Monty Python’s popularity tells us something about the history and the future of comedy

Is anyone still interested in the British comedy act? Surprisingly, yes.

Michael Palin’s donation of Monty Python’s notebooks to the British Library have revealed, among other things, “unseen sketches” from their 1975 film, Monty Python and The Holy Grail. The Python team’s films are well-known pieces of satire and already widely critically acclaimed. So, what does the discovery of the lost sketches mean for their comedy?

The discovery of lost materials often plays an important part in the development of our understanding and appreciation of some art forms. Consider the importance of the different “folios” for William Shakespeare’s plays which have literally made careers for some literary critics who spend their lives discerning the differences in quality and merit. So, will Python’s unseen sketches dilute our appreciation or amplify their comic greatness? My answer is neither.

Comedy is special when it comes to posterity. We often ask of comedy whether it will stand the test of time – as if we know comedy to be ephemeral. Equally, we talk about comedy rarely being to everyone’s taste. Unlike other artworks, comedy is uniquely audience dependant. As comedy is a product of its audiences, then the desire to archive comedy reflects a desire to preserve the cultural significance of the humorists.

We could say, to quote Michael Palin as Dennis in The Holy Grail: “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not some farcical aquatic ceremony!” In other words, it’s the public who decide which comedy is worthy of longevity, especially in the digital age.

Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975).

Monty Python’s status suggests they have achieved a degree of universality. Monty Python consisted of six middle-class white men who – with the exception of Terry Gilliam – were all privately educated in England and attended Oxbridge colleges. They form part of a genealogy of prominent comedians who have descended from the Oxford Revue and Cambridge Footlights and into the collective comic sensibility. But they are not confined to their class, race, gender and educational clique.

Sociologist Sam Friedman’s survey of UK comedy tastes revealed that Monty Python holds relatively universal appeal, amusing a demographic that cuts across class and educational divides as well as genders. Monty Python also appears to lack identity baggage – you don’t have be like them to appreciate their comic genius.

This does not mean that their humour is devoid of class or gender identities. Far from it. Their sketches often display “poshness” – but for some reason this is not a shortcoming. Unlike the Pythons, contemporary Footlights performers desire not to come across as posh or exclusive.

This invites the question of where we locate the humour and pleasures of Monty Python. Sigmund Freud said of laughter that it evidences “far-reaching psychical conformity” – that those who laugh at the same thing not only have a sense of humour in common, they have more in common besides. This implies that joking reveals commonalities and equalities between those who laugh together.

But Freud was stumped by the fact that when we laugh at jokes, we scarcely know what it is that amuses us. We may “get” a joke – but we often don’t know what it is we’ve “got”. Freud was suspicious of this. He wondered whether with jokes we have a group of collaborative, like-minded people who form a cult through humour. Or whether we have a group of different people from different walks of life who collude to find humour. Are people being tacitly coerced in the same direction by the comedians – or are jokes the way we overcome our differences? Jokes could produce community out of discord, but Freud also saw the possibility of the reverse.

The Meaning of Life.

Monty Python’s continuing popularity raises important questions not for the history but the future of comedy. At a time of immense cultural sensitivity around questions of whose voices are heard and who gets to participate in the arts, it is worth thinking about the social relationships being forged through humour.

To say that Monty Python is universal is certainly not a timeless statement. The rise of Alternative Comedy in the 1980s was as much a reaction to racist and sexist 1970s sit-coms, as it was an overturning of the middle-class “clever” comedy of Python. The Young Ones, written by Rik Mayall and Ben Elton (who studied drama at Manchester University) and Lise Mayer (who met them there), is a direct rebellion against the Oxbridge humour of Python.

Monty Python’s heyday was a long time ago now. Back in the day, they probably wouldn’t have imagined what people would think of them 50 years on. But millennial comedians are only too aware of the fact their work is being shared, archived and scrutinised – and that this could come back to haunt them at any stage of their lives. In my book Comedy & Critique, I am particularly interested in how today’s comedians have to take special care of context, perceived intent and discretion over possible reactions.

Comedians often say: “You get the audience you deserve.” This does not mean: “Don’t worry, you’ll find your people” – but: “Be careful, consider who and how you are making people laugh.”

Monty Python's Flying Circus Hidden Treasures.

Daniel R. Smith, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Anglia Ruskin University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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This article was produced on behalf of Siemens by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.