Monday, July 30, 2018

Ranking Monty Python's Flying Circus


Monty Python might be more associated with their films these days, probably rightly, but the ramshackle TV series was where it started for me. Just the one episode admittedly, when I might have still been in single digits, followed shortly by the compilation film and then the rest of the films in fortuitous chronological order at a rate of about one a year. I finally caught up with the rest of the series in my late teens and got a bit obsessed all over again.

I didn't know all the sketches off by heart, and couldn't have told you the full name of Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwustle-gerspurten-mitz-weimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm, but I could have told you which episode most of them came from based on contextual links.

It may be a load of random, often incoherent nonsense, but with its flimsy running gags and flimsier animated segues, this is a series best experienced in the original concept albums – filler and all – rather than chopped up into tracks on YouTube. From a wider angle, the series charts a similar learning, levelling and languoring curve to many dramas, with behind-the-scenes goss to match. It's funny as well.

Here are my The Top 45 Episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus. I can't justify wasting time rewatching something for fun without wasting more time pretending there's an educational benefit to it. And bugger ordering every sketch.


Key for the sake of a key:

Series 1 (1969-70)
Series 2 (1970)
Series 3 (1972-73)
Series 4 (1974)



45. Intermission (a.k.a. It's The Arts, 1x13)

This may or may not be the worst one they ever did, but it feels palpably like the scraps left over at the end of the year and I've always felt bored the few times I've sat through it.

There are a few funny short and sweet gags that probably add up to less than a minute of the run time, but the long sequences of historical impersonations and the police using magic are the very bottom of the barrel. Thank god they energised for series two.

44. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes to the Bathroom (1x11)

Even when the assorted sketches aren't up to much, an episode can still be saved by creative linking. For some reason, a dreary funeral procession employing amateur 1890s camera trickery doesn't do the trick for me.

The only properly good thing here is the Batley Townswomen's Guild battle reenactment, which looks like it was a lot of fun to film. The rest isn't much fun for anyone.

43. Hamlet (4x04)

One of the most forgettable and arguably best forgotten episodes, its rather dreary existence is still justified by the Pepperpots' piston engine exchange ("it was a bargain"), an isolated classic.

The Westminster Bridge section is overlong and tedious, but it's fascinating to watch the regular people trying to go about their day as Michael Palin impersonates a police officer and holds up actual traffic while Terry Jones and Carol Cleveland heavy pet on the pavement.

42. The Attila the Hun Show (2x07)

This one's always left me cold, and I was always a bit confused by the drastic mid-series slump. It makes more sense now I know that shows 7-9 were recorded much later than the superior 10-12, by which point anyone would be a bit knackered.

That excuses the quite basic parodies of American sitcoms, news and sports, but they're a bit too keen to black up even before we reach the ironic racism.

41. You're No Fun Anymore (1x07)

An unfortunately apt title for this failed experiment – the first episode dedicated almost entirely to a single, all-encompassing story and the least rewarding of that bunch to sit through.

Tennis-playing blacmanges and people turning into Scottish caricatures are among the most childish things in the series, while Graham Chapman's scientist repeatedly whacking his dim assistant unconscious is one of the most unpleasant.

40. The Nude Organist (a.k.a. The Nude Man, 3x09)

Like much of the third series, this is largely redundant retreads (and so forgettable it was like I was watching most of it for the first time), saved from the bin by one ace sketch.

Ignore what I said about sitting through the full episodes: 'Olympic Hide-and-Seek' can be chopped out and cobbled together with other underappreciated gems from the year. Gilliam's weird trees in space cartoon can be salvaged too, non sequitur links are always handy.

39. The Golden Age of Ballooning (4x01)

The difficult fourth series is the one I've revisited the least and the one that most needed reappraising. I won't be alone in that. The sense of watching a practically new Python episode was more enjoyable than the content.

Written almost entirely by Palin, apparently in quite a rush, this is another admirable long-form experiment that unfortunately fails to be very funny or interesting. A strange choice to kick off the year, but stick with it.

38. How to Recognise Different Parts of the Body (2x09)

"It's the end of the series, they must be running out of ideas." Not quite, but this final production stretch (very different from broadcast order) has a noticeable drop in quality from the recent heights we've been scaling.

When sketches aren't direct, inferior sequels – Raymond Luxury Yacht, the Batley Townswomen, tedious 'how to recognise' links – they're often inferior takes on the same worn subject matter. The notable exception is the Bruces, and they don't even do the song in this version.

37. Owl Stretching Time (1x04)

This is the first episode where the links, themes and running gags come together to complement the whole. Palin's It's Man introductions have passed the surreal threshold already and Chapman's colonel is ordering the cameras around and criticising the inconsistent episode theme. This is the satisfying linking I like to see.

Unfortunately, the main courses aren't up to scratch, with only the self-defence class proving to be one for the ages.

36. Mr. and Mrs. Brian Norris' Ford Popular (3x02)

'The Fish-slapping Dance' is perfect distilled Python, but as that lasts for about a percent of the episode, and isn't even native to it, it can't lift it up too much.

The advanced school pupils and Mrs Niggerbaiter exploding (excuse me?) are good too, but the rest unfortunately bears out the common dismissal of series three as being more of the same, but worse. I hope that maxim's going to be proven wrong often. (Update: not often enough).

35. A Book at Bedtime (3x12)

I must have watched this one as often as most, but I hardly remembered anything about its extended kamikaze Scotsmen/penguin revolution via tennis and BBC programme planner venting. Must have zoned out.

This was recorded early in the series, so it doesn't have the end-of-term excuse. The microphone war at the end is very energetic and gets us out and about at least, that was the highlight.

34. Mr. Neutron (4x05)

These sustained stories are valuable experience for the films, but when the scenes tend to be overlong and keep repeating the same jokes that weren't that funny to begin with, it starts to feel more like they just didn't have enough ideas to fill out the half-hour.

It's better than 'Science Fiction Sketch,' but it's telling that the unrelated post-credits coda 'Conjuring Today' is the funniest part by far, lasting all of 20 seconds.

33. Grandstand (a.k.a. The British Showbiz Awards, 3x13)

Idle's links in the guise of an unbearably tedious awards host have a good escalating joke and are nicely strange, but quite grating too. Fortunately, most of the sketches are better than would reasonably be expected at the end of a generally sub-par year, even if the whole thing is a bit rapey.

The Oscar Wilde Sketch is the highlight. No idea who Pasolini is, but I enjoy the send-up of his work all the same.

32. Archaeology Today (2x08)

Now that's a theme! An extension of the opening titles takes us through a typically derailed interview that escalates into an globe-trotting giant showdown amid Sumerian artifacts.

Shame it's abandoned after that, along with other curtailed sketches they can't even be bothered to write non sequitur endings for. Shame to see Chapman so obviously pissed and stumbling too.

31. The Cycling Tour (3x08)

This single-sketch opus has never been a favourite, and is really more of a Ripping Yarn than a Python, but I appreciate it shaking up the format all the same, and it has its moments. The middle's completely abominable even without the racism, but it's unlikely the episode would have been improved by replacing it with a bogstandard silly interview, TV parody and cartoon filler. They committed to the experiment, and every false step here might have made the later films better.

30. Whicker's World (a.k.a. Njorl's Saga, 3x01)

Various voyages and trials hold this one together nicely, it's just not that interesting outside of North Malden's self-serving revision of the BBC's exciting Icelandic saga.

Gilliam's become a better animator since the last series, and the journey through nightmarish catacombs inside the human body is a rare reminder that he's the bloke who'd go on to make those weird films.

29. Untitled (1x10)

No overarching theme this week then, and only the clumsiest transitions. Maybe they realised how weak the Arthur Tree introduction was, and any reprises were mercifully euthanised.

It's not a great episode, but there are a couple of stand-out sketches. Palin's chartered accountant with aspirations of lion-taming is fun, and I love Ron Obvious' pathetic attempt to jump the English Channel before that gag's repeated to diminishing returns.

28. Party Political Broadcast (4x06)

I don't count this as the last episode. The Meaning of Life would get there in the end, and this feels well on the way with its mean-spirited gross-out humour, even if 'Salad Days' has been there before.

When the set starts collapsing and a brigadier in a tutu earnestly laments the homophobia in society, it still feels excitingly like anything could happen. But it's business as usual for the most part, so doesn't leave me longing for a longer run or further series when they were about to move up to bigger things.

27. The All-England Summarise Proust Competition (3x05)

Shoe sizes and choral Proust summarising are weak running gags threading through a largely mediocre episode that has its moments. Anne Elk's revolutionary theory on Brontosauruses almost takes it, but Eric wins the show with his monotone monologue.

Elsewhere, Graham blacks up and endorses masturbation, unless you're watching an over-sensitive edit.

26. The Naked Ant (1x12)

The ideas are still coming thick and fast, so this late-year slump can't be blamed on tiredness. Some of those ideas – like the Mr Hilter by-election  just don't translate that well from script to screen, where the same couple of jokes are dragged out much too long so they can show off the location filming.

But there's still the Upper Class Twit of the Year, which is a lot of stupid fun, and Ken Shabby, who's delightfully repulsive.

25. It's the Arts (a.k.a. The BBC Entry to the Zinc Stoat of Budapest, 1x06)

This isn't one of the better early episodes, but it's notable for pushing the boundaries – first with the Whizzo Quality Assortment gross-out and then with some real, non-cardboard boobs. The blacking up and ethnic stereotyping are presumably more controversial these days.

These episodes feel more organic and cohesive now, but they haven't hit their stride yet. Good thing they had more than the standard six-episode run then.

24. Dennis Moore (3x11)

Strong theft and costume drama themes this week, led by Mr Moore's education in elementary socialism via a lupin fixation.

Like Sir Philip Sidney last time, it's a shame they weren't focusing more exclusively on these denser long-form narratives by this point, without the repetitive filler, since that's where their future lies. They don't all have to turn out like 'The Cycling Tour.'

23. The War Against Pornography (3x06)

This is a slow burner, but worth it in the end. After some over-the-top antics with Gumby brain surgery, it's largely forgettable until we reach the technically impressive British naval expedition to the lake inside 22A Runcorn Avenue ("it's bleeding damp"). Complete with cannibalism cover-ups and an interviewer morphing into Long John Silver, the whole sequence is brilliantly weird. Coming after that, the self-proclaimed "silliest" segment of the series feels more like someone else's pathetic homage.

22. Sex and Violence (1x02)

I'm a bit of a stickler for production order (this is the real episode one), and watching this series in the seemingly random order it was recorded in is quite revealing.

The first series is less scattered then the next two, which handily preserves the learning curve intact: this team of talented people haven't quite figured out what they're doing yet. There are early hits like the Mouse Problem, musical mice and musical statues, but roles have yet to be defined and the transitions need work.

21. Face the Press (a.k.a. Dinsdale, 2x01)

I've never been very fond of the weighty Piranha Brothers tale that takes up the back half of the episode, comprising nearly entirely of talking heads that you might as well read on the page.

The free-form first half is a lot more fun, from Terry J's housewife realising she's in the wrong house to the instantly crowd-pleasing silly walks. It's all a bit saggy, but rather that than watching choice cuts and wondering why John Cleese is striding past an inexplicable queue of men in brown coats.

20. How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away (1x03)

Going against what I said earlier, this is an episode where the parts are greater than the whole. If there's an episode with weaker connective tissue than the larch and the knight, I'm not looking forward to it.

With two separate occurrences of Cleese rage, Chapman's dirty fork, Idle's Nudge, Nudge and two great Palin/Jones vignettes (I assume) with Supermen, bicycle repairmen and milkmen, it's a cracking ensemble effort. It just lacks the unity I crave.

19. Whither Canada? (1x01)

We're already being spoiled with instant hits like the killer joke and more thoughtful strangeness like the Italian class for Italians, but the binding agent holding it all together needs time to warm up. There's a running gag about pigs to create the illusion of structure, but nothing you couldn't cut around.

The notable exception is the extended 'It's the Arts' section with its parade of flustered guests and digressive interviewers. Now to think outside the TV studio.

18. The Light Entertainment War (4x03)

I didn't remember the pick-n-mix sketch episodes of the final series as well as the extended narratives, and I certainly didn't remember any of them being this solid.

There's nothing groundbreaking in this back-to-basics themed assortment, but the incomprehensible RAF banter and woody/tinny words aloofness are as good as anything in their genres. Not a classic, but a pleasant surprise.

17. E. Henry Thripshaw's Disease (3x10)

Even without the more risque sketches culled by the BBC, this final recording with the whole troupe is one of the stronger offerings of the year. That's mainly thanks to the opening 10 minutes, where a confused constable finds himself quantum-leaping into the role of Sir Philip Sidney in an anachronistic jumble that foreshadows Holy Grail. With a disturbing vicar, a panel of corpses and the eponymous fame-seeking doctor, it's worth sticking around for the B-sides too.

16. Blood, Devastation, Death, War and Horror (3x04)

I've always associated the dummy Princess Margaret and pantomime menagerie with the dregs of series three, but that's almost redeemed by the spectacle of pantomime horses cycling and riding real horses. 'The House-Hunters' is still one of  Gilliam's dullest though.

But there are plenty of highlights too: Chapman's scene-stealing army recruitment officer, The Man Who Speaks Entirely in Anagrams, personal favourite The Man Who Makes People Laugh Uncontrollably and good sport Richard Baker in a career-threatening cameo.

15. The Spanish Inquisition (2x02)

Another sketch fans are probably tired of, it's Michael Palin's performance that keeps it watchable, even if the humour is a bit Count Duckula.

The Inquisition scenes take up less than half of the episode, but the rest doesn't offer much to balance it out. The notable exception is the semaphore Wuthering Heights, and even that's stretched beyond its limit with diminishing follow-up gags to pad out the time. Also notably, this is the first time they mess with the credits.

14. Man's Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the 20th Century (1x05)

A really strong ending here with Chapman & Cleese's time-wasting management training course, Palin's Head of the Careers Advisory Board who hates his job and Idle's duplicitous encyclopaedia salesman.

Confuse-a-Cat was much funnier when I'd only read it in the script book and had to imagine the insanity. It was a bit of a letdown to eventually see it performed using the most basic camera trickery. This also features one of the longest and dullest animated sequences, but you can go to the toilet during that or something.

13. It's a Living (a.k.a. School Prizes, 2x06)

This one tends towards the tedious, with the lengthy monologues of 'It's a Living' and 'School Prizes,' over-indulgent animation and a David Frost piss-take that was probably funnier at the time.

But this largely TV-themed episode also gives us the concisely excellent Raymond Luxury Yacht interview and 'Election Night Special,' with its influential blend of satire and stupidity. 'Dung/Dead Indian' lightens things up in the middle too.

12. The Money Programme (3x03)

With a sketch based around the hilarious way Japanese people mix up English phonemes and Michael and Terry J blacking up, this isn't the most progressive episode ever. Never mind, all the fourth-wall-breaking and lampshaded laziness is funny.

Pity the fool who switches off when the credits start early and misses one of the best sketches of them all. I'm not going to argue about it.

11. Scott of the Antarctic (2x10)

This is an unusual episode, and unusual is always welcome. The first half is an extended piss-take of filmmaking – arty and Hollywood – that barely even exaggerates. After the credits finally appear, we get a few passable sketches to fill out the remaining 12 minutes, but that doesn't take away from how much I love the whole Scott of the Antarctic/Sahara sequence. It's been long enough since I last watched these that I'd forgotten all about the lion, and it killed me all over again.

10. The Buzz Aldrin Show (a.k.a. An Apology, 2x04)

The zenith of the lolrandom episode title gag, this is another episode that holds together really well and spoils us with decent material, sadly spoiled throughout by that one screaming drunk in the audience.

Having the Gumbies tediously announce each unimaginatively-titled sketch is comically lazy at this point, but all the excessive apologies, repetitions and do-overs keep things flowing. Feat. The Architect Sketch and Not At All Naughty Chemist's Ltd.

9. Michael Ellis (4x02)

A precious gem in the final series, this conspiratorial consumer odyssey is their best sustained narrative before the films, and less strange to watch now that I no longer go to school with someone called Michael Ellis.

Supposedly (bizarrely) salvaged from an early Holy Grail draft, like B-sides from a classic album session, that goes a long way towards explaining its atypically high quality for the era. If only it wasn't let down by the Victorian poetry padding, which is sadly back on form.

8. How Not to Be Seen (2x11)

The titular sketch was my favourite thing from the compilation film as a child, and it still stands up (no, don't stand up!) The casual slaughter, the terrified hiding that can only prove futile, the mystery of why this is happening, the boots left behind, it's great.

The rest isn't bad either, from Conquistador Instant Leprosy to train timetable and dental fixations. The cartoons go on a bit though, even after the over-cautious religious censorship.

7. Spam (2x12)

The first episode of this series to be recorded, this is a bizarrely late position to shove it back to, especially when it does everything so well.

This would be a great episode for kids, and I don't mean that in a disparaging way. The smut's kept abstract and suggestive, there's genuine educational content covering art, history and politics, then we let our hair down at the end with unapologetic silliness. As funny as 'Spam' is, it's funniest when you're 10.

6. Salad Days (3x07)

This late classic even manages to make its gratuitous padding funny. It gets away with it by hogging an unfair share of the year's best material.

Even before they bring out the heavyweights of the Cheese Shop and upper-class carnage so excessive it requires an immediate apology and two minutes of waves to calm sensitive viewers down, there's homophobic Biggles, mountaineering up the Uxbridge Road, nosy neighbours, storage jars and some quite amazingly surreal house/lifeboat confusion.

5. Déjà Vu (a.k.a. Show 5, 2x03)

This is a special one for me, as it's the first Monty Python thing I saw. But even aside from that, it's a pleasantly outdoorsy episode, even as they lay waste to nature one animal at a time.

The complaints about complaints get a bit tedious, but it's a strong run of sketches with Chapman's hostile flying instructor, Palin's apologetic hijacker, Terry J's scrounging "poet" and Idle's suspiciously milkman-like psychiatrist.

4. The Ant, an Introduction (1x09)

Although nothing to do with ants, there's a strong vaudevillian theme to this one as Cleese's announcer says his catch-phrase for the first time and we're entertained by men with tape recorders up various noses, exploding knees and a delightful ditty by a reluctant-hairdresser-cum-transvestite-lumberjack. I don't know which half of that sequence I prefer.

With double-vision mountaineering and an escalating home invasion, this is a swell episode all round.

3. Royal Episode 13 (a.k.a. The Queen Will Be Watching, 2x13)

I love the idea that the Queen would watch TV in the expectation of seeing people sycophantically standing to attention. Of course, the main theme of this finale is pushing things beyond taste or decency at the end of the year, much as The Meaning of Life would do as their final fucking off. That grisly second half is a delight, but there's a glut of quick-fire silliness before that, pushing linguistic tomfoolery and animated links to their excessive end points. It feels as though all concerned thought this was the end, so why not blow it all up.

2. Full Frontal Nudity (1x08)

The parrot sketch would give even an average episode a false sense of superiority, but even if you're bored of that, it's in fantastic company. It's a shame to think there'll be people who've committed 'The Penis Song' to memory but never seen the likes of 'Buying a Bed.'

This is where they crack the art of linking. Having Chapman's colonel doggedly cancel sketches when they pass his arbitrary silliness threshold encourages them to push things to the absurd without worrying about resolutions.

1. Live from the Grill-O-Mat (2x05)

This is the holy grail for linking aficionados, and as close to perfect Python as it gets outside of the actual Holy Grail.

Cleese's announcer tries his best to introduce each separate item in the menu format he's proudly worked out, only to be usurped by fluid movements between the skits that see the Royal Society of Putting Things on Top of Other Things go on an adventure of filmic proportions.

It certainly helps that those skits include 'Blackmail,' a self-destructing house, an alternately rude and polite butcher and a day in the life of Ken Clear-air System.


Worthless stats!

#1. Series 2: 30.15 points average
#2. Series 1: 20.77
#3. Series 3: 20.62
#4. Series 4: 17.5

Grail > MoL > Brian > Bowl > ANFSCD

Palin > Cleese > Chapman > Jones > Idle > Gilliam

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