I saw an article recently in the Daily Telegraph that modern audiences would now be left baffled by the humour in Monty Python film The Life Of Brian – because they have such ‘poor religious literacy’. The article goes on to say that some Engish teachers had commented that nearly all of the jokes in the series would go over the heads of today’s kids. Well, I saw Monty Python first time around as a kid, and remember that the day after we would all use the dialogue in class, so what’s changed?
I went back through a couple of the programmes to see if they really were that hard to understand. In the two random episodes I looked at; there are jokes about:
Attila The Hun and the Visigoths, the Commonwealth of Nations, the Black Rod (ceremonial position at the Houses of Parliament), West Indian test cricket, the Pennine mountain range, Leonid Brezhnev, Alexei Kosygin, Parliamentary back-benchers, ICI dividends, Eton and Sandhurst, the Epsom Derby, Lord’s Cricket Ground, reactionary politicians, archeology, insanity, the Tories, the Queen’s Counsel, Beethoven, Michaelangelo, Goethe, Wagner, the Scottish Assizes, Mozart and, er, underwater goats.
Monty Python was always, to some extent, a minority taste, but it didn’t seem that hard to understand, even though everyone’s parents hated it. Python created a true generation divide. Without jokes to cling to, many audiences found themselves adrift, and an older generation used to punchlines involving black people, the Irish and mothers-in-law turned off in droves. Python was not the only bizarre comedy around; Charlie Drake’s highly experimental TV series ‘The Worker’ also reflected British playwrights’ fascination with stripping back reality into surrealist arguments and set pieces and, incredibly, ran for several decades, which says a lot about the British mindset.
Python has dated although I don”t think we’re dimmer. If anything, the internet has made us more wide-ranging in our ideas. But we’re possibly less academic, and a lot less surreal. Comedy has now seemed to have evolved into purely dealing the the concerns of the Me Generation – fear of embarrassment, relationships and so on. Which is all a bit limp really.