How Monty Python Shaped Modern Comedy (feat. Rick and Morty & Deadpool) – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Legacy of Monty Python!
Written by: Tommy Cook
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
How Monty Python Shaped Modern Comedy (feat. Rick and Morty & Deadpool) – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared again. Like everyone else, sometimes I just need to laugh the pain away. Sometimes the crushing anxiety of existence may feel like too much; but, hey, that’s why I have a dog. It helps. We at Wisecrack love us some M.P. These wily Brits redefined comedy in the 1970s — and are still hugely influential today. Just look at comedies today – South Park, Rick and Morty or even Deadpool. All hilarious in their own unique ways; but, without Monty Python, they probably wouldn’t even exist. Monty Python paved the way for comedy as we know it, combining absurdity, satire and postmodern-reflexivity into some of the most influential and quoted comedies ever. So because there’s nothing funnier than explaining a joke to death — Welcome to a Wisecrack Edition on the Legacy of Monty Python. Like a hipster in a gluten-free juice bar, postmodernism is everywhere these days. Jurassic World, Star Wars, Family Guy, pretty much anything that you can think of. These films and TV shows constantly refer back on themselves, commenting on the narrative conventions and iconography of their predecessors… “It’s another Death Star.”
“I wish that were the case, Major. This was the Death Star. This is Starkiller Base.” …Or just copying them wholesale.
But nothing encapsulates this movement more than Deadpool. Heck — we even did an entire ‘Philosophy Of’ on this exact subject. Everyone loves Deadpool because, quite simply, he doesn’t give a f***. He’s rebelliously self-aware, repeatedly winking at his own narrative and mocking the superhero genre. “Okay, let’s pro/con this Superhero thing…” This constant self-reflexivity encapsulates Postmodernism, first coined by the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard in 1979. For Lyotard — all stories previously fit into oft-told grand mythologies. Great heroes on a voyage for some grandiose goal. Or as he referred to them — metanarratives. Per Lyotard – these metanarratives were stories that provided a pattern and structure for people’s beliefs, teaching viewers a universal insight. Think of The Wizard of Oz — and how, stripped of the flying monkeys and melting witches, it’s actually just a story about a girl realizing, well…
Or even The Fast and The Furious — underneath all the ludicrous car stunts, there’s a deeper meta-narrative about the importance of family. Through these stories — morals & social customs are taught and reinforced. But postmodernism subverts these grand narratives, revealing the chaos and disorder beneath. Like, say, Deadpool, a comic-book character who constantly tears down everything that comic books stand for. But as edgy as Deadpool may seem, he AIN’T GOT S*** on the Pythons — who took postmodern deconstruction to a whole other level. Case in point: their all-time classic — Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Whereas Deadpool lampoons only the comic book metanarrative, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is DEFINED by breaking down multiple metanarratives. Among them: Arthurian chivalry, Christianity, logic and the very film medium itself. The first of these metanarratives, Arthurian Chivalry, first evolved in the Late Middle Ages, idealizing knights as honourable and self sacrificing. You know — the usual knightly s*** like protecting the weak, showing mercy to enemies, never lying and championing justice and truth. But Monty Python and the Holy Grail completely dismantles and mocks these time-tested tenets. “Who’s that, then?” “Must be a king.” “Why?” “‘cuz he hasn’t got s*** all over him.”
When Sir Robin encounters a three-headed giant, his minstrels sing the heroic narrative everyone expects — but Robin himself runs the hell away as quickly as possible. “Brave sir Robin Ran Away.” “No!” “Bravely ran away away…” and so on. Similarly — in the Arthurian Legend, Arthur’s arrival at Camelot is usually treated as an emotional high-point in his story… Yet Monty Python undercuts the seriousness of the moment, turning this hallmark event into a goofy musical number. And then to top it off — Arthur decides not to even bother going to Camelot. Each of our supposed ‘great heroes’ are revealed to be far less than they claim. The power-hungry Arthur demands that every peasant acknowledge him as their king; but if they dare question his rule, he immediately attacks them. “What I object to is you automatically treating me like an inferior.” “Well, I *am* King…” Sir Galahad the Pure, the most ‘faithful’ of knights, is seduced in less than four minutes by a “company of a hundred-and-sixty lonely women”. And when Lancelot receives a note from a distressed maiden, he rushes to rescue her; but in the process, murders dozens of unarmed people. Then, in the end, it turns out — there wasn’t even a maiden to save in the first place. Monty Python uses postmodernism to illustrate how the stories people tell themselves enablesome awful s***; Lancelot and Arthur’s own metanarratives justifying their violent and oppressive acts. The fact that these metanarratives aren’t even true to begin with is just the icing on the cake – as our knightly heroes are revealed to be cowards, hypocrites, and violent sociopaths. “I just get carried away…”
Even God is put into doubt. Per the Christianity metanarrative, God is good and all powerful and has a plan for humanity. Yet in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, God isn’t great and kind at all. He’s just a cranky dick, who’s really crappily animated. Philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin defined this as the ‘downward-swing’ – which I swear isn’t a baseball term. Per Bakhtin — most stories are upward swing(s) — in that they “elevate a story to a symbolic state, [and make] them universal.” On the contrary, in a downward swing – the classical story becomes so distorted and grotesque that you don’t even know whether to scream, cry or laugh. And it’s not just the story that becomes distorted; but also we, the readers and viewers, ourselves. Every lesson we learned through the metanarrative is now cast into doubt right alongside it. Take one of the most famous scenes in The Holy Grail — the witch trial. Sir Bedevere the Wise puts a poor woman through a ‘foolproof’ logic test in order to determine if she’s a witch. Per Bedevere – witches burn at the stake just like wood and wood floats on water just like a duck. So if the woman is a witch — she will weigh the same as a duck. Monty Python here takes formal logic and distorts it into a grotesque version of itself, in effect casting doubt our own fundamental faith in logic. If classical logic can be distorted into justifying a woman’s death, then how can it be truly trusted at all? By the end of The Holy Grail — this distortion extends to the very film itself. As Arthur prepares for an epic battle with the French at the Castle Aaargh, modern day police suddenly arrive and arrest the king for murder. The police then push and cover the camera lens, breaking the fourth wall — making the audience cognizant of the fact they’re watching a movie. The Holy Grail constantly pokes fun at itself as a ‘movie’. For instance – the film’s title credits are undermined when Swedish subtitles suddenly appear, promoting the country as a terrific vacation spot. The credit-makers are then promptly fired, causing the credit format to completely change. Throughout the film, Arthur uses coconuts instead of a horse due to the film’s tight budget. Arthur even refers to one character as — “it’s the old man from scene 24.”
And just to hammer the point home — the knights defeat the Legendary Black Beast of Arghhh, not through any battle or test of wills; but because the animator that designed the creature has a heart-attack. This self-reflexivity reveals The Holy Grail to be its own metanarrative – film just as artificial as the chivalrous Arthurian heroes within. “Do you think this scene should have been cut? We were so worried while the boys were writing it… but now we’re glad! It’s better than some of the previous scenes, I think!” That’s just how postmodern Monty Python and The Holy Grail truly is – it deconstructs religion & logic within a deconstruction of heroic tropes within a deconstruction of the film medium itself. Basically — the ‘Inception’ of postmodern film. There’s probably no show as popular on the inter-webs as Rick and Morty. I mean — Wisecrack’s really just a domain switch away from becoming a Rick and Morty Fan Club. And that’s because the show always ties its absurd humor with thought-provoking insight — like, well, on the meaninglessness of life. “Yes! I did it! There is no God! In your face!” Take the ‘Get Schwifty’ episode. When massive heads suddenly appear all across the planet, many people begin to worship the heads as Gods, starting up a cult and even sacrificing people to appease them. Of course, in reality, these heads aren’t actually Gods at all; but an alien race that just wants Earth to participate in an American Idol-like reality show.
This type of humor is known as “The Comedy of the Absurd”. This existential-based comedy focused on the fallout when confronted with a world devoid of meaning. However instead of wallowing in some murky woe-is-me despair, the absurd takes the opposite approach – pointing out the broad humor in our own tragic insignificance. This tragic absurdity is foundational to Monty Python’s brand of comedy. In their third feature, The Life of Brian, poor Brian’s entire existence is one big absurd misunderstanding. The humble peasant is born in the stable next to Jesus, confusing the Three Wise Men – who assume the not-special-at-all Brian to be the Messiah. The projection of significance on the insignificant is a hallmark of existential thought — in particular our boy Albert Camus, whod rejected this desperate search for meaning,and instead embraced, the, you guessed it, “The Absurd”. When Brian runs away from his disciples, they mistakenly believe he’s risen to heaven. And later when Brian loses a sandal, these same disciples proclaim the sandal his sign. “The shoe is a sign! Let us follow his example!” “What?” “Let us like him hold up one shoe and let the other be upon our foot for this is his sign that all who follow him shall do likewise!”
Of course — Brian didn’t mean for the sandal to be anything more than footwear; and yet people — in their desire for meaning — attribute significance to even the silliest of objects. We see this exact same misappropriation of meaning in Get Schwifty as Principal Vagina and the rest of his cult mistake the Alien Heads as Gods, when in reality they’re only Reality TV show junkies. Comedies of the absurd draw their humor from this discrepancy, between what is and what isn’t, between what’s true and what people believe to be true. Characters in these absurd comedies are often are caught in hopeless situations, forced into repetitive and ultimately fruitless actions. Like Brian who constantly tries to tell his disciples he’s not the Messiah to little avail. “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.” No matter what Brian does, his disciples grow in number and become ever more fervent, all leading to a horrific and tragic conclusion: crucifixion. Yet despite his impending doom, Brian’s comforted by his fellow crucifixion buddies, who break out into song — The Bright Side of Life.
The crucifixion buddies cheerful lament reflects the Myth of Sisyphus — in which poor Sisyphus is cursed to roll a rock up a mountain only for it to fall back down over and over again. Existentialist Albert Camus famously applied the greek myth to life itself, The trick though is not to let this meaninglessness ever get you down — instead, in the words of Life of Brian, ‘Always look at the bright-side.’ Because when faced with our own insignificance and impending doom, there’s only one real option, though it may seem completely f***ing absurd, laughter. Nowadays satire has become more vital than ever whether via late night talk shows like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee or more traditional half hour comedies like South Park. Hell the last three seasons of South Park focus heavily on the 2016 election and the Trump presidency. Political satires, like South Park, derive their humor by revealing the hypocrisy in established rules and orders — a la the 2016 election and the PC brigade. But way before South Park, Monty Python paved the way, subverting the established political ideologies of England. In fact – South Park’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone often cite Monty Python as the single biggest influence on their show. “Matt & I got along so well because we’re both huge Python freaks.”
In Monty Python’s final and darkest feature, The Meaning of Life, the Pythons openly comment on English imperialism, economic disparity, and the classicist social hierarchies of the country. The opening mini-movie, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, depicts a group of poor elderly workers forced into a pirate-like frenzy by young American yuppies. The old workers rebel against these yuppie dicks, throwing them out windows to their death — and then proceed to destroy every shiny bright corporate building in their path, bringing down the capitalist system that literally anchored them to the ground. The Pythons carry this satirical look at capitalism throughout the film, questioning the economic notion that self-interest results in the greater good. In fact — we see quite the opposite. In the sketch, the ‘Miracle of Birth’ — the doctors are far more concerned with their fancy equipment and impressing their administrator than the poor woman they’re operating on. “And get the most expensive machines, in case the administrator comes.”
Later — in the sketch “Live Organ Transplants”, two bureaucrats forcefully remove the liver from an impoverished man for the good of the country, remarking nonsensically that they must kill the guy so that they can then take his liver. Constantly we see people drowning under this system. Britain’s Yorkshire is ironically referred to as a “Third World Country” — and in the same sketch, a poor man is forced to sell off his children to science in order to make ends meet. This economic disparity climaxes in the sketch “The Autumn Years”, where the grotesquely obese and rich Mr. Creosote dines at a fancy restaurant, eating more and more until he literally explodes. The implications couldn’t be clearer — the rich get richer and fatter at the expense of the starving lower class. But it’s not just social injustice that the Pythons skewer – but the whole notion of British imperialism in general. The hand of God strikes down a military officer who insists Britain will always need an army to put down differing ideologies. And in the same sketch, a Sergeant Major drills his platoon on whether they have anything better to do than “march up and down the town square.” Well — it turns out they do, like read a book or go to the movies or really anything at all. The Pythons even state this central thesis at the end of the picture… “Try and be nice to people, avoid getting fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”
For The Pythons — British imperialism,is a threat to the meaning of life. This manifests in their depictions of war – where soldiers attempting to celebrate a birthday are gunned down one by one – the brutal reality of war, of supposed imperial conquest, juxtaposed against the simple pleasure of enjoying a birthday cake. These ideas extend to their sketch show The Flying Circus. The show oft portrays bureaucrats as buffoons… or as sticks-in-the-mud, constantly censoring the show itself. “I’m not prepared to pursue my line of inquiry any further as I think this is getting too silly!” “Quite agree, quite agree. Silly silly silly. Right. Get on with it. GET ON WITH IT!” As Christopher Hitchens once said — “the essential founding gag of [Monty Python] is the bubbling magma of absurdity that lay beneath the fragile crust of British reserve. At any moment, a man with a bowler hat or an umbrella might become a raging cross-dresser or barking sadist.” It’s this unpredictability, this mixture between the postmodern, the political and the absurd that makes Monty Python unlike any comedy troupe that came before or after. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
By merging together social commentary, existential angst and just plain ol’ silliness – The Pythons always kept you on your toes. They defied convention, concocting a brand of comedy so singular that a word had to be created just for them — Pythonesque. Today their brand of humor permeates every facet of the comedic landscape. Thanks for watching, guys. Peace.