‘Python’ sketches absurd, but relevant

Stephen Beard Oct 5, 2009

‘Python’ sketches absurd, but relevant

Stephen Beard Oct 5, 2009


Bob Moon: And now for something completely different. That’s a hint, actually, of why this is an important anniversary in the history of humor. It was on this day 40 years ago that the first Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast on British TV. The Python team is widely credited with revolutionizing comedy in the same way the Beatles changed popular music. But American fans of the surreal show may not fully appreciate its documentary nature. Our London Bureau Chief Stephen Beard sold us on the Marketplace angle of this story. Seems many of the most famous Python sketches reflect the economic reality of the day.

STEPHEN BEARD: The year Monty Python was born — 1969 — was not the best of times for Britain. The economy was in trouble. Militant labour unionism was on the rise. There was even a whiff of revolution, says Stefan Szymanski, professor of Economics at the Cass Business School.

STEFAN SZYMANSKI: Britain was a country that was very much down on its heels and had lost an empire. There was a sense of crumbling and decay and indeed even a sense that the country was ripe for a communist takeover at some point.

Britain’s class war was at its height. And Monty Python gleefully joined in, ridiculing the bumbling aristocrats who still littered the land.

MONTY PYTHON: I say! Yes, Daddy? Croquet hoops look damned pretty this afternoon. Frightfully damned pretty. They’re coming along awfully well this year.

Boardrooms were still stuffed with brainless baronets. Class was poisoning the economic life of the country, not only widening the gulf between management and worker but also between customer and sales person. Service was appalling.

SZYMANSKI: Service was something that was very much related to, based on class relationships, and being in service, serving customers was seen as being something of an inferior activity.

MONTY PYTHON: Hello, I wish to register a complaint.

The fraught relationship between customer and sales assistant is a constant Monty Python theme.

MONTY PYTHON: I wish to complain about this parrot, which I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique. Oh yes, the Norwegian Blue, what’s wrong with it? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s dead, that’s what’s wrong with it.

The British consumer had much to complain about. It wasn’t just poor service. But also shoddy products, and often dreadful food. The Monty Python team grew up in 1950s Britain. World War II had bankrupted the country. Economist Andrew Hilton recalls just how bad the food used to be.

ANDREW HILTON: Rationing lasted up until I think 54 or 55. And I can just remember as a child going to the butchers with my mother who had her ration card. And she would be given some sort of fist full of offal. And that was what we lived on for a week. It was truly, truly awful.

MONTY PYTHON: Well, there’s egg and bacon. Egg, sausage and bacon. Egg and spam. Egg, bacon and spam. Egg, bacons, sausage and spam.

By the time Monty Python hit the airwaves, things were improving, class barriers were falling. Even if the country was much less meritocratic than it is today. Some who resented privilege, also despised the upwardly mobile entrepreneur. Monty Python famously lampooned the self-made men who bragged about and exaggerated their humble origins.

MONTY PYTHON: We used to live in this tiny, old, tumble-down house, with great big holes in the roof. House? You were lucky to live in a house. We used to live in one room, all 26 of us, no furniture, half the floor was missing, we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of falling. You were lucky to have a room. We used to have to live in the corridor. Oh, we used to dream of living in a corridor.

SZYMANSKI: In the Python era, there was still some suspicion of people with newly found wealth. In a sense that sketch was ridiculing that kind of transformation in life.

Today British attitudes to money and success are closer to those of America. The humor has changed too. Much less angry and iconoclastic than in Monty Python’s day and some say not quite as funny, either.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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