And now for something completely different: Monty Python’s ‘lost sketches

Michael Palin’s donation of Monty Python’s notebooks to the British Library have revealed, among other things, “unseen sketches” from their 1975 film, Monty Python and The Holy Grail. The Python team’s films are well-known pieces of satire and already widely critically acclaimed. So, what does the discovery of the lost sketches mean for their comedy?

The discovery of lost materials often plays an important part in the development of our understanding and appreciation of some art forms. Consider the importance of the different “folios” for Shakespeare’s plays which have literally made careers for some literary critics who spend their lives discerning the differences in quality and merit. So, will Python’s unseen sketches dilute our appreciation or amplify their comic greatness? My answer is neither.

Comedy is special when it comes to posterity. We often ask of comedy whether it will stand the test of time – as if we know comedy to be ephemeral. Equally, we talk about comedy rarely being to everyone’s taste. Unlike other artworks, comedy is uniquely audience dependant. As comedy is a product of its audiences, then the desire to archive comedy reflects a desire to preserve the cultural significance of the humorists.

We could say, to quote Michael Palin as Dennis in The Holy Grail: “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony!” In other words, it’s the public who decide which comedy is worthy of longevity, especially in the digital age.

Monty Python’s status suggests they have achieved a degree of universality. Monty Python consisted of six middle-class white men who – with the exception of Terry Gillian – were all privately educated in England and attended Oxbridge colleges. They form part of a genealogy of prominent comedians who have descended from the Oxford Revue and Cambridge Footlights and into the collective comic sensibility. But they are not confined to their class, race, gender and educational clique.

Sociologist Sam Friedman’s survey of UK comedy tastes revealed that Monty Python holds relatively universal appeal, amusing a demographic that cuts across class and educational divides as well as genders. Monty Python also appears to lack identity baggage – you don’t have be like them to appreciate their comic genius.

This does not mean that their humour is devoid of class or gender identities. Far from it. Their sketches often display “poshness” – but for some reason this is not a shortcoming. Unlike the Pythons, contemporary Footlights performers desire not to come across as posh or exclusive.

Cult of comedy

This invites the question of where we locate the humour and pleasures of Monty Python. Sigmund Freud said of laughter that it evidences “far-reaching psychical conformity” – that those who laugh at the same thing not only have a sense of humour in common, they have more in common besides. This implies that joking reveals commonalities and equalities between those who laugh together.

But Freud was stumped by the fact that when we laugh at jokes, we scarcely know what it is that amuses us. We may “get” a joke – but we often don’t know what it is we’ve “got”. Freud was suspicious of this. He wondered whether with jokes we have a group of collaborative, like-minded people who form a cult through humour. Or whether we have a group of different people from different walks of life who collude to find humour. Are people being tacitly coerced in the same direction by the comedians – or are jokes the way we overcome our differences? Jokes could produce community out of discord, but Freud also saw the possibility of the reverse.

Monty Python’s continuing popularity raises important questions not for the history but the future of comedy. At a time of immense cultural sensitivity around questions of whose voices are heard and who gets to participate in the arts, it is worth thinking about the social relationships being forged through humour.

You may also like...