David Free in The Atlantic susses out what about Monty Python worked so well, and why we can’t have that today.
It’s a pity that the word irreverent has lost its weight, so that it’s come to seem a mere synonym for cheeky. The Pythons were irreverent in the deepest sense. They had automatic respect for nothing. Everything was fit matter for comedy: religion, national differences, cannibalism, Hitler, torture, death, crucifixion. They created a parallel world in which nothing was serious. They were like boys: they not only weren’t afraid; they didn’t know they should be afraid.
Today’s comedians can’t go back to that prelapsarian world. They can query or violate our current taboos, but they can’t unknow them. There has been plenty of excellent comedy since Python’s work, but most of it has been the comedy of social anxiety: comedy that walks the tightrope between what we can and cannot say.
Mostly true. When I think of the best television comedy (and there’s so little that’s even worth mentioning, let alone watching) like Louie or Arrested Development, the absurd is ever-present, but there’s always one straight man or woman at whom the world is being absurd. Louie and Michael Bluth are flawed and have quirks, but they are primarily suffering through a world gone mad around them. For Python, no one was exempt. Everyone was equally culpable for adding to the world’s psychic entropy. (Except perhaps Brian?)
It’s only been other form-shattering sketch shows that have at all come close to what Python began; I’m thinking of The State and Mr. Show in the 90s, and perhaps to a lesser degree the more-recent Portlandia. But these are all niche programs, not generational hallmarks of a particular kind of taste in the way that Python was and continues to be.
The anti-Python is, of course, the last couple decades or so of Saturday Night Live. That show is only irreverent in that is has no respect for its audience’s intelligence or time.