There’s a new book containing every script from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” along with behind-the-scenes stories and interviews. In reviewing it for The Atlantic, David Free calls the Pythons “the Beatles of comedy,” and talks about how their comedy could be silly but also very smart, which was one of the things that made their material so appealing to me:
The Pythons knew their stuff; when they didn’t, they read up on it. Researching the Middle Ages for Holy Grail, they learned that taunting the enemy was a common tactic in medieval sieges. So, apparently, was catapulting dead animals. Thus the completed film features Cleese’s imperishable turn as the French taunter, whose strange shouts of abuse from the battlements (“Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries”) are followed by the flinging of the dead cow.
During the Python era, writers like Woody Allen were doing similar comedy in America: popular, slapstick stuff that unself-consciously combed history and high culture for inspiration. What a falling-off there has been since then. Most of today’s popular comedy looks willfully malnourished by comparison. It’s poor form, these days, to know more than your audience. A modern comedian’s idea of an obscure reference is to mention Mr. Miyagi, or the cantina scene in Star Wars. These allusions must be okay, because every other comedian makes them too. Not even Tina Fey can escape the pop-culture echo chamber. Her book, Bossypants, is full of arcane but reassuringly junky cultural references—to Jon from CHiPs, to the guy from Arli$$. But when Fey risks a lone literary allusion, she feels bound to qualify it with a clanging footnote: “If you get this reference to David Foster Wallace’s 1997 collection of essays, consider yourself a member of the cultural elite. Why do you hate your country and flag so much?!”