A&E // 1970 // 237 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // October 7th, 1999
And now for something completely different!
One of the most creative and bizarrely funny TV comedy shows ever made comes across the Atlantic to delight and entertain us Yanks.
You know you are in for some bracing comedy when the box boasts that the series is "Now in glorious digital DVD format, so that you, the digital aficionado, can enjoy the original scratches, pops, and hisses with crystal clarity." If you have only seen the antics of the Monty Python troupe in some of its theatrical efforts (such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail), then you owe it to yourself to experience the riotous series that started it all. If you have led such a deprived life that you haven't even seen any of their films, then where the heck have you been living? Run, do not walk, to the video store immediately!
Too often in recent years comedy (both on TV and in the theaters) seems hell-bent on heading straight for the bottom of the barrel and staying there, wallowing in puerile and vacuous humor and pandering in the worst sort of way to the lowest common denominator. Monty Python's Flying Circus is a welcome reminder of how comedy can span the range of comedy, from the tasteless to the intellectual, without pandering or compromising its spirit and sheer creative force.
You can't pigeonhole the Pythonesque style of humor, except to say that it is at turns silly, bawdy, slapstick, tasteless, bizarre, and thoroughly British. The gags are presented in rapid-fire sketch fashion, interspersed with bits of stock footage and the fevered imaginings of animator Terry Gilliam. (If you want to see the strongest examples of how truly warped Terry Gilliam can be, check out Time Bandits, Brazil, or 12 Monkeys, among other films.) The members of the troupe, Graham Chapman, John Cleese (A Fish Called Wanda), Michael Palin (ditto), Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones, assisted by frequent appearances by Carol Cleveland and Connie Booth, take upon themselves a most dizzying array of roles (with most of the female parts played by male Pythons in drag!) and display a wide range of vocal and physical talents.
I can't even begin to synopsize the wealth of humor in the thirteen episodes spread across the four discs of these two sets, but perhaps a list of the sketch highlights (listed on the back of each individual disc) might begin to give you idea about the jewels that lurk therein. So, without further ado:
Set One, Disc One: "Includes tasty bits of Famous Dead People, Italian for Italians, Whizzo Butter, a Hedgehog Called Frank, Picasso on a Bicycle, the funniest joke in the world, flying SHEEP, a Scotsman on a Horse, musical mice, A Man with Three Buttocks, the testimony of the late Arthur Aldridge, a Bicycle Repairman, a dirty fork, Multiple Seduced Milkmen, and nudge nudge."
Set One, Disc Two: "This volume contains ample duck, Cat and Lizard, Clocks Smuggled Directly from Switzerland, erotic film, the finest crunchy raw unboned real dead frog, excerpts from the dull life of a city stockbroker, a very silly job interview, Scotsman on a Horse, the Flemish Masters of the Renaissance, a man undressing in public, self-defense against fresh fruit, and Secret Service Dentistry."
Set Two, Disc Three: "Complete with The Lumberjack Song, Dead Parrott -- deceased, bereft of life, expired and gone to meet its maker, an ex-parrot -- as well as Camel Spotting, Aliens Turning Humans into Scotsmen, Hell's Grannies, full frontal nudity, the Army Protection Racket, the Place of the Nude in Art, Blancmanges Playing Tennis, and a Man with a Tape Recorder up his Nose."
Set Two, Disc Four: "Replete with the Upperclass Twit of the Year, albatross, Lavatorial Humor, a man who puts bricks to sleep by hypnosis, Interruptions, Police Station Silly Voices, Ken Shabby, Restaurant Abuse and Cannibalism, Historical Impersonations, Pet Conversions, a gorilla librarian, and a very silly psychiatry sketch."
Video is surprisingly good for a vintage TV series. Aside from the animation sequences that are prone to moderate video noise as well as visible scars, blotches, and other defects (plainly faults in the original material), the shows are remarkably clean and clear, though not as sharp as we have come to expect (having been spoiled by recent movies). Flesh tones are spot on, and colors are as saturated as we could expect from older source material. The faults in the video are not in the transfer, and it appears that A&E did as good a job as possible in the digital remastering process.
Audio is what you would expect for a TV show of some thirty years vintage. The mono is heavily concentrated in the middle frequencies, with clearly attenuated higher frequencies but frequently very anchored in the bass register (and on a few occasions quite boomy). Fortunately, the dialogue is clear and easily understood.
Extras are an interesting lot, and quite good for a television series release. (After all, we wouldn't expect a commentary track!) Each disc has its own assortment, including live sketches drawn from the movie Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl or the TV series:
Disc One displays Meet the Chaps, py*thon*isms ("dictionary" definitions of various terms), Gilliam's Attic, Nudge nudge Live! (movie), and Silly Occupations (TV skits).
Disc Two shows us Meet the Chaps, A Trivial Quest (with sketch clips as rewards), Gillianimations, Crunchy frog Live! (movie), and Hysterical Figures (collection of TV skits).
Disc Three has Meet the Chaps, (more) py*thon*isms, Gillianimations, Lumberjack Live! (movie), and Talent Show (a collection of TV skits).
Disc Four includes Meet the Chaps, A Trivial Quest (with sketch clips as rewards), Gilliam's Attic (drawing and animation bits), Pythonolympics (TV skits), Montykaraoke (the Philosopher's Song from the movie), and Albatross Live! (movie).
Also, the discs include a "useless tidbit" for each episode, themed (but static) menus, and animated transitions. In a nice touch, the impatient viewer can skip directly to the individual sketches within a show.
Minor gripes, but persistently annoying ones. First, the episodes are not time-coded, and simply play as titles. I like to know elapsed running time, partly to judge when a program will end and also to find the spot if I need to interrupt my viewing, and this "feature" is inexplicable to me. Second, A&E has decided to use yet another sort of keep case, which does not hold the disc in a molded plastic well, instead using four short, curved plastic walls, and uses a center hub that is only slightly less annoying than the monstrosity in the Alpha keep cases. The end result is a keep case that holds the DVD in a less secure and user-friendly fashion than I would prefer.
A timeless collection of classic comedy, and decent DVDs to boot, these discs are a treat for the soul, and belong on your shelf for a reasonable price ($25 per disc, or $45 for each two-disc set).
I can't tell the difference between Whizzo butter and a dead crab either, so the series is acquitted! A&E is reprimanded for its errors, and ordered to stop using these horrible new keep cases forthwith.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 237 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Art Gallery
* Preview Upcoming Episodes
* Troupe Career Highlights
* Meet The Chaps
* Pythonism Glossary