYTHON ON THEORY
TAG UNDER: philosophy, linguistics, genre, names, profanity, the media, Surrealism, humor, atomic bomb, Semprini, and pornography.
This chapter, divided into numerous subsections, will look at the way in which Monty Python applied their rigorous training to philosophical and theoretical subjects. We will examine the many television and film references to subjects including politics, religion, linguistics, and even humor to give our readers a greater appreciation of how Python subversively used complex theories for cheap laughs. For example, there’s a great deal going on in the cheap laugh elicited by the peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who explains to King Arthur that a true political mandate comes from the people, as opposed to some “watery tart lobbing a scimitar at you!” The silliness of the exchange is funny in itself, but the underlying political theory that drives the humor makes the sketch more than simply funny—it’s art.1
The Pythons themselves were certainly learned in various current theories (political, linguistic, comedic), but—if the Flying Circus sketch “Anne Elk” and her “Theory of the Brontosaurus” (ep. 31) is any indication—they may have held a skeptical view of theories in general. Or at least some of the ways in which any theory is accepted as a proven worldview.
Seated in the spartan conversation pit (“the usual late-night lineup set”) of the television show Thrust: A Quite Controversial Look at the World Around Us, the Presenter (Chapman) introduces his audience to his guest, Miss Anne Elk (Cleese in prim bespectacled Pepperpot mode). As the intro music swells, the two settle into interview postures. Behind them, a black-and-white image of a brontosaurus2 hangs on an easel. Starting off the show with a serious directness, Chapman turns to Miss Elk and prompts: “You have a new theory about the brontosaurus.” Yet, rather than present her theory, or offer an anecdote about how she came to her theory, or state why her theory is radical or innovative or how it will change human perception of the Jurassic Period (all typical talk-show “teaser” responses), Miss Elk instead either offers her host variations on “I have a theory; it is mine” … or she repeatedly clears her throat. Eventually, as Chapman’s exasperation grows, Miss Elk delivers her groundbreaking theory:
This theory goes as follows and begins now. All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end. That is my theory, it is mine, and belongs to me and I own it, and what it is too.
By so blandly running up against the responsorial expectations for such a “cutting-edge” show (note the provocative main title and the “quite controversial” postcolon title that opened the scene), Elk’s revelation underwhelms Chapman, who responds with, “That’s it, is it?” He then subsequently loses all interest in his guest, fields a phone call, checks his shoes, and wanders off.
Not content to amaze her audience with one incontrovertible theory (which is hers), Miss Elk follows Chapman’s Presenter off the Thrust set, onto Bounder of Adventure’s travel set (where Idle’s tourist, Mr. Smoke-Too-Much, continues his earlier rant) as the Fire Brigade choir from the earlier “All-England Summarize Proust” sketch wanders on. Oblivious to the metatheatrical mashing going on around her, Miss Elk proudly utters her second theory:
“My second theory states that fire brigade choirs seldom sing songs about Marcel Proust.” Upon which, as the stage prompts note, “With only a half-beat pause the fire brigade start singing the Proust song.”3
Faced with an explicit refutation of theory, the multiple sketches collide, give way to chaos, and—as a loony looks in—the episode fades out.
FACTOID BOX: Theory
Theories are testable and well-informed ideas about different scientific, pseudo-scientific, linguistic, religious, or social topics. Theories pose questions and contain valid hypotheses that can be tested. In the social science fields, there are many different methodological approaches to theory, but most approaches rely on quantitative, qualitative, historical, or textual analysis of some sort. As Kevin Williams put it, in most theoretical methods “theory can be tested through empirical investigation” or “can be secured through systematic and rigorous procedures of investigation” (2003, 2). While most theories cannot technically be “proven” beyond a shadow of a doubt, certain theories (evolution, gravity, the Mets losing this season) are so well accepted as to be regarded as fact instead of theory. In terms of archaeological theory, Anne Elk’s “theory” about the brontosaurus may be accurate in some ways but is certainly not the kind of theory that would be acceptable as the conclusion to serious research. Ahem. Ahem.
Such may very well be the response from most readers when presented with any part of any book titled “Python on Theory.” Critical Theory—the jargon-laden, navel-gazing, mental masturbation of needlessly verbose overeducated white-collar intellectual types—is stereotypically a dour endeavor that sucks the life out of whatever it examines. Psychoanalytical Theory, Feminist Theory, Literary Theory, Marxist Theory, Stimulus-Response Theory, Economic Theory … the list goes on and on, and every one of them is a snoozer. Yet unlike Anne Elk’s theory (which proves to be absolutely empty and certainly not avant-garde), theory—even inherently humorless theory—can illuminate and be illuminated by the Pythons’ oeuvre. This part of the book will sketch out how various modern critical theories—some quite cutting-edge when Flying Circus first aired—are echoed, presaged, or problematized by the erudite Pythons. If naught else, the Pythons taught theoretically minded viewers that sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar—it’s an exploding penguin on the telly.
“Half a bee, philosophically, must, ipso facto, half not be.”
From the enumeration of philosophical luminaries in “The Philosophers Song” (usually presented in the live versions of the “Bruces” sketch) to the conversational rhetoric of the “Argument Clinic” sketch (ep. 29) to the existential lament over Eric the half a bee (on the Monty Python’s Previous LP record) to the philosophers playing football (in Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus) who, instead of actually playing football, largely ponder the idea of playing football, Python seemed virtually obsessed with philosophy. The concept of trying to understand the meaning of life was one of the underlying themes of Python (heck, they even structured a film around the question), as was the complexity of language and how language helped to maintain and create reality; note, for example, the chaplain of the boys’ school who is admonished by the headmaster because he was “wrestling with Plato” (in the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” sketch, ep. 18).
Throughout their career, Python tackled the philosophical approach to “unearthing and explicating the meaning of life and what the ultimate human goods are” (McGinn 2012). They deconstructed the application of philosophy in real-life settings, realizing that we can look at philosophy as “a systematic reflection on the nature of reality and humanity’s place in that reality”(McGinn 2012); and because Python looked at reality as a weirdly constructed set of situations adrift from logic and meaning, they were able to assert that using philosophy in a world that made no sense with no real mandate for authority could lead to all kinds of new absurdities. In a meaningless or chaotic world, philosophy offered no consolation but was perhaps reduced to, as Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “a series of footnotes to Plato” (Smith 2012). Granted, those notes were scribbled in crayon in the margins with unsteady, childlike penmanship, but you have to give the human race points for trying.
Philosophy, a concept that the Pythons doubtless studied in some depth while at university, was a key and consistent part of the Python deconstruction. The word “philosophy” derives from the ancient Greek “philos” and “sophia” and translates literally as “love of wisdom.” The term “philosophy”—the “origin is sometimes attributed to Pythagoras” (McGinn 2012)—is one of the great bugaboos of academia, in that while everyone who attends college studies philosophy (in some form or another, whether in or out of the discipline proper), the idea of the philosopher (like the legendary Pythagoras, alone, walking about, presumably thinking great thoughts about the totality of human existence), remains a puzzling concept to most outside of the rarified field. Most people still have no real idea what exactly philosophers do for a living. Hell, most people tend to think of philosophy as in Python’s football sketch, where great thinkers wander about scratching their heads and musing about difficult ideas. This is despite the fact that even the term “philosophy” itself has many different meanings outside of the academic discipline and applying “the label to any seeker persisted until around the 18th century” and is similar to the study of science in many ways because “the subject is systematic, rigorous, replete with technical vocabulary, often in conflict with common sense, capable of refutation, produces hypotheses, uses symbolic notation, is about the natural world, is institutionalized, peer-reviewed, tenure grading, etc.” (McGinn 2012). While we all engage in philosophical debates, perhaps what Python was really parodying was the professionalization of the field.
FACTOID BOX: Spot the Drunken Football-Playing Philosopher!
The “Philosophers Football Match” was a heady game indeed! For the Greeks, the impressive lineup included: Socrates, Plato, Heraclitus, Empedocles of Acragas, Aristotle, Epicurus, Archimedes, Epictetus, Aristotle, Plotinus, “Chopper” Sophocles; and for the Germans: Kant, Schlegel, Marx (who came in the second half as a replacement for Wittgenstein), Hegel, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Beckenbauer,* Jaspers, Kant, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.
* Beckenbauer is the “ringer” on the German team, of course. Franz “Der Kaiser” Beckenbauer was not a philosopher by trade but the greatest German footballer of all time. He was also an active player in the 1960s and 1970s, which made him an instantly recognizable figure for the viewers of Flying Circus.
Python generally employs a more democratic approach, taking philosophy out of the academy and putting it back on the playing field, sometimes literally. (See also Part V: Sport.) While Python does name many philosophers in the football match, there is no sense that they are espousing any particular philosophy; instead Python treats the field as one more lofty subject to be bandied about in and out of context, ecumenically embraced as a whole. Why claim one philosophical precept as true when you can make fun of the whole lot of them?
The game—which ends when Archimedes has an idea and after shouting “Eureka!” scores an actual goal—is largely a long shot of the philosophers musing as they walk about the field. The sketch works because, as philosopher Julian Baggini, in an article about current philosophers re-enacting the match, quoted Terry Jones as saying that “football is a team activity, which philosophy, as a general rule, isn’t” (2010). Hence, the brilliance of the match.
Even the Python sketches that do not cite specific philosophers by name suggest that specific philosophical concepts were being used to illustrate humorous points. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the idea of how the muck-addled peasants relate to the (relatively) clean and regal-looking King Arthur, clearly separated by a chasm, not just based on the fact that the King “hasn’t got shit all over him” but also because the King has a hereditary and magical claim on the crown … a claim that is disputed by Palin’s peasant who argues that real power does not come from the Lady of the Lake but from a mandate from the masses. The fact that even the usually patient King Arthur is soon verbally oppressing him (“Help, help, I’m being oppressed!” Palin cries) fits into the medieval worldview, where class and privilege were not just the ordinary unquestioned facts of life but the basis for a system that was designed to persevere, despite the seeming lack of a moral center in mankind.
One philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (who according to the Bruces’ song was “fond of his drams”), can be used to sum up the philosophical world of Holy Grail where authority is arbitrary and even a most chivalrous knight (Lancelot) on a quest to rescue the maiden fair ends up killing most of a wedding party in his righteous wrath. As Jacques Barzun put it, “Hobbes saw man in the state of nature as an aggressor, man is wolf to man. Unless controlled, he and his fellows live life that is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’” From these premises, reason concludes that government must be strong, its laws emphatic and rigorously enforced to prevent outbreaks of wolfish nature against other men (2000, 267). Although Hobbes is often presumed to have been a royalist apologist, he does not specify a monarch and so his work but could also be interpreted as the “justification for an absolute parliament” (Barzun 2000, 267). Hobbes’ view of the world—a place that needs a strong social contract because man must be protected from himself—is the medieval world of Holy Grail, where unprotected old women are viciously said, “Ni!” to by their passing strangers with impunity.
The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (sadly not mentioned in “The Philosophers Song”; one can only imagine what he must have drunk!) would also have seen the mistreatment of the “constitutional peasants” as an egregious breach of the social contract. Rousseau essentially reduced his explanation of the social contract to “each of us places in common his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will; and as one body we all receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (1975, 15). Sadly, as Rousseau lived in the eighteenth century, he was not able to advise Palin’s medieval (and fictional, for that matter) peasant of his inalienable rights.
Logic is often one of the issues discussed in Python’s explorations into philosophy. Even Chapman’s autobiographical book, A Liar’s Autobiography, itself suggests that all biographies, as well as all accounts of the apparent truth or reality of any situation, are actually very much open to personal interpretation (Chapman et al. 1980). One need only look to the brouhaha that ensued in 2006 when talk-show host Oprah Winfrey discovered that an autobiography she had placed on her influential “Oprah’s Book Club” recommended reading list—A Million Little Pieces—turned out to be largely a fiction. Unfortunately for the author, James Frey (a recovering drug addict and, apparently, serial liar), the truth of his memoir was rather divergent from the historical reality corroborated by criminal records and public death certificates. (Oprah’s wrath was awesome.) Although humans often seek empirical reality or personal truths, perhaps the best we can achieve is a sort of common agreement, a reality that “makes sense” to all involved. Especially to Oprah.
But Python also had their own internal version of logic. Things “happened” not because of causality or the autonomous nature of human beings but because the universe was random and chaotic. While the “Lumberjack” sketch (ep. 9) is best known for its iconic song (and that’s okay!), it is also one of the sketches where Python plays upon the concept that reality is just an assumption that we all share. In the sketch the lumberjack (played by Palin) starts off as a barber who is frightened that he might cut a little bit more than hair from his customers. After the customer (Jones) finally realizes that the barber is only pretending to cut his hair (using a rather well-timed recording of a banal barbershop conservation), the barber reveals his true career plans and moves off the barbershop set to a more pastoral one, reminiscent of the woods of British Columbia. While this is yet another Pythonesque comment on the nature of television it is also an acknowledgment that we are all playing roles in an artificial world, that reality itself is as malleable as identity, and that we should not put too much faith in the constructed world that surrounds us.
To many, including real-life philosophers, this deconstruction of philosophy was one of the better representations of philosophy ever portrayed in television and movies. As Julian Baggini (editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine) wrote about Python and philosophy
… at the risk of getting silly, I’d go so far as to say that Python represents a coherent Anglo-Saxon take on existentialism. French thinkers such as Camus and Sartre recognized the absurdity of life, but it took the English Pythons to show that the right response was to laugh at it. (2010)
Baggini also points out that John Cleese thought that “comedy and deep thought could go hand in hand” (2010) and what the Pythons were doing, such as in the Pepperpots’ quest to find Jean-Paul Sartre and ask him about the meaning of his books Rues a Liberté4 (Roads to Freedom), indicates that we are all on a quest to find some kind of meaning in life. Python works towards that end by questioning whether there is inherent meaning in any institution and asking where presumptions of authority actually come from. Academic philosopher Alan Richardson has said, “The only difference between Monty Python and academic philosophy is that philosophy isn’t funny” (Malamud 2011).
Python also continually dropped names the way an upper-class twit would at a cocktail party. Almost every sketch that deals with logic or philosophy brings up the names of various experts in the field, almost daring the viewer to keep up. In the “Bruces” sketch alone (ep. 22), the banned “great socialist thinkers would certainly include at least the structuralism school so popular in the 1960s and 1970s in Europe, including such luminaries as Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault and Althusser” (Larsen 2008, 296). Larsen does not mention two who would have been very prominent on that list, Baudrillard and Derrida, who also dealt with the connection between language and reality, which in many ways was exactly what Python was trying to do when they examined philosophy.
“Ee ecky thump.”
Monty Python’s exploration of language—of the uses and abuses of language in the name of humor, of lexical and syntactic ambiguity resulting in humor, of the limits of language as a communicative device—is perhaps the most ubiquitous element in their oeuvre and arguably the element that most identifies them as practitioners of “intellectual” humor and exposes their (un)common Oxbridge background. In particular, their comic abuse of traditional grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation belies their mastery of conventional linguistics and linguistic theory. Granted, when their audience fails to “get” these jokes it can alienate them (“What the hell is so funny about saying that? I say that!”), but when the audience does laugh such linguistic humor can both reinforce and inform.
Larsen, commenting on “French Subtitled Film” (ep. 23) points to the current revolution in linguistic theory that the Pythons drew upon:
[Miscommunication] is a key element … for the Pythons, and is based on the recent interest in semantics and semiotics, the growing awareness that meaning isn’t just “there,” it is imbued by and for society/culture, and that meaning can and does fluctuate depending on context. The separation of a word from its “meaning” allows for new meanings and even multiple meanings to be temporarily affixed to a word—there now exists the possibility of “wiggle room” in the world of language. Modernist authors like Joyce, Stein, Pound, Woolf, and Eliot pushed this separation, this interchangeability, and the Pythons came along at just the right time to explore that new ambiguity in the television format. (2008, 301)
Linguistic communication and miscommunication goes beyond individual words, of course: meaning is conveyed via singular morphemes as well as words, phrases, and idioms; meaning is conveyed through conversations (for what good is language if no one receives it?); meaning is conveyed through form and genre; and ultimately, as contemporary linguists were arguing at the time, meaning is reliant upon context. Here, then, is a sampling of how genre, conversations, and words (in particular, naming and word creation) are employed in Python.
“Pantomime horse is a Secret Agent.”
The Pythons are largely responsible for introducing the mash-up to television, and many of their most memorable mash-ups seem to have less to do with particular vocabulary use/abuse than with the questioning of generic constraints. However, inherent in the plethora of generic mash-ups depicted throughout the four seasons of Flying Circus is the validation of literary forms and viewer expectations or, in a wider sense, a validation of genre as effectively communicative. For example, Measure for Measure fails when performed underwater,5 but Shakespeare’s final comedy has traditionally succeeded onstage. Wuthering Heights fails as an exercise in semaphore but (presumably) succeeds as a novel. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes fails when presented via smoke signals but succeeds as a film. And so on.6 Mode of presentation and genre—although so very often taken for granted—matter in these skits.
And, in one particularly effective, moving, and utterly ludicrous generic relocation in episode 22, The Death of Mary Queen of Scots (traditionally a tragedy) elicits far more humor than expected when enacted as a BBC Radio program, replete with an overabundance of (conventional radio) sound effects and pregnant pauses:
Radio Announcer: And now we present the first episode of a new radio drama series, The Death of Mary Queen of Scots. Part one, the beginning.
Theme music: “Coronation Scot” as used in Paul Temple for years
Man’s Voice: You are7 Mary Queen of Scots?
Woman’s Voice: I am.8
There now follows a series of noises indicating that Mary is getting the shit knocked out of her. Thumps, bangs, slaps, pneumatic drilling, sawing, flogging, shooting, all interlarded with Mary’s screams. The two women [Pepperpots sitting at the radio] listen calmly. After a few seconds: fade as the signature tune, “Coronation Scot,” is brought up loudly to denote ending of episode.
Radio Announcer: Episode two of The Death of Mary Queen of Scots can be heard on Radio 4 almost immediately.
One of the women goes to the set and switches it over. As she goes back to her seat from the radio we hear the theme music again, fading out as the sounds of violence and screaming start again and continue unabated in vigor.
Man’s Voice: I think she’s dead.
Woman’s Voice: No I’m not.
After a time, sounds of violence and screaming start again, rapidly fading under the tune of “Coronation Scot.”
Announcer’s Voice: That was episode two of The Death of Mary Queen of Scots, specially adapted for radio by Bernard Hollowood and Brian London.9 And now, Radio 4 will explode.
(The radio explodes.)
Bereft of their radio, the two Pepperpots then turn to watch the television, which leads to the lexically ambiguous10 question, “What’s on the telly?”
The Death of Mary Queen of Scots thus serves as a violent—indeed, explosive—indictment of generic instability (a popular conceit in late-sixties avant-garde cinema) and a self-reflexive comment on passive audience expectation.11
Of course, if exploding radios and penguins do not call enough explicit attention to the suitability of performance modes, there remains the metatheatrical re-examination of generic incongruity in the re-enactments performed by the Batley Townswomen’s Guild (portrayed, as usual, by the Pythons in drag). Skits include the “Batley Townswomen’s Guild Presents the Battle of Pearl Harbour” (ep. 11) and the “Batley Townswomen’s Guild Presents the First Heart Transplant” (ep. 22). In both re-enactments, regardless of the diversity of subject matter and genre, the Pepperpotted Pythons generally just wail on one another with their purses; as the script prompts for episode 11 notes, “the two sides set about each other with handbags etc., speeded up 50% just to give it a bit of edge”; and for episode 22 “The two groups of ladies rush at each other. They end up in the sea, rolling about and splashing, and thumping each other with handbags.” In addition to the base slapstick violence presented, humor arises in the meta-meta narratives presented, of professional cross-dressing actors acting as amateur actresses acting (poorly) in various roles, all without any variety. But as before, underlying the nudge-nudge-wink-wink performativity elements is an implicit validation of generic expectations.12
And so, by comically employing early mash-ups,13 the Pythons explore genre-specific meaning and audience expectation. But they also examine—and problematize—the expectations of everyday language employed in everyday situations, particularly in conversations between sellers and consumers, between those who have and those who want.
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Cogan, Ph.D. and Jeff Massey, Ph.D.