Monty Python's Flying Circus redefined sketch comedy for all time. Judge Bill Gibron says this glimpse into the pre-Python days of Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam is well worth a look.
And now for something completely different…
While it would be nice to think that Monty Python's Flying Circus arrived fully formed and flush with originality from its very first broadcast, the truth is far more mundane. The members of the influential troupe, the greatest sketch comedy combo of all time, all had jobs in the media prior to their fateful convergence into the ultimate enclave of hilarity history. John Cleese had been a long-time writer for British icon David Frost. Graham Chapman often joined him as a partner in pandemonium. Along the fringes, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle were also busy, creating comedy for Frost, as well as radio and other broadcast fare. Lastly, scurrying around the edges of these elite Brit wits was American animation expatriate Terry Gilliam, a lost comic soul using London as a location for his concept of cut-and-paste lunacy.
Still, even though they occasionally worked together, and traveled in the same celebrated circles, Python wasn't a novel idea forged from concepts untried before. Instead, that seminal series that represents the best of UK joke jive is actually an amalgamation of two influential shows. On the one hand, there was At Last, The 1948 Show. Executive produced by Frost, it found Cleese and Chapman working with fellow funnyman Tim Brooke-Taylor and former writer-turned-performer Marty Feldman. The other important lineage linchpin was the Palin/Jones/Idle/Gilliam children's series, Do Not Adjust Your Set. While supposedly programmed for the wee ones, producer Humphrey Barclay mandated that the show be as funny as possible, regardless of the demographic.
Now, thanks to Tango Entertainment, we have a chance to witness nine "episodes" of Do Not Adjust Your Set on DVD. While this groundbreaking series may not live up to the Monty myth, there is still a great deal of comic gold to be mined. The material included on the two-disc set is as follows:
• Episode 1: Intro—King Lear—Musicians at Work—Family Grocer—Science for Sixth Forms—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("Monster Mash")—Maternity Ward—On Guard—The Wonder of Words—Stool Pigeon—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("The Sound of Music")—An Extraordinary Sight—Captain Fantastic—The Tartan Thistle Club
• Episode 2: Intro—Identity Parade—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("Brief Patients Noughts and Crosses")—Time for Fun/Fiver's Club—Captain Fantastic—Stars of Tomorrow—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("Look Out, There's a Monster Coming")—Concorde—Miss Pringle—"Two of Us" Song
• Episode 3: Intro—How to Eat—Musicians at Work—Happy Grin Insurance—Flying Doctor—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("The Equestrian Statue")—Take Your Clothes Off—Bus Stop—Cookery Class—Help!—Captain Fantastic—Sailor's Song—Personal Note
• Episode 4: Intro—Traffic Warden—Round Up—Thank You—Burglary Prevention—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("Hunting Tigers")—Thou Shall Not—Royal Opera House—Morning Madam—Scenes of Village Life—Captain Fantastic—Miss World
• Episode 5: Intro—Sport—Whackfield Wanderers—Chairback Banana Grabbing—Angling—Frogmen Routine—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("Hello Mabel")—Fortune Teller—Miniskirt—Captain Fantastic—Romeo and Juliet
• Episode 6: Intro—Economic Axe—Chancellor of the Exchequer—Espionage—Custard Factory—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("Love is a Cylindrical Piano")—Miss Pringle—Rehearsal—Cinderella—Captain Fantastic—British Food
• Episode 7: Intro—Holiday Club—Gremlin Easi-suite—Welcome Home—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("Death Cab for Cutie")—Has Anyone Seen the Invisible Man?—The Vosburgh Art Gallery—Captain Fantastic
• Episode 8: Intro—Instrumental—The Problems with Falling Over—The Wild and Wooly West—Weather—Hamster Allergies—Post Early for Christmas—It's Lucy—You're Fired—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (Announcement, "Tubas in Midnight")—Fancy Dress for Two—Dog Food—Captain Fantastic—Musicians at Work
• Episode 9: Intro—Television Planning—The Beginning of the End—Spotters Corner—Backwards—Cookery Class—Arthur the Amazing Performing Dog—Come Out and Play—Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band ("Metaphorically Speaking")—Miss Pringle—Pre-History—Captain Fantastic—The End
Aficionados of the fabulous funnymen featured on this set will be very happy indeed. Though it pales in comparison to the mighty monument to sketch comedy it created, Do Not Adjust Your Set proves that Monty Python's Flying Circus was not just some act of silliness synchronicity. Indeed, while watching these nine episodes, you can see the seeds of surreal sketch comedy that Python would plant and cultivate over the next few years. While some of the targets are tame (no jokes about cannibalism, race, or religion here) and the performances less than perfectly polished, Do Not Adjust Your Set is still heartfelt and hilarious, hitting its mark more times than it misses.
Perhaps the most amazing revelation here is how similar in style and tone Do Not Adjust Your Set was to preliminary Python. Do Not Adjust Your Set relies on short surreal skits, bombastic blackouts, and the occasional long-form sketch. Certainly you can see that the level of humor pales in comparison to the upcoming classic, but there is still some risk taking here. In contrast to At Last, the 1948 Show's long-form leanings, Do Not Adjust Your Set strives to be silly, succinct, and on to the next bit before you've grown bored. The afternoon time slot tendencies of the show (targets like other kids' shows, and cookery and education programming get tweaked) are very obvious, and in one continuing sketch in particular, the juvenilia is readily apparent.
David Jason and Denise Coffey are unsung heroes (and heroines) here, creating some crackerjack material of their own. Of particular note is the aforementioned wee one wonder, "Captain Fantastic." Our title character is a kind of dumpy, dopey superhero who, dressed in a bowler and mack, is constantly chasing his nemesis, Mrs. Black, and her evil handbag. The aim is definitely for the grade-school set, but the parody of comic book capering is classic. It makes sense then that, once Python was planned, Jason and Coffey continued on with "Fantastic," seeing it inserted into other kids' TV shows for years to come.
In general, this is a genial, very light offering. There is no true biting satire, and some of the skits are just big buildups for very dumb jokes. The ridiculing of "The Fiver's Club" and "Miss Pringle" is very funny, and the "Musicians at Work" series is always good for a laugh. It has to be mentioned that the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were featured prominently in each show (even appearing in skits) and their brand of overly esoteric fop pop is so strange, so out of place in what is basically a prepubescent pantomime that it's hard to totally accept them (imagine The Residents making an appearance on Romper Room). Still, their numbers are always inventive and interesting and they help differentiate Do Not Adjust Your Set from the rest of the "routine morals and handy crafts" children's programming. The same can be said for the series as a whole. Python proved that Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam were true comedic geniuses. Do Not Adjust Your Set showed that such brilliance was not unexpected. It just needed the right format to become fully formed.
Visually, Tango's presentation of Do Not Adjust Your Set looks hundreds of times better than its very poor, kinescope catastrophe for At Last, the 1948 Show. Here, the 16mm black and white film appears cleaner and crisper. Details are prevalent and while not perfectly monochrome, the fuzzy or faded bits are few and far between. Indeed, considering its rarity and MIA status, the 1.33:1 full frame presentation is excellent. Sadly, the aural transfer is hissy and distorted. Thankfully, the dialogue is clear and conversations are easily decipherable. The Bonzos sound fine, but also suffer from a lack of a true stereo mix. Make no mistake about it—this is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono at its most minimal and unimpressive. But consumers worried about sorry sonic will be pleasantly surprised.
As for extras, Tango tanks. Along with a very confusing, poorly rendered comedy "family tree" (dealing with the cast of both At Last, The 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set), we are offered just two bonus features as part of this two DVD set—and, technically, only one centers on Do Not Adjust Your Set. Terry Jones, looking surprisingly good, discusses his tenure with the program in a nice, insightful interview. The second interview features Tim Brooke-Taylor, discussing At Last, The 1948 Show. This is really a bonus for the companion DVD presentation (as a matter of fact, the At Last, The 1948 Show DVD presentation offers the same exact bonus features).
What Do Not Adjust Your Set proves is that talent is timeless, no matter how you package or present it. The reason that Palin, Jones, Idle, Jason, and Coffey are fondly remembered as gods (and demigods) of British humor is because they actually had the chops to deliver the delirium time after time, no matter the format, no matter the factors. With their keen eye for character, clever use of fantasy and farce, and artful ability to play with as well as against archetype, the actors at the center of this series argue for their rightful place in the pantheon of the pratfall. Though Monty Python's Flying Circus would cull the best parts from this, At Last, the 1948 Show, and the work of Spike Milligan to change the face of comedy forever, Do Not Adjust Your Set is a mandatory cog in the engine of British buffoonery. It is well worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tango Entertainment
• Interview with Terry Jones
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