Scholarly Study–of Monty Python?

The British comedy group Monty Python blazed like a comet across the world of humor from 1969 to 1974 with a weekly BBC program. Later, the group made several movies, the best known probably being Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

I have been a fan since seeing another Python movie, And Now for Something Completely Different, ca. 1975. My sons are hooked, too. They can recite long passages of Python dialogue from memory.

Appreciation for Monty Python’s zany comedy is widespread, but I never expected to see an article about the group in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the Feb. 4, 2011, edition, however, you’ll find “Monty Python’s Academic Circus” by Georgia State University English professor Randy Malamud. (Alas, this is subscriber-only content. This is the link for subscribers.)

Malamud writes—with just the right blend of humor and bemusement—about an academic conference held in Lodz, Poland, last fall devoted to Monty Python. “Upon seeing Internet postings for ‘Monty Python in Its British and International Cultural Contexts, or How to recognize the Spanish Inquisition from quite a long way away,’ all of the attendees at first thought it was a joke,” Malamud notes.

No, it was not a joke. It was two days of presentations and discussion on various aspects of Monty Python’s work—although that word seems ill-fitted to nutty nonsense like The Cheese Shop Sketch.

But how can anyone turn comedy into a subject for academic research?

Malamud is aware of the difficulty and quotes E. B. White: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the revelations and goings-on at the conference.

  •  In a number of Python sketches, a huge, sixteen-ton weight falls on hapless characters. Conference attendees learned that the prop had been created of polystyrene on December 19, 1969, was broken in July 1970 when it hit someone on the head, and was subsequently repaired and reused.
  • During the Falkland Islands War in 1982, the British ship HMS Sheffield was badly damaged in an Argentine bombing attack. While awaiting rescue, the sailors sang the Monty Python song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
  • Sociologists delved into the meaning of sketches. One paper presented was entitled “Mr. Gumby, Chartered Accountant, and Sir John: Social Structure in Sociological Mirror of the Pythons.”
  • Feminist scholars got into the act, presenting papers on “The Representation of Women in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” and “The Body, Desire, and the Abject in Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” (That’s how the program reads. I suspect that “abject” was supposed to read “object.”)
  • Academic conferences never wander far away from some kind of theory, and attendees here were treated to a paper on “Monty Python’s Humor and the Conceptual Integration of Theory.” I have a very hard time imagining what theory was conceptually integrated in The Dead Parrot Sketch.
  • Monty Python is all about jokes, so why not spend some time investigating the nature of jokes? One paper that probably did not have the attendees rolling in the aisles was “Where Lies the Meaning of a Joke? The Use of Cognitive, Semantical and Pragmatic Perspectives in the Analysis of Monty Python Sketches.”

The more I read about the conference, the more convinced I am that E. B. White was right. Only professors could take seriously the notion that Monty Python poses “issues and problems.”  Good grief. It’s just comedy.

If the troupe were still going today, they might write a sketch on college professors who take un-serious things very seriously. Thank you, Professor Malamud.