Argument clinics. Twits. The Ministry of Silly Walks. Baby carriages that eat people. Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam! . . . What do they all add up to?
Monty Python, of course. The TV series that started the whole Python phenomenon, coincidentally named "Monty Python's Flying Circus," is finally making it to videocassette.
Originally a BBC half-hour show, first seen in 1969 (and frequently shown on PBS since 1974), "Flying Circus" was perhaps the greatest comedy series ever broadcast, and certainly one of the most original and provoking. Paramount Home Video will begin releasing cassettes containing two shows each with three initial volumes on Dec. 3.
Most of the Python free-form humor took pokes at British stuffiness. Some of the pokes seemed extremely violent, while others were hard for Americans to understand. But none of this kept Python from being a hit in the United States. Paramount seems to have gotten into the proper spirit: The first three volumes sport colorful, wacky packaging derived from Terry Gilliam's original animation, and the titles of Volume 2 and Volume 3 are "The Second (In Sequence, Not Quality) Monty Python's Flying Circus Videocassette" and "The Third (But Still Drastically Important and Absolutely Necessary to Have) Monty Python Flying Circus Videocassette." They'll be priced at $24.95 per tape, with other volumes to follow; Paramount has obtained the video rights to 45 shows.
Even though the more devoted Python fans have seen the series so often they can recite entire 10-minute sketches, the tapes should sell well. After TV, records, stage and movies ("Monty Python and the Holy Grail" et al.), the six-member Python troupe--seven if you count reliable female foil Carol Cleveland--is finally showing up in a medium that will allow those devotees to play favorite skits over and over. And over. (There will be people who'll have to be restrained from repeatedly watching John Cleese's efforts to return a dead parrot to the pet shop that sold it to him.)
But at least there will also be other tapes to divert the Python fanatic's attention. On Nov. 27 CBS/Fox Home Video will release what is widely considered the best of the Monty Python spinoff projects: Cleese's "Fawlty Towers," a 12-episode BBC series of half-hours in which the tall, ever-distressed comedian played slightly mad hotel manager Basil Fawlty. (Fawlty's predicaments and reactions somewhat resemble those of the character Cleese plays in the new film "Clockwork," but are far funnier.)
Written by Cleese and then-wife Connie Booth (who plays the maid), with some episodes taped in 1975 and others in 1979, "Fawlty Towers" was structured more like a normal TV series than "Circus," but was too brilliantly abrasive for the sitcom label. CBS/Fox is putting three shows on four cassettes at $29.98 per tape. If you're new to the series, the cassette containing "The Builders," "The Wedding Party" and "The Psychiatrist" is highly recommended. The ever-miserable Mr. Fawlty continually makes things worse as he tries to deal with cheap labor (in the first episode) and his own repressed sexuality (in the latter two). If these episodes don't make you laugh, there's no point in going on to the others.
Less well done but still interesting to the true Pythonophile is "Ripping Yarns," a BBC half-hour series written by Python members Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Videocassettes of the show are also to be released by CBS/Fox on Nov. 27. Like the book of the same name, "Ripping Yarns" consisted of various absurdist tales set in Edwardian England. The series succeeded better at being strange than at being funny, but Python fans who preferred Palin's and Jones' work in "Circus" over that of Cleese, Gilliam, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle should be amused. Three tapes containing three episodes each will sell for $29.98 apiece.
OTHER VIDEO RELEASES: There's more to videos than movies, and here are some new and coming releases that show it.
Besides beginning its Monty Python releases in December, Paramount will also kick off another series of comedy tapes that month with the first edition of "Paramount Comedy Theater"--declared "the first comedy series created especially for videocassette." That loony guy Howie Mandel will host and introduce four budding comedic talents. Information: (213) 468-5000.
Just released on Karl-Lorimar is Richard Simmons' latest exercise video, "Richard Simmons and the Silver Foxes." It's tailored for the over-50 workout crowd, features celebrity parents, including Sylvester Stallone's mother and Dustin Hoffman's father, and sells for $24.95. Information: (714) 474-0355.
Adults who remember the plot of the 1968 movie "Wild in the Streets" (where children took over the country) might wince at the title of a six-cassette series to be released Nov. 18 by Prism: "Kid Power." But fear not, grown-ups, it's just an animated children's guide to "responsibility, prejudice and honesty" ( anti -prejudice, we assume) with "11 kids from different ethnic and social backgrounds." The 30-minute tapes will be $14.95 each. Information: (213) 277-3270.
The fourth in the series of Consumer Reports-sponsored videocassettes has been released by Karl-Lorimar. This one is on "Traveling," and the hourlong tape offers tips on everything from planning a trip and choosing a travel agent to first-aid considerations. Price: $19.95. Information: (714) 474-0355.