Monday, December 21, 2015

Python canon

The reason I was trying to get one elusive Monty Python sketch identified was to complete one of my little pointless projects, an attempt to determine the most popular of the sketches. I'd long ago made a list of six Flying Circus sketches I considered iconic: that is, that they'd passed beyond being famous Python sketches and become general cultural icons, things that people would make reference to even outside specific referential context. These were:
  • 1. The Dead Parrot [season 1, overall episode 8] (which was once even cited by Mrs Thatcher, a person with no detectable sense of humor)
  • 2. The Ministry of Silly Walks [2/14]
  • 3. Spam [2/25] (which has given its name to "junk email")
  • 4. The Spanish Inquisition [2/15] (source of the greatest-ever real-life pun: when Gen. Pinochet, the retired Chilean dictator, visited the UK for medical treatment and his presence in the EU was used by a judge in Spain as a chance to slap him with an order to extradite him to face charges for his regime's crimes against citizens of Spain, it surprised and shocked everybody, thus proving that nobody expects the Spanish extradition)
  • 5. The Lumberjack Song [1/9]
  • 6. Nudge Nudge [1/3]
To which I would also add, as sketches I particularly liked that I knew were also very popular,
  • 7. The Cheese Shop [3/33]
  • 8. The Argument Clinic [3/29]
What I now did was to find online 18 lists of favorite or greatest Python sketches, from 5 to (in one case) 100 items, and make a little spreadsheet. Some of the items were rather obscure, and there's no consistent terminology: for instance, there's one sketch actually introduced in the program by the name "Restaurant sketch," but that's not a very memorable name (and it's not the only one set in a restaurant), so most people know it as the "Dirty Fork." Sketches also run into each other, but the only serious classification problem I found was whether or not to include the "Homicidal Barber" lead-in as part of the "Lumberjack Song" (in the stage show the former was omitted from the latter). Only five of the lists included sketches from the movies, but several others included sketches not on Flying Circus but which were in the stage show, of which "Four Yorkshiremen" was by far the most popular. When I'd put everything together (160 nominees in total) I found that the ones I'd listed were 8 of the most popular 12. The other 4 included two that I liked,
  • 9. The Funniest Joke in the World [1/1]
  • 10. Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit [1/4] (perhaps the only one that's funnier in the compilation film remake, And Now For Something Completely Different, than on Flying Circus)
and two that I don't particularly like,
  • 11. The Upper-Class Twit of the Year [1/12] (like other Python sports sketches, it goes on far too long)
  • 12. Dirty Fork [1/3] (which I find over-the-top: I identify too closely with the discomfiture of the diners)
Some of my own favorites ranked further down: only "Mattress Shop" [1/8] (known to others as "Buying a Bed"), "Crunchy Frog" [1/6] (more accurately, but less commonly, called "Whizzo Chocolates"), and "Mr. Hilter" [1/12] (aka "North Minehead By-election") made the top 25, which also included the mystifyingly-popular "Fish-Slapping Dance" [3/28], the clever-concept but dull-execution "Confuse-A-Cat" [1/5], the simply nasty "Blackmail Show" [2/18], and "Mr. Creosote" [from Meaning of Life], the only movie sketch to make all the movie lists, a physical sketch simply ruined for me by its far-too-graphic visuals. Python did that sort of thing far better earlier: see the brilliant "The Black Knight" [from Holy Grail] or even "Sam Peckinpah's 'Salad Days'" [3/33], where the cheesiness of the sfx are what make them funny rather than sick.

Only the longest lists found room for other favorites of mine, such as the surely iconic "Election Night Special" [2/19] (whose Silly Party candidate names were actually adopted by the Monster Raving Loony Party) and "Dennis Moore" [3/37] (the Robin Hood parody), or "Gumby Brain Specialist" [3/32] (a particular delight for the way that Palin cracks up when Cleese's doctor looks for his brain in his trousers), "Ron Obvious" [1/10] (the hapless man who tries to jump the English Channel), or "Sir George Head" [1/9] (the Kilimanjaro expedition sketch). And nobody at all named another dozen of my favorites, notably many from the third season, "Njorl's Saga" [3/27], "Erizabeth L." [3/29], "The man who speaks in anagrams" [3/30] (which has rendered me unable to think of The Taming of the Shrew as anything other than The Mating of the Wersh), "The Summarize Proust Competition" [3/31] (nobody named that? nobody?), "Climbing the North Face of the Uxbridge Road" [3/33], or "The British 'Well, Basically' Club" [3/35] (of which I find myself frequently a member). Not very much from the fourth season made any lists, though I do like "Buying an Ant" [4/41], but my other favorite from that season, "Court-martial" [4/42] (the one with "Basingstoke, in Westphalia?") didn't make anybody's list.


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