What is Monty Python's genius?

Whether or not you like them, you have to admit that Monty Python has a distinctive quality which sets it apart. What is it? Is it a single trait or a combination of several?
What sketches best exemplify the MP style(s)?

P.S.: If you disagree that Monty Python is anything special, that’s ok. Please take it to another thread where we can debate it all we want. I’d rather not have two distinct topics in the same thread.

P.P.S.: I hope some attempts at answering the question will make it through the thick volleys of Monty Python references.

Non-sequitors. A lot of them. All the time.

Yeah, Snowboarder got it right. It’s the art of the unexpected taken to a new level. Also, for the US, the fact that it’s done in a British accent and uses unfamiliar cultural references made it “cooler” back in the day.

To the extent that it is non sequiturs, there must be something about those non sequiturs because just having non sequiturs doesn’t make something funny because I don’t like ice cream.

Many of their sketches make sense in a way. The Argument Clinic, for example, becomes really funny when the client starts arguing about whether he’s paid for the course of arguing.

They also didn’t aim for the lowest common denominator of intelligence. They had some jokes that you needed to be college educated to get. Such as The Larch.

Their stuff is intelligently absurd or absurdly intelligent, and sometimes both :wink:

I really think it’s all packaged perfectly in that moment in The Holy Grail where Arthur emerges from the fog and his “horse” is revealed to be a page clapping coconuts together.

My personal favorite is “The Pope and Michelangelo”, aka “The Penultimate Supper”. WordMan’s post describes this sketch quite well.

His chief genius is surprise. Surprise and fear.

They used quite a few different techniques:

  1. Taking something considered very intellectual and making it mundane. Examples: the Summarize Proust Competition, the game show where the philosophers were asked question about football, the Australian philosophy department, Trotsky doing a striptease

  2. Parody. Examples: The Piranha Brothers, the science fiction sketch.The game show where the entire show was taken up with explaining the rules.

  3. Satire. The Upper Class Twit of the Year. David Attenborough parody.

  4. Silliness and absurdity. The Dead Parrot Sketch, the Cheese Shop.

They also were superb writers and managed to create threads throughout each show that worked together to an end, instead of just a series of random sketches. If you watch the TV show, most of them used links and repeating gags to tie it all together.

A lot of it plain sucks, too, y’know. I like my Python as much as the next man, but they had a lot of crap in the ratio, and some bits which were just amazingly unfunny. There’s times I can tell they were building fopr a punchline, delivered a supposed punchline, and left laugh time after the supposed punchline. Except it wasn’t a punchline.

Actually, that non-sequitor would fit in perfectly in lots of Python sketches.

And if the setting for the comment was in the context of a debate between yourself, a professor and a large pot of beef stew, and you were dressed as an 18th century chimney sweep, it might even get laughs.

Especially if your name was given as “St. George Puffinsbeak Laundromat Telelcommunications Ditheringseed the 3rd” and the beef stew was named “Chauncey Slurpitup”.

WordMan puts it best as a one-liner.

Most of the great comedians we revere - the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields in America, the Goons and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the U.K. - had exactly this combination of silliness and wit, slapstick and wordplay, irreverence toward high society and an equally skeptical eye to the lumpenproletariat. (The Marxes didn’t write their own material, but they worked carefully with the greatest comic talents of their day and carefully guided the material to their voice.)

Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Similarly, they looked at the “rules” of comedy and tossed out as many of them as possible, while keeping the core of what funny was. (Unlike a lot of modern “edgy” comics who throw out everything and think anarchy itself is funny.) They were anarchic while being totally disciplined professionals. Every word, gesture, prop, and reaction was written into their scripts after being argued around a table. For those of you completist fans who already own Monty Python - All the Words, get Monty Python - All the Words Complete and Annotated in one volume. Every change between script and airing is listed and they’re amazingly few.

You can’t keep that up. The show got less funny with each season. John Cleese left because he thought they were repeating themselves. That might be. But they also were obviously not as fresh and original as they were in the beginning. You can only draw out of the bucket of brand-new for so long. But most groups don’t even try.

Depends on the version. I didn’t even know that it was mostly linked together until I saw the TV show on a commericial-free channel, cause before that the links were chopped off to get commercial time in. I still think that even PBS chops some of the links because when I got the DVD set I noticed that it was almost entirely linked, but maybe I just wasn’t paying as much attention back then.

I am tempted to call the sketch comedy linkage (especially in the midst of absurdity) their particular genius, but I’m not well versed in the history of comedy to know if it had been done before.

I think the very mundane settings of a lot of their sketches really helps to accentuate the ‘surreal’ aspects of the comedy. It’s hard to think of a more drab and ordinary setting than 60’s suburban England (though perhaps Americans find this somehow exotic?).

Also, the troupe is pretty funny-looking; lanky Cleese, gormless Palin, stiff Chapman, ugly Idle, maniacal Gilliam and bad-drag Jones.

You’re quite good at this stuff.

Which, like Four Yorkshiremen, to the best of my knowledge is not a Monty Python sketch.

With all due respect, you are incorrect. They perform both in the “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” video.

There’s something rather particular at work in those two examples, and probably others. It’s a sort of inexorable British politeness pushed to the breaking point. The customer is met with a refusal and the only culturally correct response is to, quite politely, find some alternate way to resolve it. But the parrot is dead and there is no cheese, and so the refusals continue and the politeness builds until it has to find some release.

I disagree about their punchlines falling flat. There were almost no punch lines. I think their humor was almost entirely about the absurd escalation and tension, and rarely was there a satisfying climax at the end.

It’s also informative to compare them to other comedy troupes, like the Kids in the Hall. Both groups wrote and performed their material, but with MP the talent was shifted a little bit more toward the writing and KITH toward the performing. They both wrote to their strengths, but I think MP scripts would read a bit funnier than KITH scripts. On the other hand, when they’re in drag, the Pythons were funny because of how bad they were at it, and the Kids in the Hall were funny because of how good they were at it.

Which in no way means that they originated in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Four Yorkshiremen is from At Last the 1948 Show and was performed by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman. I have tried to find the origin of The Penultimate Supper, but haven’t come any closer than that it was written and performed by Cleese and one Jonathan Lynn.