IFC recently ran a six-part documentary series, chronicling the history of the Pythons, from their beginnings in the Oxford and Cambridge revues, through to Spamalot. It was quite a treat, not least realizing how the troupe was a semi-random collection of people, who gelled into a near-perfect whole for three sublime seasons of television, at a rare moment in television history when the opportunity to make a show like that presented itself.
Of course, as with any sketch-based comedy series, it wasn’t all good: it’s a genre that inevitably lends itself to peaks and valleys, rather than the consistency of things like Fawlty Towers or Blackadder. And, especially in the abortive fourth season, there were plenty of valleys – without John Cleese, the show was lost, and those episodes are the Python equivalent of those Eastern Bloc Tom and Jerry cartoons from the early 1960’s. But the peaks were sublime; both in the TV series and the movies, they created timeless moments of comedy which have rarely, if ever, been matched. It spans generations: my father loved Python. Myself and Chris adore Python. And our son is just as much a fan, who will recite The Four Yorkshiremen at the drop of a dead parrot.
Hence, this list of my favourite Python moments – not just from the TV, but the movies as well, which can hardly be denied their significance in comedy’s Hall of Fame. However, I have excluded stuff from The Secret Policeman’s Ball and its sequels. The hard part was restricting it to ten eleven (for reasons explained later): I could easily have doubled the number without blinking. The link for each title will open a new tab where you can view the sketch in question.
I note that my preference is clearly skewed towards the more verbal side of Python comedy, rather than the physical – I think this is because the slapsticky stuff is rather too well-worn a path, from Charlie Chaplin through to Benny Hill. Hence, sketches like Upper-class Twit of the Year, often ranked highly on other, similar lists, are not ones of which I’m particular fond. It’s in word-play and their use of the English language that the true strength of Python can be seen. They manage to be immensely smart (who else would ever base a piece on summarizing Proust?) without getting pretentious (you don’t really need to know who Proust is to appreciate the results), and that’s a lot rarer than you might imagine.