The Pythons, as they're sometimes called, were active from 1969-1983, but of course, individuals from the original group, like John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin have each gone on to explore other entertainment venues...where hilarity almost always ensues!
Not everyone "gets" Monty Python-related humor. But it's an important part of our shared socio-cultural history in the mid-late twentieth century. So even if you don't "get" it, you MUST watch at least a few of Monty Python's best skits, like "The Spanish Inquisition," "The Dead Parrot," "The Ministry of Silly Walks," "The Homicidal Barber" (the lead-in to the next suggested skit), "The Lumberjack Song." You'll learn more about our cultural history in a half-hour of a Python skit than you will in a semester of college! No, really....
One summer, during a family road trip, the young people in the car (who were about 12 or so at the time) were on a Monty Python and the Holy Grail kick...there was constant giggling during the constant repeat viewings of the movie, constant usage of related Python quotes ("It's just a flesh wound..."), and a competition as to who had the better Python paraphenalia--the killer rabbit doll or the memberless black knight or the T-shirt with the pithiest Python-jibe. What I found remarkable was how even people as young as say 12 and 13 were interested in Monty Python...and because of that keen interest, knew about things like governments and philosophy well beyond their years.
During the late 90's and early 21st century, the Pythons had a bit of a comeback from their 60's parodic start. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for example, is considered a cult classic today. And that's a change from say, 25 years ago. But why? What happened during those decades to bring a niche low-budget British comedy to unprecedented pop culture fandom? Linda Hutcheon, a Canadian-born cultural theorist, may have a few answers.
Hutcheon describes parody as both legitimizing and subvering that which it is parodying in her 1989 book, The Politics of Postmodernism. So what does that have to do with the Pythons popularity today? Good question!
We live in a postmodern world, meaning a world shaped AFTER modernism--the thumbnail sketch is that in modernism, there is only one truth. POST-modernism says different. The extreme of modernism can be found in social movements like Nazism. After World War II, social theorists and philosophers began to attack the problem of one truth. In postmodernism, every perspective is as valid and valued as the next...at least, intellectually. The first examples of the influence in this change of social attitude is evident in things like the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation Movements in the States. However, there is a caveat....
With the advent of postmodern realizations like positionality, a theoretical term used to describe the unique perspective of an individual, taking into account factors like gender, birth order, cultural and theological background, geography, etc., other thinkers, like Jean Baudrillard, warned about the dangers of celebrating individual truth.
When we look at today's most popular parodies, like Tropic Thunder or Blades of Glory, both poke fun at various aspects of today's reality. Hollywood is a major influence in 21st century society; we are celebrity-centric in the States, working and spending to imitate a celebrity-like lifestyle. Sports also share a kind of celebrity status when athletes, like Olympic figure skaters, begin to market themselves through sponsorship of popular consumer products. Baudrillard was concerned with how false representations of reality would influence true reality...and he was right.
The Pythons, who single-handedly revived parody in the 20th century, were part of the global socio-cultural changes that took place. Parody is a method of political communication. When you watch the Flying Circus skits I mentioned earlier, you'll see a great deal of parody surrounding gender and gender roles...this was on the heels of the Women's Liberation movement, which was simultaneously taking on political importance in Britain.
I once gave a little talk to a group of my colleagues about how to predict the future. My simple suggestion was this: Follow the popular culture. And parody in our popular culture is one of the first indicators of change.
In our "reality" obsessed society, with the ability to see anything, anytime, from anywhere in the world, the parody we are seeing reflects a desperate need for escapist entertainment and a predilection for escapism in general. And there's nothing wrong with that. We all need a good laugh...mainly so we don't cry....
And there's quite a bit to cry about these days.
So the Pythons, with their sillier-than-silly antics, taking philosophy and combining it with things like European football and showing intellectual peasants repremanding royalty for being oppressive, have become a kind of heroic theme for our times, though most of their works come from the 1970's, close to 40 years ago.
What Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and John Cleese did was open a very controversial door for the time and bring it to a point in history where the obscene is no longer shocking. Because, when everything is valid and valued, the obscene, defined by one's perspective, can no longer be judged. And neither can anything else. Who is to say what is right and what is wrong in a postmodern world? We begin to see history adapted to show heroes as villains and vice versa. And it's not the fault of parody...parody is just the messenger.
The Pythons were, of course, totally aware of the power of parody; many of the Pythons were students at places like prestigious Oxford and Cambridge. Hutcheon, like Baudrillard, felt concern about how parody isn't just a tool for subversion, but also lends a kind of legitimacy to the thing being parodied. And what is most parodied today? Reality. But not a true reality. A reality based on artificial representations. And that foreshadows big change in our global society; a change we are simply ill prepared for.
But hey, don't despair! While we hurdle our way to whatever awful thing awaits, we will DEFINITELY be entertained! My true-blue True Blood addiction has begun to consume my life again...and I hear that a new Femme Nikita will be hitting the CW in fall. ;) And then, there's my new obsession with the graphic novels coming out of Th3rd World Studios...Dad! is an emerging creative nonfiction version of a graphic novel that's right in my wheelhouse--talk about your innovative illness narrative! Combine that with a sixth season of Supernatural in the fall...and you can slide me right into a communist coma!
How about you?
You can follow the popular culture, just not too closely (remember what Mom always said about sitting too close to the TV? Well, you don't actually need a screen in front of you to go blind these days...).
Until next time, dearest readers!!!