My son couldn’t sleep last night. It was the night before the Fourth of July, and there were fireworks going off all over the neighborhood. He’s already a light sleeper, so I wasn’t surprised to hear him making his way down the stairs and then appearing in the living room where I was reading.
It was actually good timing on his part because I had recently discovered that all five seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus have recently been made available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
My son is a big Monty Python fan. Well, he’s only seen Holy Grail, but he’s seen it about 10 times, so he knows most of it by heart and he can, in the inimitable way of 10-year-old boys, quote lines from film in the context of everyday life. Up until last night, he had never seen Flying Circus, so this was a big deal for him.
Flying Circus, ran for five seasons, from 1969-1974. When I was a kid, reruns of The Flying Circus aired on the local public television station late on Friday nights. It came on just before The Bennie Hill Show. Neither Monty Python nor Bennie Hill was considered ‘family friendly’ television. I never would have imagined sitting around, watching episodes of either show with my folks, mostly because the skits were, at that time, salacious, and Terry Gilliam’s animation oftentimes showed naked women, but, looking back, I suspect the overwhelming Englishness of it all was just too much for suburban American households in the 1970s.
Consider “The Marriage Counselor,” one of the skits my son and I watched last night. The skit begins with Eric Idle (my favorite of the troupe) madly scribbling away at a writing desk. He’s the marriage counselor. A young couple—a very conservative, dorky looking dude and a bleach-blonde woman in a very low-cut and short dress—enters the room and sits down in front of Idle.
The man begins telling Idle of their marriage problems, while Idle ogles the woman, who, in turn, ogles him back and before you know it, Idle and the woman have retired behind a curtain. Shortly thereafter, they begin to fling their clothing over the curtain, while the husband, still sitting in the chair, continues to describe, in great detail, his suspicion that his wife may be sleeping around. It’s cute now, but in the mid 1970s, aside from shows like Three’s Company, these sorts of themes of sexual liberation were not standard fare on American television.
Given all that, I (and my friends) had a weird relationship with Monty Python. Well over half of the jokes went way over our heads, partly because they were so rooted in English culture but also because the Python troupe were culture-vulture Oxford/Cambridge grads who delighted in the kinds of literary and historical allusions that Oxford/Cambridge grads would naturally enjoy and that meant absolutely nothing to 10-year old kids from Allentown, Pennsylvania. One skit we watched last night was about Pablo Picasso working on a painting as he rode a bicycle through English villages. By the end of the skit, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Kandinsky and a spate of other modernist artists are referred to. I am absolutely sure that I had no idea who any of those artists were when I was 10 (my son, does, though) and I’m also absolutely sure that I laughed my butt off when I saw that skit for the first time, probably sitting on the floor in front of the television in Matt McCambridge’s basement with four or five other kids from the neighborhood.
One of the great things about Monty Python, though, is that you don’t really have to ‘get it’ to enjoy it; that is, the intellectualism isn’t in the service of itself—it’s in the service of humor. This is, by the way, a really hard thing to pull off, and I think it’s partly the reason that Monty Python was so enjoyable to us when we were kids. Monty Python spoke to us as we were—10-year-old boys from suburban eastern Pennsylvania who responded to the silly slap stick. It also showed us a part of the world (European, intellectual, cosmopolitan) that none of us knew a thing about, but that we all found strangely fascinating.
At this point, you have to understand the crucial role of basements in 1970s youth culture, because, looking back, I’m not even sure that we would have been able to watch Monty Python if it weren’t for the proverbial television in the basement. First of all, parents never went down there, at least not while we occupied them. Also, all the suburban basements I remember kind of looked and smelled the same—wood paneling, wall-to-wall carpeting that was a little musty from those damp Pennsylvania winters and humid summers. Most of them housed a ping pong table and, if the family was a little better off, a pool table. Sometimes the parents set up a wet bar in the basement where we’d sit and dangle our skinny legs as we waited for our turn at the pool or ping pong table. Most 1970s suburban basements also had a stereo that included an 8-track player, a radio receiver and a turntable. This was, by far, the accessory that interested me the most, as we would tune into the FM rock and roll stations and sing along with David Bowie and Freddy Mercury, or slide Born to Run out of the album cover, pop it on the turntable and read the lyrics that were printed on the inside.
Beyond the built environment, though, the basement was where we went to trade secrets, tell stories, relive episodes of Saturday Night Live or act out the game-winning shot that Dr. J made the night before. Sometimes our little sisters would come down stairs, and we’d say mean things or just ignore them and other times, older, teen age sisters would fly down the stairs and we’d just shyly stare at them while they cast condescending looks our way.
I guess that in many ways, the 1970s suburban basement was a liminal space for my generation. It was a place between our early childhood and the teenagers we were becoming. It was a place where we confided in one another, teased one another, betrayed and were loyal to one another and it was a place where we were introduced to things that reminded us of the kids we once were and the young adults we were becoming.
And I guess that, at least for me, Monty Python made visible this in between-ness. We laughed at John Cleese flapping his arms like a chicken or Eric Idle flailing about on the floor because it was kid humor. Physically, there wasn’t much of a difference between the way the Monty Python troupe acted with each other and the way we all related to each other as 10-year olds—we clowned around, made weird noises, said silly things over and over and over and, well, acted like the children we were. At the same time, this was clearly the world of adults. It wasn’t the world of adult problems—there was no divorce or sadness and Python’s humor took the sting out of war and death by making fun of the people who caused it. But it was the complex world of adult communication and humor, a world that we could laugh about even though we didn’t understand it completely.