We have been Netflixing Monty Python’s Flying Circus over the last few weeks, and it has been a disquieting experience to come into contact once again with something so formative for me. Apropos of my earlier comments about the two forms of comedy, I have been paying special attention to the things I am laughing at. It tends to be one of these: satire, slapstick, absurdism, music, or archeology.
By archeology, I mean rediscovering the source of some verbal signature or other that I had long since internalized. (“So that’s where I got it!”)
By music I mean when the previous three elements (“satire, slapstick, absurdism”) are harmonized. A perfect example of this is a moment in the Killer Joke sketch, when there is newsreel footage of Chamberlain holding up a piece of paper; the voice-over is talking about how this new Killer Joke is the culmination of “Europe’s pre-war joke.” Peace in our time, indeed. What a joke.
The moment passes quickly in the Killer Joke sketch, and it’s one that lesser comedians would have set as the cornerstone for the whole sketch. But if you’re composing a polyphonic work, no single voice can be principal for long. The “pre-war joke” is a deft harmony between satire and absurdism, helping to balance these with the slapstick of, say, the German soldiers laughing to death and falling out of the trees.