BBC Culture

Monty Python’s best sketches ever

(BBC/Python Pictures)

(BBC/Python Pictures)

The British troupe’s influence on comedians is well documented. But what about their impact on scientists and philosophers? BBC Culture finds out.

“Who wants to see that again, really?” said Mick Jagger yesterday in a video released to introduce the Monty Python reunion, which begins tonight at the O2 in London. “It’s a bunch of wrinkly old men trying to relive their youth and make a load of money”.

The group’s surreal TV shows and feature films in the 1970s and ’80s inspired a new generation of comedians including Tina Fey, Mike Myers and Matt Groening. According to comedian Eddie Izzard, “they proved, without knowing it, that humour is international and not national”. And now they’ve convinced a Rolling Stone to parody himself.

Monty Python’s influence extends far beyond comedy. Seven asteroids have been named after them; a woolly lemur discovered in 2005 was called Avahi cleesei after John Cleese; a species of fossil python found in 1985 was named Montypythonoides riversleighensis. There is even a computer programming language called Python, with references to the troupe embedded in its code.

As the new series of concerts begins, BBC Culture honours five wrinkly old men with a selection of their sketches – chosen by palaeontologists, zoologists, philosophers and other thinkers.

George Reisch, co-editor of Monty Python and Philosophy: Nudge Nudge Think Think 

Favourite sketch: The Argument Clinic 

I recently gave a talk to philosophers in Mexico and analysed some of the dialogue here. It is nearly a perfect symphony of semantic nonsense that in fact is not nonsense at all. I find it hard to believe the Pythons could come up with such gems before each episode and without spending weeks or months tweaking the words. I’d give an honourable mention to How to Confuse a Cat. As a cat owner, I routinely think about this sketch and the serious question it poses: Could you confuse a cat? Is puzzlement something they can know?  

Pete Mellor, animator and contributor to A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman

Favourite sketch: Fig leaf

It's a very simple animation with a ridiculously long arm trying to remove David's fig leaf. The timing is spot on and even though you know that the fig leaf will eventually be removed it's still a surprise when there is Mary Whitehouse talking about censorship. Terry Gilliam's animation style has been copied endlessly now but the ethos is still inspiring - as long as you have some good ideas and a sense of comedy timing you can create clever animations without the need for too much technical wizardry.

Liam Herringshaw, Palaeontological Association

Favourite sketch: Mosquito Hunters

Being from Leicester, I would honour my fellow Leicestrian, Graham Chapman. Ideally, I would be able to commemorate the Mosquito Hunters sketch by discovering a fossil mosquito in the Jurassic rocks of Leicestershire. This would be perfect Jurassic Park material, and since the Attenboroughs are from Leicester too, and Dickie starred in the movie whilst David commissioned Monty Python, I'd probably honour them too. Sadly, the earliest known fossil mosquito is from the Cretaceous of Burma so my chances don't look great. In my best bastardized Latin, I'd call it Mercatoculex attenboroughi, from Mercator, meaning trader (the likely meaning of 'chapman'), culex meaning mosquito and attenboroughi (named after Mr Attenborough).

 

David Hardcastle, assistant curator at London’s Museum of Comedy

Favourite sketch: Four Yorkshiremen

Growing up in Yorkshire I always enjoyed this sketch, thinking it was an extreme parody of the type of cliched northerner that didn't really exist anymore. All these years later I realise it was in fact an accurate prediction of what I would eventually become. And I was lucky.

Mark Carwardine, zoologist and wildlife photographer

Favourite sketch: Lumberjack song

If I had to pick just one it would have to be the Lumberjack Song. It's so utterly ridiculous, it's brilliant and I love the fact that it was reputably thrown together in 15 minutes.

Eva Ullmann, German Institute of Humour

Favourite sketch: Silly walks

The sketch is like a pantomime and uses a lot of body language. For our seminars, we use pantomime to produce humour – it’s nice to show and easy to copy. It’s also easy to understand – you don’t need to speak the language. Monty Python have such a great nonsensical humour. Sometimes it helps to resort to nonsense to get through a tough situation. In Germany, we are still trying to reach to reach their level of humour. Everyone says Germans don’t have a great sense of humour – but at least we can appreciate it.

Dave Brown, comedian and graphic designer

Favourite sketch: Missing wallet

Choosing your favourite Python sketch is like choosing your favourite child: easy. [Mine] opens on a suburban street with Cleese dressed as a policeman. A suited Palin runs into shot and proceeds to frantically tell the copper how his wallet has just been stolen. Cleese asks if he saw who did it, and when Palin replies no, the policeman informs him that there's not really anything he can do about it. The awkward pause that follows is marvellous, showing why Palin is one of my favourites. His facial expressions and the timing between them both are impeccable. After the perfect delay, Palin cautiously asks the policemen: "Do you wanna come back to my place?" Again, after the perfect amount of time, Cleese replies "Yeah Alright" and they both leave. Genius.

Gary Hardcastle, Professor whose work includes the lecture Themes in Contemporary Analytic Philosophy as Reflected in the Work of Monty Python

Favourite sketch: Cheese shop

For me it's the cheese shop. It's a very long piece, about five minutes, and there's so much going on. There's the class difference, Cleese over Palin, that's overturned as the upper class man is driven into madness. He's carried a gun to the library to read a little Walpole. Of course. Cleese's line, "it's not much of a cheese shop, really, is it?" I've considered using for my epitaph, but for the fact that I'm to be cremated and my wife says it probably won't fit on the jar. But really, that line sums up so much about life, as the Pythons taught us to see it.

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