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Monty Python’s Absurdist Comedy Paved the Way For Mr Show

When Monty Python’s Flying Circus premiered in the UK on October 5, 1969, no one knew what to expect. Pitched simply as a comedy show with some sketches, it was clear immediately that it was so much more than that. Inspired by the British radio program The Goon Show (1951–1960), the Python troupe sought to play with the nature of television conventions. The anarchic spirit of Python was born of Goon Show’s avante garde surrealism, yet it became something wholly original.

Chief among those confused and somewhat disoriented were the early, older audiences brought in by the BBC Program Planners, who themselves were often maligned for not understanding what the show was about and who it was aimed at.

Deconstructing Comedy

The members of Monty Python laugh and make faces

The first time I saw an episode of Monty Python I admit I didn’t get it. I had started watching the episode halfway in and didn’t understand why it was so funny to the audience. When I watched the same episode again from beginning to end, I suddenly realized why I was so unmoved the first time.

As any fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus knows, the show would flit from one sketch to the next, but without having to end a sketch on some cringe-inducing, lame punchline. This was accomplished by connecting the sketches in some, often tenuous, way. Whether it was through a bit of Terry Gilliam animation, or simply by having the end of one sketch “cross” with the beginning of another, it created this interesting flow and air of unpredictability. The premise of any given sketch could get turned on it’s ear at any moment, and most sketches actually contained several turns.

The first time I saw an episode of Mr Show with Bob & David I fell in love with it’s style of absurdist comedy. It was the premiere of the very first episode, which would make the debut date November 3, 1995. I was at my friend’s house, sitting on his couch by myself while everyone else played cards in the other room. I watched as the classic “Change for a Dollar” sketch played out, and I laughed so hard I literally couldn’t stop. I recall my friends just looking over at me as if I was insane. The brand of comedy just spoke to me. The jokes were out there, but still came from a logical place.

One of my favorite parts of the relatively short sketch, in which a request for change (quarters mostly) works it way up the chain of commands from a convenience store clerk all the way up to the President of the United States, happens very early on. The clerk goes to the backroom to ask his boss if the request for change can be granted. When the manager (Bob Odenkirk) is introduced, he is mid conversation on the phone speaking to someone regarding the official status of the World’s Greatest Gramps mug sitting on his desk.

“What do you mean? One day I’m the world’s greatest grandpa and now I’m not?” he asks, before adding, “I’ve used the mug already!”

There is no tight shot of the mug, no attempt to draw attention to it at all. Either you were paying attention, or you weren’t, and based on the audience’s non-reaction, most weren’t. You might entirely miss the joke, and that’s OK. Mr Show doesn’t slow down to make sure everyone is keeping up, it keeps moving forward, even if it questions its own value from time to time, much like Python did whenever Graham Chapman would interrupt a scene for being “too silly”.

The thing that struck me the most while watching the first Mr Show episode, titled “The Cry Of A Hungry Baby”, was that I was belly laughing at things that the audience didn’t even chuckle at. That had never happened before. It felt like I had connected with something, that the people who created this were somehow like me—maybe they even thought like me. I hadn’t felt that way about a television show since Twin Peaks. They were both so unique and so appealing to me. I never was one to be over the moon excited or energetic about anything, and I loved these shows passionately.

I have no idea what it must have been like to watch an episode of Monty Python when it originally aired in 1969. There was no internet. No Twitter, where all the best critics (professional and amateur) go to weigh in on things. People had to form their own opinion, or ask questions like, “Why were the credits in the middle of the show?” The show wouldn’t worry about whether you were caught up, it just kept moving forward.

I will admit to a certain degree of comedy-snobbery, and I really have a lot of user-specific gripes about lazy comedy. For example: When a character says complete and utter nonsense, and another character simply goes, “That doesn’t make any sense,” I cringe. Whoever wrote that just exchange mashed a bunch of words together simply to have it excused away by the other character. Monty Python and Mr Show are indeed utterly silly shows, but the comedy comes from a logical place in the context of the sketch.

As a comedy fan I love listening to people discuss comedy. I have seen every episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. I have watched every episode of Norm MacDonald’s jawdroppingly cerebral podcast Norm MacDonald Live, where he sat having deeply layered, incredibly funny discussions on the nature of comedy with living legends of the business. I am fascinated by how funny people operate. So naturally, when I purchased all the Mr Show DVDs years ago, I watched them all with the audio commentary on—over and over.

I probably watched them more often with the commentary ON than off, because I already knew the sketches by heart. The cast is there for every episode of all four seasons. The supporting cast rotates in and out, but Bob and David are there for every one. It was there that I learned there are different kinds of comedy. It was there I fully-formed my own personal philosophy of what comedy should be.

Bob speaks lovingly about Python, and what made it great. It isn’t expensive sets and high production value that makes something funny (one of his many, not so subtle digs at the safe comedy waters SNL treads in), it’s the idea. The set walls would sometimes shake when someone entered the room, or a fake beard would have a clearly visible string running around the actor’s head. It didn’t matter. That doesn’t matter. That’s not the main thing. Indeed, Mr Show operated on the same theory. It’s why the beards were always fake—really fake. One of the DVD commentaries even mentions a stage production of the show they did where the beards were black duct tape pieces patched together. The audience is smart enough to know, ‘OK, a beard goes there,’ without having to fully believe it.

I watched Monty Python: Almost the Truth, the six part documentary that aired back in 2009, and consider it required viewing for any fan of Python or Mr Show. It manages to be informative and hilarious—serious only when it absolutely needs to be (and anyone who has seen John Cleese’s eulogy for Graham Chapman knows, even then, there is some wiggle room).

The surviving members (and they take great pride in being referred to as such) John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam are so brilliant at seeing past the bullshit and getting to the heart of what matters. It’s clear there is no formula to what they do. They don’t manufacture comedy, it simply comes natural to them.

Not only was it self aware of itself and the nature of documentaries (the first part is called The Not-so-interesting Beginnings), it was self aware of what the viewer wanted to hear about and what they didn’t. That is why I love Monty Python, and why I love Mr Show, and to that end, why I love the comic philosophy of Bob Odenkirk. They don’t have time for all the “mandatory” beats or the common structure of storytelling.

If anything, they want to deconstruct it. It’s why a sketch would sometimes veer into a repetitive groove, only to have a character comment on the easy route the sketch has taken. It’s stepping outside the show, it’s It’s Gary Shandling’s Show, or every other episode of Community. Basically, it’s what we call meta-commentary, and it’s so common now most people know what you’re talking about when you use the word.

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross wear tuxedos and bowties on the set of Mr Show

As a fan of both Bob and David, I’ve found my love of David Cross to wane over the years. Despite agreeing with him on most social issues, I find his political comedy to be more and more off-putting as the years go by. It hinges more on trying to be the smartest guy in the room. It tries to hammer home an ideal. It seeks to generate more applause than laughter, or what some have coined “clapter”, because amalgamating words is what we’re down to.

As much as I loved The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, there reached a point where he could say anything and the audience would roll with laughter. Often times, he didn’t say anything at all and the studio audience would still lose it. Cross, as much as he says otherwise, tends to go for righteous anger and less for the joke. These days where shows mostly reuse tired Twitter jokes to sate their audiences, that’s not exactly what I’m looking for.

When Bob and David reunited with the Mr Show gang (including such well known alums as Paul F Thompkins, Tom Kenney, Jill Talley, Brian Posehn, Scott Auckerman, and Dino Stamatopolous to somehow just name a few) to revive the show in 2015 somewhat unofficially on Netflix (now known simply as w/Bob & David), there was a “Making Of” episode included that I would argue was superior to any the actual episodes of the new season.

The documentary showed the writing process: usually the guys sitting in the writers’ room, tossing out ideas, gazing at the Post-It notes with sketch ideas on a cork board, trying to figure out how to bring all these different ideas together somehow. One discussion that exemplifies the difference between Bob and David’s comic sensibilities centers on one of the funnier bits of the new season.

The sketch is about a small boy, Corey Ceitful, who awakens from a five day coma with tales of his visit to Heaven. He is on a talk show with his parents promoting his new book Heaven Is Totz 4 Real. The sketch, as most Bob and David ones do, has a few turns. The first turn is when Corey tells of all the people he met in heaven: His pop-pop, a young girl named Anne Frank, a baseball player named Babe Ruth, and a man with a funny mustache named Adolf Hitler.

His parents, and the host (played by the underrated Jill Talley), stop him and try to convince him he must be mistaken. Corey contends, “God loves all his children!”  No, they snap back. Maybe he was wrong? Maybe he “stopped off” at Hell, just real quick. Or maybe he’s lying! Corey’s mom even takes offense to him depicting God as “some all forgiving monster!”

From there, the sketch cuts away to public reaction and outcry over what Corey said, to the point where a congresswoman puts forth a bill to put Corey back into a coma so that “maybe he’ll get it right this time.”

Behind the scenes, we learn David lobbied for Corey to additionally talk about Jesus and a certain religious figure—one most people outside of South Park won’t touch—kissing. Bob argues that it’s ultimately not funny and that it seems put there merely to shock the audience—and it is. It wouldn’t make the sketch funnier to have something so jarring inserted into it. Bob argues that it’s not the main thing.

It’s not even that the sketch isn’t dark. It’s heavily implied at the end, when Corey’s parents release the follow up book Now That’s What I Call Heaven!, that Corey didn’t survive the second, medically induced, coma. It’s that if you’re going to have Jesus making out with another man, especially one so controversial, you should have a reason for it that makes some sort of comedic sense. Otherwise, you’re just trying way too hard to be shocking.

These days Bob Odenkirk is playing the role of his lifetime on Better Call Saul, and David Cross is aggressively pushing buttons on and off stage with his angry, politically charged stand up. I’ve always been a fan of Cross’ comedy, and own several of his comedy CDs, but as the years go on, either his approach has grown tired, or I have simply lost the ability to clap with seal-like glee at a comedian parroting back my own political views. At the end of the day, I want a joke to be funny. I want to leave a comedy show with my cheeks hurting from laughing, not my hands sore from clapping.

And Now For Something Completely Different…

While episodes of Monty Python or Mr Show may seem unstructured, they were almost always far from it. Sketches wouldn’t so much end as they would transition to the next one on Python, and Mr Show used that method as well using what they called “links.” One sketch would bleed into the next.

Python would often use Terry Gilliam’s animation interludes to connect one sketch to the next, but would also reference an earlier sketch in a later one. Mr Show would do this as well, in what is known as a callback. In an early episode, for example, a careful viewer will notice just how many different characters utter the episode title “Who let you in here?” They may not notice it the first time, but Mr Show is, again, not concerned with making sure that you get all the jokes en masse, so much as they want the joke to exist for those who do see it.

Monty Python and Mr Show are not interested in the easy joke, and when they do go for it, they often acknowledge the fact that they know it’s lame. These days reviewers and critics derogatorily refer to this as “lampshading.” One Mr Show sketch about a man taking a lie detector test to earn a job at a shoe store has a punchline that is so corny the sketch ends with the screen freeze-framing while the credits (eerily similar to how the ones on old Saturday Night Live reruns on Comedy Central used to look) roll by.

Bob Odenkirk wrote for SNL in the ’80s and is often heard commenting on the DVD audio commentary for Mr Show about how SNL would always focus on the wrong things: cameo walk-ons, expensive sets and costumes, recurring characters. Neither Python, nor Mr Show took a character and ran them into the ground repeatedly.

Not only did both Python and Mr Show use recurring characters sparingly, they didn’t worry about meaningless issues like continuity. Ronnie Dobbs, one of the most well known Mr Show characters, died of Entitilitus in the first episode. Who cares besides people submitting continuity errors to the IMDb website? (Full disclosure: There is a continuity error on the Clerks page that is mine all mine, so I judge not lest I be judged.)

Politics and comedy are a tough combination, and both shows delved into politics quite a bit, while maintaining something of a light apolitical tone. Both shows found the absurdity wherever it was, and it didn’t matter who the target was, or what political party they aligned with. Python and Mr Show sought the laugh, sometimes buried deep under the grim realities of life. Contrast this with a post Trump victory episode of Saturday Night Live that opened with Kate McKinnon, dressed as Hillary Clinton, signing a somber rendition of “Hallelujah.”

These days an episode of Saturday Night Live is a series of moments meant to garner a mention in Twitter Moments, which Twitter seems all too eager to oblige week after week. In fact, SNL often seems like it’s playing directly to the Twitter crowd, almost afraid to go against the grain on whatever topic America seems upset about that week. There are no clever turns, no nuance, just cartoon cutouts of real people, who are already about as buffoonish as humans can get.

It all just seems so safe and easy. And again, they don’t need to have Jesus and, oh, let’s say Buddha making out, to step outside the box. When a show like SNL leans into politics this hard, it becomes difficult to entertain fresh ideas because, much like a politician, you now have a base, and you have to play to it, or suffer the wrath and #Cancel of our fickle, knee-jerk judgmental culture.

Monty Python’s brand of comedy has inspired so much amazing comedy it’s hard to imagine a world without their presence. Mr Show is just one example of their influence. The entire genre of alternative comedy owes a huge debt to them: Childrens Hospital (hell, most of Adult Swim, for better or worse), Mystery Science Theater 3000, Wet Hot American Summer, Another Period.. Those are just a few modern examples.

The entire foundation of comedy is based on misdirection and the “subversion of expectations” (a phrase that has forever been sullied by a small group of people seeking to reshoot the final season of Game of Thrones). When Monty Python’s Flying Circus premiered on October 5, 1969, it did just that and became more influential than they could have ever imagined. If ever there was an example of artists fearlessly listening to their own comic sensibilities, it was them.

Mr Show had a rule—a rule they specifically borrowed from Monty Python. If an idea was ever to see the light of day, it had to “pass the room.” A sketch could be many things, but if the people in that writers’ room didn’t approve it, we wouldn’t see it. They trusted their instincts, they feared no societal repercussions (of which there were many), and they remembered the main thing: is it funny?

Otherwise, what are we doing here?

Writer’s Notes:

  • I could have probably knocked out 1000 words just listing the things that Monty Python has inspired, but for the sake of not entering TL;DR territory I shortened it up.
  • Yes, you got a Community notification for this.
  • Favorite underrated Monty Python sketch: “Silly Job Interview” with John Cleese and Graham Chapman.
  • Favorite Mr Show sketch: Too many to mention but “The Pre Taped Call In Show” and “The Devastator” are two I call up frequently online. “I ain’t afraid of no rolley-coaster”
  • Did you ever notice that Veronica tells Dante that she’s busy and she’ll just see him when he closes the store in the scene directly before he finds out over the phone that he has to close? I did. You’re welcome IMDb, now the Clerks continuity errors page is complete.
  • This is also why I can never get mad when someone comments on an article with an “Um, actually, it wasn’t two years apart, it was one year and 10 months” type nitpick, because I was once “That Guy”.

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Written by Johnny Malloy

Johnny Malloy is a crafty arranger of words. I have one of those faces. Sorry about my face. It can't be helped.
@mistercecil on the Twitter

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