Comedy has been a staple of theatre for centuries. Together with its compatriot Tragedy, comedy owes its importance to live performance art by remaining relevant to the culture of the day. We love to laugh. We love to laugh in the company of others. And we love to laugh at the comic misfortune of others, whether incidents of individual minor tragedy or in the context of a larger social commentary. And while we are more likely to laugh at those subjects and issues that surround us now, even works written hundreds of years ago still amuse us today so long as their commentary has traction in our modern world. As a result, comedy is a remarkably effective and timeless tool to attack institutions, authority, social issues, and cultural prejudices, all in a manner that seems harmless and fun at the surface but in fact can be simultaneously bitingly vicious.
A quick glance in time’s rear view mirror, and consider the Gilbert & Sullivan’s lampooning of class structures and government figureheads of the day; or Molière’s satiric exposure of France’s societal duplicity in the 1700’s. And Oscar Wilde? Need we say more?
Is there is a certain formula or set of guidelines that guides most humour through the ages? University of Colorado (Boulder) professor Peter McGraw certainly thinks so. In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, McGraw and his fellow researchers explain the notion that “humour depends on some kind of violation, whether it is a disruption of one’s expectations, a physical threat or a breach of social norms”, that “humour equals tragedy plus time.”1. They add in a subsequent study that “laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign.”
On-line religious commentator Mark Adams adds: ”McGraw has found that the funniness of a violation depends on it not also being simultaneously threatening to the audience or to their world view.”2 Adams goes on to categorise the foundations of humour, giving contemporary examples to make his point clear:
Violations of Personal Dignity: Slapstick humor, physical deformities.
The Three Stooges or Charlie Chaplin; Mike Myers and his partial ocular albino in Wayne’s World 2 and the Mole character (with a huge mole) in the third Austin Powers movie.
Violations of Linguistics: Unusual accents, malapropisms.
Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, and the outrageous “French” soldiers.
Violations of Social Norms: Strange behaviors.
Michael Scott and Dwight Shrute from The Office
Violations of Moral Norms: Disrespectful behavior.
This is the root attraction of the Jackass movies.
Who is the target? Where is the humour?
My own observation of humour, apart from the usual clichés about how ‘delivery/timing is everything’ is founded on the premise that in humour there must be an identifiable victim or scapegoat; someone or something that takes the brunt of the joke simply by being what or who they are; in other words, the innocent bystander. A stand-up comic might joke about himself, his life or his family, example Russell Peters; they might refer to a recognisable third party, or even a stereotypical third party as observed in everyday society, as does Jerry Seinfeld. Maybe the targets are ‘blondes’, maybe old people, maybe a celebrity or a politician. We recognise the party being subjected to ridicule or humour and we laugh at their predicament or character trait. We are co-conspirators either because we can identify with the victim’s vulnerability or feel we would never allow ourselves to be in a similar situation.
The other key element of everyday common humour, in my opinion, is that the essence of the joke, the punch line, is fully revealed to us, the audience. We are told the whole story. The humour is fully explained to us, as observed through the eyes, ears of the comedian who might go so far as to direct us to exactly where the humour lies. In situation comedies, perhaps the screen writers throw in a laugh track that tells when and how much we should laugh.
‘And now for something completely different.’
Monty Python’s catchphrase came from a real phrase used by the BBC in radio and TV broadcasts.
This brings us to the delightful dilemma of Monty Python. The Monty Python crew discovered something very unique about comedy and have put their own unique stamp on the genre. Many others have been influenced over the decades, but the Python crew remain the masters of a certain comedic technique no one else has surpassed. More than 40 years after their Flying Circus hit the airwaves like a firestorm, we still laugh, we still attempt the character imitations, we re-tell or re-enact the skits for our friends.
At its essence, Python humour is based on the surreal. Surreal humour, as defined in Wikopedia is:
“is a form of humour based on violations of causal reasoning with events and behaviours that are logically incongruent….bizarre juxtapositions, non-sequiturs, irrational situations or expressions of nonsense. The humour arises from a subversion of audience’s expectations…the amusement is founded on unpredictability, separate from a logical analysis of the situation based on violations of causal reasoning with events and behaviours that are logically incongruent.”
These juxtapositions of the normal with the absurd have no limitations in Python humour. Nothing is scared. God, organised religion, the monarchy, British institutions, class structures and politics are of course obvious targets. But even the everyday, mundane British way of life that might at first glance be not only devoid of humour but incapable of being humorous, becomes a target. A new stove oven installed in a home by the local gas utility becomes an absurd bureaucratic nightmare with men holding clipboards and wearing drab overcoats lining up around the block; a group of old women walking past a row of shops become a gang of street thugs (Hell’s Grannies); A the simple purchase at a cheese shop goes right off the rails with bouzouki music, empty shelves, and a proud , only slightly apologetic shopkeeper. You probably know these skits and more. The Pythons took the everyday and turned it completely upside down, casting everything in a new light. Theirs was a parallel universe governed by nonsense, unruled by accepted convention.
Who are the victims in Monty Python skits?
That is the genius of their art; the audience isn’t really sure. When King Arthur comes across two peasants working in a field at the opening of The Holy Grail, his rank is ridiculed by his faux horsemanship accompanied by the sound of coconuts being banged together. Yet Arthur’s behaviour is as noble as any king; he is completely unaware of any absurdity. He addresses the two peasants who, instead of demonstrating the expected deference afforded a king, challenge his self-assumed authority with full Marxist rhetoric. Who is the victim here? Is it Arthur, the man who calls himself ‘King of the Briton’s yet prances around without a horse? Or is the peasants, who despite their strong grasp of political injustices are in fact still messing around in the muck, unable to rise above their station? In fact, throughout the Python repertoire, characters never lose any sense of themselves. They exemplify the key piece of directorial advice often given to actors when portraying comedies; play the parts ‘straight’ and let the humour reveal itself through the script.
As a result, we don’t know who is being victimised. And the Pythons don’t tell us. Unlike the standard comedy sketches that spoon feed us, Monty Python leaves us to our own interpretations. This is why their humour endures, why the poignancy is not diminished by time but simply finds new relevance as our times change and our culture evolves.
Python factoid: The term ‘spam’ for unsolicited emails comes from a 1970 Monty Python sketch set in a café where nearly every item on the menu included the canned luncheon meat.
Not everyone has embraced Monty Python. Python member Terry Jones himself has confessed that he ‘only occasionally found Python funny’1. Newspaper, blogs, facebook pages have attempted to re-categorise Monty Python as ‘long-winded, self-indulgent, pseudo-intellectual, posturing, look at us we’re so clever, tripe.’3
Others have attempted to analyse Monty Python, particularly their movie The Holy Grail, on the basis of it being a well-constructed political attacks on such worldly issues as U.S. military policy during the Vietnam War.
“The first indication of this comes about in the scene with the Black Knight. He stands by his bridge allowing no one to pass as King Arthur approaches to invite him to join the court at Camelot. After several attempts with no response from the knight, King Arthur requests passage across the bridge. The Black Knight stands tall and replies “none shall pass,” and the two men engage in a sword fight to settle the issues. As King Arthur dismembers his worthy opponent, the Black Knight seems unaffected by the injury claiming “tis but a scratch.” This disregard for the loss of his limbs ridicules the political stand to remain involved in the [Vietnam] war, despite the apparent defeat. Then, as King Arthur crosses the bridge the knight proclaims the King to be a “yellow bastard,” which was an attitude the government refused to accept from anyone taunting the United States, so we proceeded to remain involved in war.”4
Actually, I like that! The analogies are almost Python-esque themselves! I might suggest further that when Brother Maynard brings out the Holy Hand Grenade of Anitoch for King Arthur to use against the killer rabbit at the cave, that is perhaps an analogy of how America has always felt that God was on ‘their side’, and that the massive over-kill of a vicious furry rodent, typically under-estimated by U.S. Intelligence as were the Vietnamese, warranted an attack using the most powerful weapons at the super-power’s disposal.
“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
Of course, over-analysis of Monty Python humour, can be as absurd as the original. There is no evidence to support the idea that the Pythons sat down one day with the intent of ridiculing U.S. Military policy or the American superiority complex. However, it does reveal a truth of brilliant authorship: several unintended layers can exist below the surface of great writing.
To those, including some in my immediate family, who do not quite see the humour of Monty Python, I will simply defer to science. On the Doctor Shock web site, reference is made to some brain studies concerning human reaction to humour:
The appreciation of nonsense jokes and cartoons is dependable on personality characteristics. Those with a high level of experience-seeking appreciate nonsense humor more. Experience-seeking involves a search for novel sensations, stimulation and experiences through the mind and senses, through
art, travel, music, and the desire to live in an unconventional style…With MRI scans it was shown that for incongruity resolution, as compared to this resolution for nonsense cartoons, the former had more activation of brain structures necessary with the processing of humor. These brain structures exist in the anterior medial prefrontal cortex, bilateral superior frontal gyri and temporo-parietal junctions (TPJ)….[and ]show more activation during processing of incongruity-resolution than of nonsense cartoons.5
Got that? In other words, I laugh at Monty Python (and you don’t) because my brain is different than yours!
1 The Daily Mail (UK)
3 Facebook commentary from Daily Mail UK
4 ‘Apparent Comedy, Subtle Disdain: An analytical paper on satire in Monty Python and the Holy Grail by Lynn Swanson’
5 Dr. Shock: A Neurostimilating Blog