Talking with the Monty Python member about Peter Sellers, failure, and why he prefers disrespectful interviewers.
Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underrated, we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.
By Erick Arviss | 2018
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone working in comedy that hasn’t creatively cribbed from Monty Python. The influential British comedy troupe’s trademark surrealism, self-referencing, and artistic anarchy has been coded into the DNA of many modern architects of America’s absurdist comedy Zeitgeist, from Doug Kenney to Amy Sedaris to the minds behind Mr. Show. With Flying Circus, Python reconfigured the stuffy structure and unadventurous format of the modern sketch show, thumbing their noses at the medium by acknowledging its limits then speeding past them completely. Sketches would connect, reference each other, and bend time and space but would never fully conclude or tie up loose ends. It was an exercise in creating a lattice of meta-narrative and self-aware characters, which ultimately established its own extended universe of comedy iconography that is still being cited nearly 50 years later. I mean, the Dead Parrot sketch is just straight-up foundational.
But beneath Python’s Dadaist deconstruction of comedy trends (sideways credits FTW!) was a mean anti-authority streak. Their films were big and silly, yes, but their themes took direct aim at nationalism and war (Holy Grail), dogma and religious fundamentalism (Life of Brian), and class (Meaning of Life). Founding Python member John Cleese made this clear during our conversation, telling me that “anti-authoritarianism was deeply ingrained in Python” growing up in post–World War II United Kingdom.
Cleese, who is currently on tour screening Holy Grail followed by career-spanning conversations with audiences, wanted to pay homage to the stylistic forefathers of Python, The Goon Show, for our Underrated series. Created by British-Irish satirist Spike Milligan along with Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers, The Goon Show disrupted the most dominant entertainment format of the ’50s — the radio show — with a cast of fictional characters (with Sellers, Secombe, and Milligan embodying multiple personalities) performing scripted three-act shows parodying aspects of modern life and mocking show business, the military, advertising, and English culture along the way. The Goons also used music and sound effects in innovative ways, creating a more surreal and heightened atmosphere unlike anything else on the BBC Home Service at the time. Picture A Prairie Home Companion on acid, or Tim and Eric distilled into audio form. Cleese claims the Goons had the greatest impact on the troupe, and after hearing him speak about them, it’s easy to see why.
It’s impossible to overstate how influential your body of work — from A Fish Called Wanda to Fawlty Towers to especially Monty Python — has been on modern comedy. But what comedy inspired you growing up that your fans may not know about?
Well the biggest influence, and this might surprise you, is not something we were watching. We were listening to it because it was a radio show. It was a radio show in the ’50s called The Goon Show. It was a pure radio show and we all were listening to it. Kids were devoted to it in England. It was written by a guy who was a bit of a genius, rather a depressed one of course, named Spike Milligan. It also had Peter Sellers in it, who of course is the greatest voice man of all time. If he could listen to you for five minutes, he could do a perfect impersonation of you. He had this wonderful program he created which allowed him to experiment with his insanely funny characters. We used to listen to that in the same way that people listen to Monty Python. In the morning, we’d be at school and we’d discuss the whole thing and rehash the jokes and talk about it. We were obsessed with it. Continue reading