Farewell to the kings of comedy

For all you football fans who are wallowing in post-World-Cup-blues, here’s some news about an international football match between Germany and Greece… sounds extremely exciting and terribly thrilling, doesn’t it? You are ready to shout and cheer, ready to witness wild running, wide kicks, wicked head-butts and winning goals.

But wait a minute, the team members coming onto the field are not the rugged, robust, raw rowdies that normally run around on soccer fields. Instead, today’s featured players are the popular philosophers of these two nations.

As the toga-clad Greek team comes onto the field, we see that it is represented, among others, by Plato (goalkeeper), Aristotle, “Chopper” Sophocles, Epicurus, Democritus, Socrates (captain), and Archimedes.

The German team includes Gottfried Leibniz (goalkeeper), Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel (captain), Arthur Schopenhauer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. The manager of the German team is Martin Luther. And to make sure things are kept fair, an imposing looking referee walks onto the field holding an hourglass, with which he will keep time.

The referee is none other than the Chinese philosopher Confucius and the linesmen are Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine.

As soon as the referee starts the match, our beloved philosophers begin ambling thoughtfully around the pitch muttering philosophical theories. Suddenly, some excitement as Nietzsche receives a yellow card because he states that Confucius has no free will. A visibly angry Confucius replies, “Name go in book”.

In the second half, Marx substitutes Wittgenstein, but still nothing happens. But with just about a minute of the match remaining, Archimedes suddenly yells “Eureka!” and kicks the ball towards the German goal. And Socrates scores with a diving header.

But now the Germans dispute the call. Hegel argues that Reality is merely a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, and Kant, using the categorical imperative, states that ontologically, Reality exists only in the imagination, and Marx claims that the ball was offside. And though the replay proves that Socrates was indeed offside, the referee’s decision is that the Greeks have won.

This is just another typical Monty Python sketch. Extremely absurd and unprecedentedly funny, this surreal, pioneering comedy group that took Britain by storm in the late 1960s introduced the civilised world to a new brand of wit and humour.

And their zany sketches did not stop with ridiculing only philosophy. Bureaucracy, governments, society, religion, the ‘upper class’… all fell prey to the wickedly wild wackiness of Monty Python.

It all started when BBC television took a risk and dared to air Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a programme that featured a unique brand of comedy written and performed by some young, innovative punch-line pundits. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin wrote, edited, illustrated and performed their own sketches, and managed to break every rule of television comedy in the process.

Their first performance aired on BBC on October 6, 1969 to a limited British audience. But soon, they became an instant international sensation.

Monty Python stopped being just another popular television series and went onto the larger realm of movies, music albums, stage shows and books, launching its members to international stardom with fanatic fan followings. Now, 45 years later, their last show was performed in London’s O2 Arena and screened digitally all over the world on July 20.

Monty Python has influenced and inspired comedians globally, and has been responsible for the launching of cult comedy shows like America’s Saturday Night Live. It has been said that the impact of Monty Python on comedy is like The Beatles’s influence on music. Python’s special feature is that unlike other comedy shows, they never mimicked or imitated prominent personalities.

Instead, their material was original, their comedy parodying larger slices of society. For instance, sketches like The Ministry of Silly Walks took a warped look at absurdly archaic government policies.

Or The Society For Putting One Thing On Top Of Another took a jab at exclusively elite societies. And of course, The Upper Class Twit Of The Year ridiculed Britain’s well-established class system, especially the notion of royal superiority.

With comedy that was irreverent but relevant to a generation that was protesting against bureaucratic establishments and unfair social structures, Monty Python popularised the absurdist trend of humour.

(It must be mentioned that at first BBC thought the name Monty Python’s Flying Circus itself sounded absurd, but the group threatened to keep changing their name every week until the BBC gave up and let them keep this absurd name.)

While all of them wrote the script for the various sketches, Terry Gilliam was responsible for all the in-between illustrations and animation and Eric Idle wrote most of the featured songs.

“The Philosopher’s Drinking Song” and “The Galaxy Song” are a few examples of Idle’s musical wit. John Cleese is probably the most popular Python member, who went on to more fame after the Monty Python. He wrote and acted in television shows like Fawlty Towers and movies like A Fish Called Wanda and Clockwise. He would also frequently make appearances in major blockbusters, as “Q” in recent James Bond films and as “Nearly Headless Nick” in the early Harry Potter movies.

A poll in the United Kingdom showed that even today Python members are considered among the best comedians in the world. Of course, one of their advantages was good education, since Chapman, Cleese and Idle met at Cambridge and Jones and Palin met at Oxford.

John Cleese met Gilliam in New York City and the rest was history. While the rest of them sat on bar benches and scribbled scripts industriously the whole day, Gilliam was responsible for all illustrations and graphics. Python was notorious for their hyper-clever word play, as seen in sketches like The Man Who Speaks In Anagrams and The Argument Clinic (where intellectuals go to buy arguments).

On a personal note, I had the pleasure of attending one of John Cleese’s book reading/signing events in New York City several years ago.It was no surprise that even as he desperately tried to focus attention on his book, the audience kept dragging him away, belting him with queries about the irrationally insane, innovatively ingenious world of Monty Python.

It is no wonder that the English lexicon now proudly features the word “Pythonesque” in its pages, a fitting tribute to a groups of geniuses who changed the face of comedy.

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