I’ve written a lot over the years about just how crucial it was to my developing personality to discover independent music when I was 15 years old, and I’ve undoubtedly worn out my welcome writing about how Stephen King was a flashpoint for so much of what I’ve done with my life. One area that’s gone oddly unexplored – even though it’s easily as important as those other two – is comedy. Mirroring what happened for me with R.E.M. and Stephen King, I got into comedy in a fairly heavy way as a freshman in high school, and it unequivocally shaped the way I looked at the world.
There were three names that loomed over the others, all of which I discovered in less than a year. George Carlin came first. My parents had a vinyl copy of Occupation: Foole, and once they decided I was old enough to handle it, I wore out the grooves listening to his “Filthy Words” bit. Next came Steve Martin. I’m sure I was aware of him on some level before high school (probably as the King Tut guy from Saturday Night Live), but my first viewing of The Jerk hit me at just the right time. I made quick work of the rest of his filmography, and I also got my hands on his standup album Let’s Get Small, which, in its deconstruction of the genre, stood as sort of a counterpoint to the polish of Occupation: Foole. Carlin and Martin both taught me that comedy could be smart and principled, but also simultaneously irreverent and idealistic. I gravitated toward the anti-authoritarian vibe they both clearly possessed, but also responded to Martin’s romantic streak and Carlin’s strong undercurrent of optimism. They were (and still are) two artists whose work I hold dear.
And then came Monty Python. My friend John (two years older than me and also responsible for turning me on to the band Marillion, more on which some other day) introduced me to Monty Python & the Holy Grail, and my world was never the same.
The absurdity, but also the undeniable intelligence, was worlds away from anything else I’d seen at the time. I wasn’t sheltered by any means, but my parents’ tastes always ran to the conventional. Growing up it was a steady diet of whatever sitcoms were popular (Three’s Company, The Facts of Life), and if I ever saw R-rated comedies, it was only the edited versions on network TV. So while I’d seen Caddyshack, Airplane!, and National Lampoon’s Vacation, I hadn’t really seen them, if you know what I mean.
To suddenly watch Graham Chapman come galloping over a hill followed by a servant banging two coconuts together was a total paradigm shift. You mean . . . this was possible? And there was more of it? John quickly became my supplier. He passed me VHS copies of Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, and episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus he’d recorded from the local PBS station. Our library had a copy of And Now for Something Completely Different, and I watched that, too, even though I’d already seen most the sketches. I became that nerd (in addition to all the other nerds I already was), repeating catchphrases ad nauseam to the annoyance of friends, family, and teachers. I was obsessed.
Just like it was with The Beatles, everyone has their favorite Python. For me, it’s always been John Cleese. He always seemed like the smartest in the troupe (although Michael Palin ran a close second), and I appreciated the fact that he could do both verbal humor (“Argument Clinic”) and physical humor (“Ministry of Silly Walks”) with equal facility. What I tapped into most of all, though, as an angsty little guy who didn’t have a firm grasp on his emotions, was the deep reservoir of rage that seemed to be coursing just below the surface of Cleese’s aloof British exterior. In many of his sketches there’s the impression that he’s just barely holding it together. “The Parrot Sketch” is probably the most well-known example of this, although I think “The Architects Sketch” is where he does some of his best work. Cleese plays the title character, pitching an abattoir to two stuffy business types who really want a block of flats. Watch the build until the glorious explosion at the 3:00 mark.
Cleese would, of course, turn “slow burn escalating to a tirade” into an art form in Fawlty Towers which is, for me, the Sistine Chapel of British comedy.
In my late teens and early 20s, as I got more involved with improv and sketch comedy, Cleese sort of became the Platonic ideal of how to mix low and high comedy. Or maybe it was more that he illustrated how to do low comedy with intelligence and high comedy with a visceral edge. Most importantly, I can draw a straight line from Cleese to many of my current favorite comedians (Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Louis C.K., Kyle Kinane, Paul F. Tompkins, etc.), all of whom seem to be spiritual descendants of what Cleese was doing in the 1960s and 70s.
Tonight Amanda and I go see Cleese’s tour with fellow Python Eric Idle. Most shows I attend for a relaxing night out. A few others, though, are more about paying tribute to the people who, even from a great distance, taught me how to be me.
The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die – Harmlessness (2015)