First farce, then tragedy

August 21st, 2004
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Graham Chapman is the one member of the famous Monty Python comedy troupe thwarting any group re-union – having died in 1989.  A biopic, “Gin and Tonic,” is now underway. The director’s biggest challenge may be to make the story of this avant-garde, gender-bending comedian seem unusual, let alone risqué, to a 21st century audience.

Physician, comedian, alcoholic, Chapman’s nascent gay sensibility gave an even sharper edge to the Python’s revolutionary satire when it burst onto the scene 35 years ago this October. But much of the far-out farce that overturned everything in its path has since been incorporated – with little apparent irony – into daily life, endlessly churned in our thousand-channel, web-enabled universe.

Monty Python conceived “The Most Awful Family in Britain,” with Chapman in a tight red miniskirt and stiff blond bee-hive shrieking at his “dad” (colleague Terry Jones) that he wasn’t out “snogging” with some man in the hallway. Fellow Python Terry Gilliam lay on the couch drowning in a mess of baked beans. At the end a “celebrity panel” found the family lacked the “really gross awfulness” to win first prize. Top honours went to a family whose mother “licks frightful scabs off the cat.”

Whatever message Python intended, it’s doubtful they believed their biting satire represented a simple, linear prediction. Yet this sort of thing is the daily fare of Reality TV and trash talk shows. There’s no shortage of truly awful people willing to eat insect larvae, pummel their adulterous spouse or concoct lies to justify theft from a friend while thrusting their arm up a cow’s birth canal.

Foretelling the themes of Fear Factor, Springer and The Simple Life wasn’t just luck. Chapman and his colleagues showed eerie prescience about society outside the entertainment industry. One Python record – the British group produced books, records and movies in addition to its television show – featured a man with surgically-emplaced elephant parts. “Elephantoplasty,” deadpanned a doctor played by Chapman, was a legitimate medical frontier.

Would anyone get the joke today? People routinely excise, enlarge or invent intimate body parts, and inject botulism bacteria merely to fight wrinkles. Neo-pagans solicit bone grafts to produce “horns” and other disfigurements. People seem resolved to use every scientific means in fitting their physical appearance to their mental self-image. Can demands for trunks or prehensile tails be far away?

One scene in Python’s “Life of Brian” could nurture lifelong wariness of identity-group politics. In it, a People’s Front of Judea revolutionary demanded the word “woman” be added alongside “man” to every clause of the group’s manifesto. When challenged, Stan (Eric Idle) confessed he wants to “have babies” and be called Loretta. “Where’s the fetus going to gestate…in a box?” scoffed another character. The group reconciled this clash of idealism with reality by acknowledging Stan’s theoretical “right to have babies” as symbolic of the “struggle against oppression.” While the audience roared at the time, today this kind of stuff forms the intellectual underpinnings of countless political groups.

Obviously, social goalposts have been hurled in every direction since 1969. One can hardly imagine Chapman wanted to see a nation of slobs, but in fact the satirical has become the standard. Half the reproductive impossibilities lampooned in “Life of Brian” – funny precisely because the delusional Stan denied physical reality and natural law – are already achievable.

With social norms moved that far, what’s left for comedy? Where’s the fringe? The National Post just days ago reported how the performance of one young Scottish playwright at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival consisted entirely of detailed reporting of his web-based sexual liaisons – how, why and with whom he’d lifted his kilt. Without apparent irony. One hankers for the Python’s transvestite lumberjack hailing “the mighty rivers of British Columbia.”

We could forever debate the rightness of all this. But of greatest concern is that questioning – let alone openly opposing – many of these trends is harshly stigmatized. The freedoms Monty Python implicitly championed for the oppressed and marginalized are increasingly denied the formerly privileged and mainstream. Laughing at a “Loretta” could land you before a human rights commission.

Where would a reunited Python stand today? Would it be anti-PC, or even legal? For them there were no sacred cows, but today’s grimly humourless officialdom could well label Python’s lampooning of our indulged minorities as hate-speech. Would the CRTC even allow re-runs to be aired? In any given episode, Chapman & Co. offended more people and groups – including those they also championed – than CHOI radio ever did.

Twenty-five years ago, before AIDS and political correctness, Chapman did a one-man tour of Canadian universities. Sitting alone on a stool, he’d demand the audience scream abuse at him. “Life of Brian” would be screened, and afterwards Chapman would talk thoughtfully about comedic and social anarchy, his booze-soaked decade, his being gay and how that was OK. One wonders how he might react to the world 15 years after he, in the immortal words of the Dead Parrot sketch, “joined the choir invisible.”

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