Monty Python and the Scarcity of Irreverence

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.

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12 thoughts on “Monty Python and the Scarcity of Irreverence

  1. Yes, Python were of the British establishment (Oxbridge educated) but absolutely skewered everything that was established: institutions, conventions, religion. What they did best was rip into pomposity… Subversion through comedy and a tendency to pomposity are 2 different sides to the traditional “English” character.
    Religion is nothing if not full of itself.

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  2. Some of The Two Ronnies stuff of the late 70s and early 80s was pretty good as well, although they didn’t tackle religion very much.If you want to see holes poked into the religious balloon, check out Dave Allen, another Brit comic of the 70s.
    Some pretty good stuff.
    Seems like the Brits know how to do satire pretty well.

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  3. I find Tim Minchin to be very good at skewering just about everyone. However, if you are talking about regular TV series, then I can’t think of any current shows that are are as totally irreverent as Python was.

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  4. Little Britain was very funny, imo, made fun of a lot of things from current culture. Little Britain USA, was interesting is that the skits focused on some aspects of American culture for funnage. The 8th man on the moon bits are my favorite, just thinking about it makes my chuckle. Pretty high on the irreverent scale.

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  5. I would say “That Webb and Mitchell Look” comes pretty close to the Monty Python irreverence period. They go after just about anything, including the royal family, religion, themselves, parenting, pirating tv shows, homeopathic “medicine” and more.

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  6. @Rod #5: Not surprising. The Two Ronnies was one of the spinoffs of David Frost’s comedy empire (That Was The Week That Was, How to Irritate People, etc). All five British members of Monty Python worked for Frost. Of them at least Michael Palin and Terry Jones wrote for the Ronnies.
    One of the reasons why British comedy developed its irreverent style is the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club. Almost everyone of the big names has graduated more fom Footlights than from Cambrigde.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Footlights

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  7. By attacking tradition and pomposity, they were being intellectual terrorists by asking the audience to question the unquestionable. And at the same time, they were sending us an important message: “Don’t take life too seriously”. So for that reason, Python should be compulsory viewing for all ages, everywhere! It would make the world a happier, safer place!

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  8. 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.

    I feel I’ve had my time saved by this observation. If this isn’t the immediate problem with something on SNL, it’s the root cause of the immediate problem; of SNL’s making, and of every movie made by one of its 90s-onward clique.
    I can go back to ignoring its existence now, at least until Adam Sandler’s gormless visage forces its way into view.

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