The humor was strange, smart, surreal, free-associative and ghastly, and it mixed the high with the low, the deep with the trivial. Inspired by Spike Milligan's anarchic "Q5," which preceded Python onto the air, punch lines and endings were done away with in favor of sudden cutaways. ("And now for something completely different.")
The Pythons, when we finally saw them on television, a year before "Saturday Night Live" debuted, were young, long(ish)-haired, and anti-Establishment, not in a strictly political sense but in the sense that anyone foolish enough to think himself "established" needed to be disabused of it. At the same time, their humor was not exactly social criticism. (And despite the time, it was definitely not hippie humor.) The attack was more fundamental, directed toward reality itself, eternally unstable in a world understood by something as treacherous as language. That's what's kept Python fresh and brought in new followers generation after generation.
All comedy is subversive -- the simplest schoolyard joke works by frustrating expectations, by zigging left instead of zagging right, by coming to the fork in the road and taking it. The Pythons wear their Oxbridge educations on their sleeves -- lots of references to philosophy and literature and world history -- but they revel also in silliness, in sideways logic.
"There's a man at the door with a mustache."
"Tell him I already got one."
"I just spent four hours burying the cat."
"Four hours to bury a cat?"
"Yes -- it wouldn't keep still."
One thing doesn't necessarily follow from the last here. ("Exclusively on the program today we have the foreign secretary, who has just returned from the bitter fighting in the Gulf of Amman. He's going to tell us about canoeing.") As in Lewis Carroll or the Marx Brothers, language gets slippery or breaks down altogether: A man spells his name Raymond Luxury Yacht but pronounces it Throatwobbler Mangrove. A deceptive Hungarian English phrasebook translates asking for a match as "My hovercraft is full of eels." (It's a measure of the Python's influence that this phrase gets 46,200 hits on Google.)
Relishing the ridiculous
THE word "silly" appears often in the Python canon -- there are the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Silly Olympics, the election race between the Sensible and the Silly parties. In "The Holy Grail," King Arthur decides to bypass Camelot because "it is a silly place."
But everywhere is silly in Pythonland, where we meet a man with three buttocks, a man with a tape recorder up his nose, a cat suffering from "suburban \o7fin de siecle\f7 ennui," and witness a women's club reenacting Pearl Harbor, a wrestling match to decide the existence of God, "A Tale of Two Cities" adapted for parrots, the semaphore version of "Wuthering Heights," the AllEngland Summarize Proust Competition, a cheese shop uncontaminated by cheese; and apartment towers built by hypnotism.
Silliness is not, of course, to everyone's taste -- indeed, one of Python's primary targets is people who have no time for it. "Nobody likes a good laugh more than I do," declares Chapman's recurring Colonel character. "Except perhaps my wife. And some of her friends. Oh, yes, and Capt. Johnson. Come to think of it, most people like a good laugh more than I do." The Colonel is in the habit of peremptorily ending sketches with such declarations as: "Stop this. This is getting very silly now."
But in a world where fatal absurdities are mouthed and perpetrated by nominally intelligent people, silliness can seem positively sensible. And so welcome back, Pythons.