He Was Not At All Afraid To Be Killed In Nasty Ways

I ‪was at a family-age party the other night (I know: does my corona-privilege know no bounds?) where pre-teens were running around in knight dress-up gear and throwing out lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.‬ It occurred to me that The Holy Grail may be the only Python thing to really last as a cultural artifact – to be a recognizable reference in say, a century’s time. There’s an Alice in Wonderland quality to its deep silliness and texture. The sex jokes are giggly rather than deep blue, the violence is silly red paint rather than grotesquerie, and the religion comedy is mainly surface level‬ jibes at self-serious authority figures. ‪

Consider the coconut running joke. Its a visual joke, an auditory “hook”, an “infinity times” meta-joke, and a very English class commentary on the upper class literally riding on the backs of the peasantry‬.

Though it isn’t the work of Monty Python alone, I’d argue the depiction in The Holy Grail sits at a locus of our current common sense understanding of Medieval Europe. The Victorian images of romance and chivalry are not without their appeal, but also hard to take straight. The idea that the king has power for absurd and hard to justify reasons is much more accessible. It makes sense to us for peasants to be muddy and diseased, for everyone to be pretty anti-scientific and stupid, and Arthur a somewhat overwhelmed duffer. The Holy Grail can’t help including visions of full chivalric romance within it, though. Consider the beautiful passage of Arthur across the misty lake to the castle Aargh. You can tell it was directed by one medievalist and one animator. The moments of vision are setups for jokes, but it doesn’t matter. They are in there all the same.

‪Everyone, Pythons included, name Life of Brian as their masterpiece, and it’s a more coherent work of art. But the institutional Christianity it mocks is much rarer in the UK and other places now than when the film was made. The leftwing political jokes have an eternal quality, though they could go out of fashion quick, and the gender jokes are now weirdly off-colour. Likewise The Meaning of Life is more offensive, more sexually and violently grotesque, but without much “high art” aspiration to justify the investment of time for someone who didn’t grow up somewhere in that cultural milieu.

I find all the movies and most of the sketches very funny. I just don’t expect them to last. At most one might sneak through as a piece for older children, an anarchic discovery where you don’t need to understand all the words at first, because another song, or a silly joke about a killer rabbit, will be along in ten seconds. The other sketches and films then might pulled along in the wake, like A Tale of a Tub trails Gulliver’s Travels.

‪Time is always brutal to comedy. It depends so often on momentary references and sensibilities. To stay around it needs to be attached to some broader body of work, as in Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or Wu Cheng’en 吴承恩. Or it needs to be both surreally funny and deeply textured, like Alice … or The Holy Grail.‬

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