But this is also entirely true about Monty Python

It’s true about pretty much any TV sketch, comedy or entertainment show:

Asked what he thought of Monty Python, Eric Morecambe joked that he liked the opening and the finish. “It’s the bit in the middle I don’t like.”

Ernie Wise added: “At times there’s five or six minutes of utter boredom. And then there’s three minutes of very funny and then another eight minutes of boredom.”

Morecambe, in a towelled robe and holding a large cigar, said: “The way I feel about it is that it’s, what they give you, for want of a better expression, is university comedy. Or college comedy or whatever you want to call it. And that’s what they give you. And I’m afraid a lot of it is very unprofessional. And this irritates me being a professional.

“But what does make me laugh, really makes me laugh. And what doesn’t make me laugh, bores me stiff.”

Anyone who thinks that every moment of every MP TV show was golden wit is an idiot. There are some delightful gems in there, entirely so. Also some entire shite. Which is how the creative process goes of course.

The reason movies are often better – not just MP, but in general – is because they cost much more to make. Meaning that the script gets more of a going over. At least an attempt is made to excise the dross and create the tapestry purely from the gold.

41 thoughts on “But this is also entirely true about Monty Python”

  1. Morecambe and Wise were born in the 1920’s, the Python lads were about 20 years younger.

    So of course they found them irritating, young people have been annoying their elders and betters since cave-laddies were telling risqué jokes about horny mastodons. They probably weren’t actually fans of The Beatles either.

  2. risqué jokes about horny mastodons

    Is that where the mastodons end up going blind, or is that a different palæo-joke?

  3. Isn’t our current situation – Wokeism, climate change, Panicdemic, one very long re-run of Monty Python sketches with the same mix of (unintended) hilarity and mind numbing nonsense?

  4. Having re-watched half-a-dozen Monty Pythons a couple of years ago, I can say that it hasn’t aged well. When it was originally out, I was a schoolboy and we thought it was great. As an adult 40-odd years later, it seemed very lame and self-indulgent.

  5. Can’t say I ever found Morecambe & Wise particularly funny. Like so many comedians, they themselves were a distraction from the material. Although, it has to be said, they were better than most modern comedians who are all you get. Them not having any material to overwhelm.

  6. TMB – kek. As a Dad, it’s my unfortunate duty to inform you that Dubai doesn’t allow local TV stations to air The Flintstones.

    But Abu Dhabi do.

    Jon – Well, of course. Laughter is the most ephemeral of emotional responses and comedy ages like milk. Particularly TV sketch comedy, for reasons Tim mentioned, tho sitcoms can be more enduring.

    BiS – Prolly because Morecambe and Wise were selling sensible chuckles to people who lived through WW2 as adults. You weren’t really the intended audience.

    John B – yes it is, satire died years ago. You can’t satirise a clown world, it’s no longer possible to be a more ridiculous version of what’s actually on the news. Brass Eye is now reality, I’m fairly sure the BBC even has a Gay Weather Forecast.

  7. Steve:

    …tho sitcoms can be more enduring.

    Watched Porridge the other night – still brilliantly funny.

  8. Movies cost a lot but they’re also time limited; at 90 minutes even good stuff in the script that is shot will get left on the editing floor.

    And a lot of not-so-good stuff. Some of the scenes that didn’t make it into Life of Brian were dross in themselves that also would have spoiled other jokes. I suspect that gem of a film was made in the edit, as they say.

  9. M&W were right about Python, probably rather kind to it. The Pythons peaked with Life of Brian, everything else is pretty hit and miss. Still intermittently hilarious though. But, as Tim says, it’s the same for all sketch shows.

    I was never keen on M&W as a child, but have watched some of their classic bits since and they are excellent. The Two Ronnies were the comedy stars in our house and a good deal of their material stands up very well.

    As Steve says, we are in the post-satire era. Which explains why Private Eye is so shit. Although that could just be Hislop.

    The greatest thing in Private Eye was Auberon Waugh’s diary, which still makes me laugh, even though much of it was before my time.

  10. “we are in the post-satire era. Which explains why Private Eye is so shit.”

    There’s plenty to satirise, its just that its all off limits to the like of Private Eye because they agree with it all so don’t think it should be satirised.

  11. I think this relates to what BiS said, in a way, but I was interested in their criticism that MP weren’t “professional”, so as a professional, this annoyed them. Obviously MP were pros in the sense they were getting paid for what they did! But M&W wouldn’t have seen Footlights or Edinburgh as truly “serving your apprenticeship”. If MP had had to spend years earning their crust on stage I have no doubt it would have tightened their act up considerably – expunging some of their weaker material, and leaving their eventual TV show with less of a “student production” feel.

    M&W aren’t especially funny to modern eyes – but their act was essentially “entertainment” rather than comedy specifically, and belongs to a genre that, like music hall, has basically entirely died off. Yet their professional skill is still obvious, the timing of their double act is clearly the result of years of work, and there’s no sense in their shows that they’re just winging it off the back of an idea they had once that seemed funny while they were drunk/high. So I can understand their frustration that something more closely resembling a filmed version of a student amateur production was getting such top TV billing. (I know that some of the MP crowd had had other TV experience first but it doesn’t really show in their own show! Whereas I’m sure a decade in the theatres would have done.)

    There are very young comics getting TV or Netflix deals off the back of rising to fame on YouTube or TikTok or whatever, who have never done a live show to an audience in their lives. I can imagine a middle-aged stand-up struggling for TV exposure looking at that situation and saying “I know they’ve got talent, some of their material cracks me up, but for goodness sake put the graft in!”

    It’s all got a Way of the World feel to it. As the media landscape keeps changing, new generations of talent come through different routes to their elders, who feel miffed that the young’uns have skipped their apprenticeship. M&W go right back to the start of it – they had contact with that pre-technological era where all you ever did would be to tour your act around theatres, and if you entertained your audiences well enough (which wasn’t just about making them laugh) and gained a reputation for drawing the crowds, the pinnacle was putting your show on at the biggest, glitziest palaces of entertainment, which paid you the most money. Adding your own TV show as the ultimate pinnacle maybe doesn’t change much at first, but once ways develop to short-circuit the route upwards, and the touring circuit itself decays due to competition from TV (you didn’t used to suffer much from the existence of other acts unless they were playing in the same town as you, at the theatre down the road – now if they are on everyone’s TV screens at home, suddenly they’re eating into your audience) then the whole world and culture you knew and loved starts crumbling. Really rubs it in when it’s crumbling at the hands of mere amateurs. And the “professional, done the hard graft, did shows in Glasgow when Rangers and Celtic have both lost that night, responded to more hecklers than you’ve got hairs on your head” breed of stand-ups bemoaning the closure of comedy clubs as their audiences switch to watching on their phone screens people who’ve never even done a live show must be having the same kinda feeling.

  12. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    “Isn’t our current situation – Wokeism, climate change, Panicdemic, one very long re-run of Monty Python sketches with the same mix of (unintended) hilarity and mind numbing nonsense?”

    Not really. The petty bureaucrats, Hitler-complex traffic wardens, stuffy seargeant-majors, self-important judges, unobservant newsreaders, gossipping housewives, and heroic bicycle repairmen of Python were all sent up for their complete and total inability to change anything important.

    The woke panicdemicers can ruin your life with one tweet.

  13. “As Steve says, we are in the post-satire era. Which explains why Private Eye is so shit. Although that could just be Hislop.”

    It’s a lot about Hislop. Hislop went from being a bit of an anti-establishment character to being part of the establishment. But he still, like so many Guardian types thinks of himself as so.

    It’s also about how TV went from being exciting and novel, with new challenging ideas, to being the establishment media. They select from the orthodoxy: comedians who went to Oxford and then go off and do Edinburgh Fringe. Their opinions are generally pro-Guardian and viewing The Establishment as Faragist grey haired old boys in blazers. Forget even whether you agree with them, not one of them has an interesting observation in their comedy.

    The new good comedy are all on podcasts and YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-eMSRjU4A0

  14. I found the best bits of MP on the telly hilarious in a way that M&W never achieved for me.

    Life of Brian is a marvel. As good as the films of the only genius of Hollywood, Buster Keaton? Could be.

  15. ” Prolly because Morecambe and Wise were selling sensible chuckles to people who lived through WW2 as adults. You weren’t really the intended audience.”
    Yet I did like & still like Tony Hancock. I have the complete radio shows.
    MBE gets it. I always liked the Two Ronnies & Barker’s later stuff because it’s the characters they’re playing are funny. They’re the vehicle for the characters.
    M&W come out of the music hall tradition. They were an act. The music hall comics were acts. You went to see the act. They probably could have got away with reading the phone directory on stage, for at least a limited period,& got laughs.
    David Croft who co-wrote Dads Army & a lot of other stuff came from exactly the same tradition. Pretty well all the gags in them are as old as the hills. They’ve just been reworked to suit the context of the show. It’s one of the reasons the shows are so funny. You don’t realise it, but you’ve actually laughed at the gag before. So you subliminally know what’s coming & have already started laughing before the punch line hits you. (That’s from the horse’s mouth, himself.) The Croft shows are the same as the 2 R’s. It’s the characters you laugh at not the actors playing them.
    A lot of modern comics have reverted back to the music hall tradition. Especially the ones you see on BBC. It’s the comics who think they’re funny, irrespective of the material they’re putting over. That requires you to identify with the comic. If you don’t, you get nothing out of it. If they manage to produce a good gag, you resent it.

    So the answer to Steve is, it’s nothing to do with when I was born. I just didn’t identify with a couple of Northerners in shiny suits. Some of the material was quite good. But not with them delivering it.

  16. M&W were just tremendously funny. I reckon that they managed to drop the variety style very early by swapping in the guest stars – Glenda, Angela Rippon, Andre and Des, and by having the sequences set in the flat, with Wise the aspiring playwright.

    Corbett & Barker didn’t manage that trick until later – repeats from the early Seventies have random guest singers (peaking at number 38 in that, usually) plus assorted plate spinners and sword swallowers. I can remember watching them at the time, and just being bored.

    I think the Python TV series doesn’t hold up now, or even 30 years ago, because TV changed. An awful lot of what now looks like filler was ripping the piss out of the TV conventions of the time, which didn’t last for very much longer at all.

    And The Good Old Days – pretty much killed the general variety show format by inadvertently demonstrating just how bloody old it was.

  17. Out to dinner with friends, counting came up as a topic to which the appropriate response was reference to the Holy hand grenade of Antioch. There are few occasions in life where it is not possible to refer to Monty Python or the Simpsons.

  18. I was having a similar discussion elswehere about the Young Ones. At the time in 1982 it was required viewing for all us schoolkids. This sort of humour was exactly what we craved: slapstick, sweary, anti-establishment and above all violent.
    The scripts themselves are very weak and the premise of this generation of comics was to be non-sexist and non-racist and were often non-funny. I used to watch them in stand-up, especially the execrable Saturday Night Live and find myself inwardly booing them. I also used to frequent comedy clubs in the early 1990s but realisd after a while that I was only interested in the novelty acts, the comedians were generally terrible.

    Thanks to the wonders of streaming, I can now sit stony-faced through French and Saunders wondering whether I ever found them funny, but I laugh like a drain at Victoria Wood or the Fast Show.

    This makes me think that both MBE and BiS are right : M&W, The Two Rs, Stanley Baxter, 1970s Benny Hill and many others of that period are not “comedy” but “light entertainment”. They are packages of which the terrible gags are just a component and honed through years of “doing” the Glasgow or Brixton Empires or panto or the BBC Light Programme.

    Furthermore we are laughing at the characters: Ernie’s pompous playwright, Eric the man-child reading the Dandy, Ronnie Barker’s Minister for Pisbronouncation, all of the Croft/Perry/Lloyd output, Blackadder, Fast Show ( a mixture of character and catchphrase) and Victoria Wood’s sketches. Ms Wood especially paints these wonderful pictures, often filled with pathos and unpleasant people which need adept actors to represent them and make them funny. I was rewatching AbFab recently and realised that it was funny because Lumley, Horrocks and Whitfield were so good and that their characters carried the show, otherwise it was rehashed Young Ones for girls.

    Lastly it is Mutatis Mundadis. The anti-establishment becomes the establishment eventually. It is then we see that the real subversion comes from people like Auberon Waugh or Peter Simple or is found in Dear Bill letters and Alan Coren essays.

  19. ” I reckon that they managed to drop the variety style very early by swapping in the guest stars – Glenda, Angela Rippon, Andre and Des, and by having the sequences set in the flat, with Wise the aspiring playwright.”
    That is the essence of variety, Ducky. All the participants are acts. The material’s written around them. Replace any of them with someone you’ve never heard of & it wouldn’t work. And a lot of TV shows were made around the variety format. Not surprising because so many people in early TV came from that background. They just saw TV as a method of putting the music hall into people’s homes. Same was true of the drama. It put a theatre stage into the small screen.

  20. One of the funniest things that I remember seeing was a sketch featuring Peter Cooke as a prophet of doom and Rowan Atkinson as one of his followers. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when I first saw it.

  21. If the Des is Des O’Connor, I’ve never found him remotely funny. A full of himself Yid with an Irish name pushes a few too many buttons for a Londoner. Which is the problem with comedy. Often it works on a subliminal level one’s not consciously aware of. A lot of it relies on deep seated prejudices. Or gets defeated by them
    Again look at current BBC TV output. There’s a whole lot of presumptions in it, it’s presumed audience doesn’t share. Making fun of White Van Man isn’t going to get a laugh out of White Van Man. And there’s a lot more white vans on the road than Nissan Leaf’s

  22. Dad’s Army for me, especially as my Dad was in Dad’s Army (born 1906). His stories of the goings-on were hilarious!

  23. BiS – yes, Des O’Connor. Not funny, because he isn’t a comedian. When the shows were broadcast, I was too young to understand what his career was, but basically a singer, a crooner. A host with a spot of easy charm and a light touch. Very popular apparently, and was basically on to be the butt of a series of jokes from Eric about how terrible his records were.

    Oddly, saw a repeat of Would I Lie To You? the other night, and Des was on it. Playing largely the same role. And Lee Mack is basically Eric Morecambe anyway.

    On the acts point – I think you missed it. Variety has, well, all sorts of things, some dolly belting out “My Old Man”, cheeky chappies with ukes’, male crooners, magicians pulling rabbits out of their arses, acrobats, sword swallowers, the Sand Dance. And a compere holding the thing together, and each act goes ahead precisely as the performer intended.

    E&W didn’t do that. Notionally, someone gets introduced to do their thing, with E&W being completely straight (ish) comperes.

    Then the act starts, they get involved, and completely wreck it.

  24. Anyone saying you can’t do satire in todays clown world hasn’t seen the Babylon Bee’s twitter feed.

  25. @Flubber

    Too often what starts out as satire in the Babylon Bee becomes headline news in a few weeks time. It’s almost as if the left is reading the Babylon Bee as straight news and then thinking, “What a great idea!”

  26. Dennis, Dispensing Wisdom. Or Something.

    What Morecambe & Wise don’t say is what is most obvious about the Monty Python TV show…

    It’s derivative.

    Back in my college days I thought Python was blazing trails. Then I heard The Goon Show and realized just how much they’d lifted from Spike Milligan (not so much the jokes as the methodology and attitude).

    That being said, Eric Idle could be very original in his writing, and Life of Brian is a treasure. But overall, The Goon Show has aged well and Monty Python hasn’t.

  27. Bloke in North Korea (Germany province)

    They’re reading all sorts of places. The difference between a conspiracy theory and reality is down to about four months.

  28. There is that. At least one of the MP team has acknowledged it too. In fact, wasn’t Spike in Life of B?

  29. “E&W didn’t do that. Notionally, someone gets introduced to do their thing, with E&W being completely straight (ish) comperes.
    Then the act starts, they get involved, and completely wreck it.”

    Doing it once is a gag. Repeating it is an act. And that what it was. Whole thing scripted before.
    The gag would be riffing on the variety show format. Repeating it makes it the variety show format. Each “guest” is doing an act.
    As for Des Connor, if he’s pitching for laughs that makes him some measure of comic. Comic doesn’t mean you have to do stand-up or sitcoms. Very little you see is ever really spontaneous. Leave people to do that & it’d be full of corpsing. Even people you think of naturally funny may not be. All that’s needed is a good memory, a good selection of humorous responses can be adapted to the situation & to be a quick thinker. Anything you see on TV will be an illusion to one extent or another.

  30. I don’t think Monty Python were actually trying to make Eric Morecambe laugh. And in that they obviously succeeded.

    The best exponent of Eric Morecambe-style comedy was Eric Morecambe himself, and the Pythons sensibly left that to him.

    When I first saw Nietzsche arguing with the referee that the latter (Confucius) had no free will, and then reacting with disgust when the referee yellow-carded him, I just dismissed it as a bit of pseudo-intellectual filler. It was only a university education later that it dawned on me what a sublime gag that was. But it hadn’t make the teenage me laugh, and probably didn’t make Morecambe laugh either. But, as I said, we weren’t really expected to.

  31. Also, about 30 years ago Richard Ingrams started his Beachcomber by the Way project, which were ( very funny) radio shows based on the writings of JB Morton, whom we can safely say was the inspiration for Milligan who in turn spawned Marty Feldman and Python.

  32. Bloke in North Dorset

    M&W had to fill a slot when there was little else than the TV and 3 generations would be sitting down together.

  33. Stuck the two Ronnies sketch up because it’s a good example of writing. It doesn’t need particular comics to carry it. Barker switches to the shopkeeper’s role in Open All Hours. But you could put any two competent actors in it & it would still work. They wouldn’t even need to be comedians.

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