Friday, June 17, 2011

The 2011 Summer Re-watch: Monty Python's Flying Circus "How to Recognize Different Types of Trees from Quite a Long Way Away" Review

"How to Recognize Different Types of Trees from Quite a Long Way Away" highlights only the larch throughout the half-hour. Why? Who knows. The show returns to the narrator who identifies a photographed tree as a larch. In another sketch, children are asked if they could identify a tree in a photograph as a larch but that sketch transitions into "Nudge, Nudge." The larch is a valued wood because of its tough, durable qualities. Plus, it's waterproof. In central Europe, the larch is one of the best materials for building homes and structures from the foundation. Perhaps, the troupe chose to emphasize the larch because the tree reflected the core traits and characteristics of the six men responsible for the series--tough and durable. The episode itself is a huge building block in Monty Python's history. So, why not emphasize Europe's most beloved tree as a symbol for the show itself and its future?

The Pythons had grand ambitions that were larger than 'let's making a silly sketch show.' The troupe aimed to transcend the genre, to be something that England couldn't avoid. Throughout the series, they parody law enforcement, the queen and parliament but none of that happens in episode three. The Pythons show their ability to transcend any kind of label or genre in the third episode. Episode #3 features three of Monty Python's most popular sketches--Dim of the Yard, Bicycle Repairman and Nudge, Nudge. The three sketches have little in common but their massive appeal and success for the last 41 years. Dim of the Yard ends with a musical number; Bicycle Repairman reverses the tropes of the superhero story (specifically, superman); Nudge, Nudge is an exploration of class through language and etiquette. The Pythons interest were endless. In the first two episodes, they proved their adeptness with long-form sketch narratives, tropes, reversals, parody, etc. "How to Recognize Different Types of Trees from Quite a Long Way Away" shows his diverse Monty Python could be if in the mood.

The courtroom sketch, which ends with Dim's musical number, begins with histrionics as the prisoner delivers a soliloquy about freedom to the courtroom. It's a stirring monologue which invokes philosophical principles, Greek mythology and the language of the romantic poets. The judge mutters that it's only a bloody parking offense but the prisoner and his legal team fight for freedom as if the guillotine awaited him should the defendant be guilty. The witnesses range from a babbling middle-aged women who just gossips about people, a man in a coffin whose not-quite-dead-but-close-to-dead who then dies mid-examination and the French clergyman, noble and statesman Cardinal Richelieu (as a character witness). Richelieu describes the prisoner as a wonderful man so the counsel requests clemency for the defendant. Dim of the Yard arrives to reveal that Richelieu's no other than Ron Higgins, professional Cardinal Richelieu impersonator (he tricks Higgins into admitting that Richelieu died, therefore he's too deceased to be a character witness). The court praises Dim and the judge wonders why he's nothing more than a police man. Cue the song-and-dance about what Dim would be if he were not in the CID. The counsel ends the sketch when he sings his own song about what'd be if not a barrister, and the armored knight bludgeons him in the head with a fish.

The armored knight with the fish is a presence throughout the series in the same role as Chapman's Colonel in later episodes. His colonel ends sketches when they become too silly. The knight ends sketches when someone takes over a sketch and ruins it. I'd like to write more thoughtfully about the courtroom scene but the meaning puzzles me so I'll only offer that it's a means to the song-and-dance end and nothing more.

The bicycle repairman takes place in an alternate universe where every man is a superman. The supermen of this town can save the world but they can't fix their bicycles. The repair man's an anonymous man who dresses the part and dazzles the other men with his ability to repair bicycles. He'll fix a bike whenever it's broken or menaced by international communism. Perhaps, bicycle repair man was created as an anti-communist symbol because of the presence of supermen though the idea of Nietzsche’s Superman closely related with Nazi philosophy. The repairman's secret identity is the everyman, though, and communism, in Karl Marx's manifesto, sought to reward the everyman equally but men were corrupted. Communism became an oppressive ideology. The repair man's a figure of hope--of one who possesses the tools to fix a broken idea.

Eric Idle's Nudge, Nudge sketch explores class through language and etiquette. Terry Jones' character's a dignified Briton, with the values one expects from a dignified Briton. Idle's character from a lower class and lacks any kind of etiquette. The sketch builds toward the punchline (a theme in the episode). There isn't much to analyze about the class differences because they stand out due to Idle's heightened performance. The sketch builds toward that punchline in which the curious, seemingly experienced lower class individual reveals that he asked invasive questions because he wants to know what sex is like.

The dirty fork sketch employs a similar structure--the joke of the sketch is the punchline, and that punchlines are quite lazy crutches to lean on as a comedian writer. The dirty fork sketch is fantastic because of the heighten emotions of the wait staff and the owners as all lose their minds over one dirty fork. Those heightened emotions unify the episode as each major sketch features characters who go insane over seemingly small things like a parking offense.

And as always, Flying Circus is brilliant in its subtle structures, themes, ideas and arguments about government, class, language etc.

UP NEXT: "Owl-Stretching Time"


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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.