The conference held in the fall in Poland had originally been intended to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Monty Python's Flying Circus, but in pragmatic acknowledgment of having missed that year, it was agreed that the 41st anniversary was somehow better. The organizer, Tomasz Dobrogoszcz, of the University of Lodz's department of British literature and culture, called it "the first conference on this planet focusing on Monty Python, which is a great honor to have in this funny city of Lodz" (which sounds even funnier as pronounced in Polish: "woodge").
Upon seeing Internet postings for "Monty Python in Its British and International Cultural Contexts, or, How to recognize the Spanish Inquisition from quite a long way away," all of the attendees at first thought it was a joke—an impression that was not dispelled when the conference Web site announced the attendance of the special guest Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-Schplenden-Schlitter-Crass-Cren-Bon-Fried-Digger-Dingle-Dangle-Dongle-Dungle von Knacker-Thrasher-Apple-Banger-Horowitz-Ticolensic-Grander Knotty-Spelltinkle-Grandlich-Grumblemeyer-Spelter-Wasser-Kurstlich-Himble-Eisenbahnwagen-Gutenabend-Bitte-einen-Nürnburger-Bratwürstel-Gespurten-mit-Weimache-Luber-Hundsfut-Gumeraber-Schönendanker-Kalbsfleisch-Mittleraucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.
At the opening, though, Dobrogoszcz conceded that Gambolputty would in fact not be coming, "as he plainly does not exist."
While I masquerade as a serious scholar of modern British literature, my formative influences and greatest pleasures were Agatha Christie,Upstairs Downstairs, the Beatles, and most of all, Monty Python. In graduate school, while genuflecting to the sacred high-modernist texts—Ulysses,To the Lighthouse,Four Quartets—really it was Miss Marple, "Norwegian Wood," and the Ministry of Silly Walks that most captivated me about this culture and made me want to understand who these clever people were. John Cleese, for me, epitomized the figure of the Englishman who was so neat and primly mannered and at the same time bat-shit crazy (imagine him as Kurtz in Heart of Darkness), going down with the ship that was the British Empire and setting off a great blaze of animated pyrotechnics on the way out. Of course Eliot and Auden were plenty clever, too, but Monty Python stood at the summit.
On my modernism syllabus, an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circusfits smoothly alongside the existential absurdism of Harold Pinter, Eugène Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett, but it also resonates well with midcentury writers like John Osborne and Barbara Pym, whose bleak malaise cries out to be distracted by a figure like Graham Chapman in drag nattering on about how to put down the budgie. The bizarre juxtapositions and transitions we see in Mrs. Dalloway's Westminster and throughout "The Waste Land," the deflation of dusty and vanished imperial grandeur, the gleeful parody of conventions and values—all these erupt resplendently in the world of Monty Python, which brought the arcane, avant-garde strains of early modernism to a wildly enthusiastic mass audience two generations later. The troupe distilled and energized the milieu of anomie, satirizing the lame old regime in a triumphant revolt.
In my poetry seminar, just before I left for Lodz, we'd watched Philip Larkin paint the English psyche into a corner with his dreary vision of postwar stultification. When I came back and filled in my students on our scholarly deliberations, we saw how the Pythons had found the way out of the era's slough of despond. Their silly nonsense overwrote the drabness that Larkin found so ubiquitous, creating a new zeitgeist where cranky traditionalists got exploded or otherwise dispatched, while those who embraced the quirky flair of counterrationality discovered a more appealing way of looking at and living in the world: "something completely different."
The library of Python studies includes two books by Darl Larsen, an associate professor of theater and media arts at Brigham Young University:Monty Python, Shakespeare and English Renaissance Drama(McFarland, 2003) and Monty Python's Flying Circus: An Utterly Complete, Thoroughly Unillustrated, Absolutely Unauthorized Guide to Possibly All the References From Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson to Zambesi (Scarecrow, 2008). When I accused Larsen, the Lodz conference's keynote speaker, of being the world's foremost scholarly expert on Monty Python, he humbly demurred: "It's a small pond."
Other fish include Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch, who edited Monty Python and Philosophy: Nudge Nudge, Think Think!(best title in the field) in 2006 for Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series. Just as I read Monty Python in the tradition of Eliot, Beckett, and Joyce, Hardcastle's contributors place the Python troupe in dialogue with Hume, Camus, Rawls, and Wittgenstein. As Alan Richardson writes in his essay, "The only difference between Monty Python and academic philosophy is that philosophy isn't funny."
Hardcastle, an associate professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, told me that his contributors did not explain why things were funny. He cited E.B. White's commonplace: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." Instead he asked his writers to show an audience that presumably already has great affinity for Monty Python what readers can do with the issues and problems it poses. In his own essay, for example, he examines the "International Philosophy" skit (a soccer team of German philosophers playing their Greek counterparts): "The members of both teams quietly pace the field in thought until it occurs to one of them, near the end of the match, to actually kick the ball." Hardcastle uses this as a pedagogical insight "to comment on philosophers' frustration with philosophy itself, which seems to involve, to put it plainly, excessive pondering."
Academics venerate Monty Python because we find the troupe's subversive critical analysis and its vast portfolio of cultural and intellectual references congruent with our world. The comedians loftily wielded their Oxbridge education, Larsen noted appreciatively (because this showy erudition gave him so many things to annotate in his Guide to Possibly All the References, a thick work that reminds me of the crib I used while trudging through Finnegans Wake).
Cleese actually is a professor of sorts: Since 1999 he has been, sporadically, a professor at large at Cornell. And Terry Jones is a sometime Chaucerian scholar, whose books includeChaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary(Louisiana State University Press, 1980) and Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery (Thomas Dunne Books, 2004); he also presents at Western Michigan University's International Congress on Medieval Studies (recently, on the dating of John Gower's Confessio Amantis).
Like other alumni of the famous comedy incubators Cambridge Footlights (where Cleese, Chapman, and Eric Idle starred) and Oxford Revue (where Jones and Michael Palin performed), they've brought the spirit of their universities out into the world with them, entailing considerable overlap with numerous academic disciplines. Besides philosophy, there's religious studies (The Life of Brian has occasioned profuse commentary about sacrilege and the nature of spiritual leadership); literature (in the "All-England Summarize Proust Competition," "each contestant this evening has a maximum of 15 seconds to sum upÀla recherche du temps perdu,and on the Proustometer over here you can see exactly how far he gets"); communication and media studies (their extensive self-consciousness concerning BBC programming and the televisual medium); history ("Tonight we examine popular views of the Battle of Trafalgar: Was it fought in the Atlantic off southern Spain? Or was it fought on dry land near Cudworth in Yorkshire?"); and political science ("Well, there's the first result, and the Silly Party has held Leicester. What do you make of that, Norman?" "Well, this is largely as I predicted, except that the Silly Party won. I think this is largely due to the number of votes cast.").
The Lodz conference featured a broad range of scholarship in progress (and yes, there was a bit of defensiveness about how our colleagues, deans, and spouses regarded our idiosyncratic research interests). Martin Carter, a senior lecturer in stage-and-screen studies at Sheffield Hallam University, in England, has studied how the Piranha Brothers sketch keenly reworks the lurid careers of two infamous contemporary criminals. Monty Python's Doug and Dinsdale Piranha channel Reggie and Ronnie Kray, who had been arrested the previous year. Closely modeled on a recent BBC documentary,The Name Is Kray, the sketch is an early example of the brilliant English mockumentary genre. Watching the skit alongside the original show, I was struck by how little is changed in the Python version—life is, indeed, stranger than fiction. As Carter concluded, "It is difficult, if not impossible, to decide where the Kray story ends and that of the Piranha Brothers begins."
Larsen's presentation highlighted the importance of the BBC's archive as a source for Python scholarship. A vast collection that has rarely been accessed (according to the paucity of names on sign-out sheets), it features extensive production details, such as the creation, fracture, and repair of the prop first used in "Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit," in which Cleese advises that if someone assaults you brandishing raspberries, the thing to do is pull the lever that drops a 16-ton weight on him. Made on Dec. 19, 1969, the weight was broken and fixed in July 1970: After a few uses, it broke when someone didn't bend down fast enough and the weight hit him on the head. Set designers' memos complain about how quickly they were expected to repair the polystyrene prop, which was reused in later sketches.
Richard Mills, a cultural-studies scholar at St. Mary's University College, documented Idle's prominent role as ambassador of all things psychedelic and countercultural, a foil to Cleese, who was the stodgiest and most likely to object to swearing or scatological humor. Idle, who had the longest hair of any of the troupe, featured in the most risqué sketches ("Nudge nudge, know what I mean?"). He apparently had a massive and reciprocated man-crush on George Harrison: George would make Eric do all the Python skits, and Eric would make George sing all the Beatles songs.
Stephen Dewsbury, a lecturer in English at Opole University, in Poland, has investigated the second life of the best-known song from The Life of Brian (1979). During the Falklands War, in 1982, when the HMS Sheffieldhad been bombed and its sailors awaited rescue, the crew sang not "Rule Britannia" or "Abide With Me" but, you guessed it, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." At Chapman's funeral, in 1989, the five surviving Pythons sang the song for him. In the 1990s, British soccer fans adopted the song to express the kind of stoicism that Brian exhibited on the cross: a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity (in the film, remember, Brian is consoled with the promise that crucifixion isn't as bad as it seems). A re-release hit the top of the charts, and a 2005 survey of the British public revealed that the tune became the third-most-popular choice of music that people wanted played at their funerals (after Robbie Williams's "Angels" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way"). Variants arose, sometimes mocking opposing soccer teams—the most tasteless was a taunt against Manchester United, referring to a 1958 plane crash that killed half the team returning from a European Cup match, caused by slush that impeded the takeoff: "Always look on the runway for ice."
While there were just a few papers offering a feminist perspective on Monty Python, attendees were about 80 percent male, suggesting that Python fandom may be a gendered phenomenon. The six comedians, however iconoclastic they were for their times, certainly embodied some patriarchal prejudices. Carol Cleveland appeared in two-thirds of the episodes and all four of their films (remember the saucy maiden from Castle Anthrax inMonty Python and the Holy Grailwho wanted Sir Galahad to punish her with spanking and other assorted S&M?) and contributed creatively as well. In a radically novel move for British television, Cleveland appeared topless in several episodes, creating a subversive frisson for male viewers but perhaps alienating female viewers by reinforcing sexual objectification. Though she is sometimes described as the seventh Python, she was never actually invited to join the club.
Many lectures at the conference examined the carnivalesque and grotesque resonances of Monty Python, with comparisons to tropes like the medieval Feast of Fools and the Shakespearean wise fool, whose patronage by the royal household allowed him to disperse unwelcome truths and whose humor provided an immunity license. The wise fool attacked the institutional powers that protected him, just as Monty Python mocked the BBC.
Dobrogoszcz interpreted Monty Python through Freud, whose 1905 Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious suggests that humor is deeply set in the unconscious, like dreams, and works in similar ways, by absurdity and representations of the opposite, which fits Python precisely. Academics pounced predictably upon such pervasive strains as disorder, Dadaist nonsense, subversion, distorted reality, radical inversion, and ironic juxtaposition.
Several Polish scholars discussed the complexities of linguistic and cultural comprehension that surround their encounters with Python. Communist censorship meant that Poles had very little exposure to the television show until the 1990s, although The Life of Brian, which was perceived as antireligious—erroneously, I'd say—was allowed. But it is a younger group of Poles who, in the past decade, have become second-generation Monty Python fans.
Polish society is changing, especially for the young, and in some ways the country is still in the process of emerging from the Communist era. Borders are now open and immigration is extensive, so Poles absorb the Pythonesque spirit to prepare them for travel to England, or they go to England and come back with an appetite for Monty Python. "It's a little snobbish to be a Monty Python fan," Wojciech Wozniak, a graduate student at Lodz, told me. "They see themselves as more subtle and sophisticated; those who are able to get the point demonstrate their cosmopolitanism." Young people especially like the antiauthoritarianism, he said. "Songs like 'Every Sperm Is Sacred'"—from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life—"would have been impossible to think in Poland" in earlier days.
Daniel Gorecki, a graduate student from Marie Curie-Sklodowska University, told me how students in Lublin, Poland, recently organized a Monty Python festival. "They are huge fans. We had discussion panels, cabarets with Python sketches, and happenings." Students in formal dress did silly walks to City Hall to ask for the keys to the city; they stopped people in the square and tried to make them say "Ni!" "Other people didn't really get it," Gorecki said.
Gorecki's conference paper examined translation difficulties. For example, in the "Crunchy Frog" sketch, how do you translate the candy called "Spring Surprise" (when you pop it in your mouth, steel bolts spring out and plunge straight through both cheeks)? One translator chose the Polish word for the season "spring," and another chose the word for the mechanical object, but both translations are incomplete, even failures, because the word should convey both these meanings at once, as it does in English.
Wladyslaw Chlopicki, a linguist from Jagiellonian University, in Poland, discussed the differences of "silliness" as a cultural concept in English and Polish. The word "glupi," the closest Polish equivalent to "silly," carries harsher connotations (closer to "stupid") than the English word (which is closer to "happy"), so sometimes English ideas of silliness don't make sense to Poles. In the "Silly Vicar" sketch, for instance, Poles are confused because in Polish culture the wikaryis not a comic character. It's not that the English sense is troublingly sacrilegious, Chlopicki said—Poles would have no problem with the character of a greedy vicar—just that it's unfamiliar.
I remember that when I first watched Monty Python, while there were no explicit translation problems, there were still large gaps—many things I didn't get. Indeed, when PBS began broadcasting the show in 1974, the Pythons were certain it would be a nonstarter across the pond. But Monty Python's appeal induces a fanatical (which is perhaps synonymous here with "scholarly") attempt to understand not just its puns and allusions but also, more broadly, its cultural context.
Scholars in humor studies have debated, Chlopicki said, whether or not jokes have the semantic potential to convey information: "Can you both learn from a joke and enjoy it?" He suggested that this was an infelicitous contradiction, but I disagree. In this unlikely gathering in an unlikely place, a group of academics shared our experiences of working to master the glorious insanity of these cultural texts—and not without plenty of fun.
And now for something completely different: a man with three buttocks.
Randy Malamud is a professor of English at Georgia State University and author of The Language of Modernism (UMI Research Press, 1989) and Where the Words Are Valid: T.S. Eliot's Communities of Drama (Greenwood Press, 1994).