Differences Between the Original Broadcast Sketches and
Versions of Monty Python's Flying Circus
Riku Haapaniemi, Fall 2011 (US)
FAST-US-1 (TRENPK2) Introduction to American English (Hopkins)
The FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere
During its early years in the tail-end of the 1960s and the early 1970s,
the British sketch comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus gained
considerable cult success in its homeland. Still, while Flying Circus's
anarchic style of madcap comedy definitely struck a note with domestic
audiences, most of the world was still blissfully unaware of the comedic
revolution going on in Queen's Own England.
Seeking to correct this injustice, the Monty Python group also
called the Pythons by their fans released their first feature-
length motion picture, And Now for Something Completely Different,
in 1971. Featuring the most successful sketches from the first two seasons
of the television show, slightly tweaked and reshot on film, the movie was
aimed at international audiences, hoping to launch the group big time
outside the British borders, especially in the US.
Success in America is often seen as the result of selling your soul to
Hollywood investors, but just how much did the Pythons trade in their
artistic integrity for transatlantic revenue? Obviously, some changes were
made in the sketches but which, if any, of these seem to have been
made solely to better cater for the tastes of American audiences?
Monty Python's Flying Circus first started airing on BBC1 in 1969.
Its genius was instantly recognized and its revolutionary style was widely
lauded within the industry, and the show quickly became a cult hit. With
the combined comedic prowess of the sharp Cambridge minds of John Cleese,
Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, their Oxonian equals Terry Jones and Michael
Palin, and by Jove, an American! Terry Gilliam, the
Pythons' anarchic approach to sketch comedy joyfully and unreservedly mixed
the high-brow with the low-brow, the silly with the serious, always with a
satirical edge and a fresh look on the nature of comedy.
A good example of the Pythons' typical flair of comedy is the sketch
simply known as The Restaurant Sketch.1
A man (played by Graham Chapman) and his wife enter a restaurant,
the waiter warmly welcomes them, the man compliments their excellent
service, the waiter recommends the chef's famous pheasant à la reine
everything is perfectly nice, except that the man's fork is a bit
dirty. The waiter apologizes and gets the head waiter, the head waiter
sacks the entire dishwashing staff and gets the manager, the manager starts
to cry, the chef comes in, shouting and cursing, the manager kills himself,
the chef tries to kill the customers but is taken down by the waiter… And
suddenly, a title card comes up: "And now… the punch line." Chapman turns
to look directly into the camera and says, "Lucky we didn't say anything
about the dirty knife," and the audience groans in disgust at the line.
At face value, The Restaurant Sketch is a typical example of the
craft: the quintessential sketch, a perfect spiral into madness, following
every rule in the Comedy Writer's Handbook, all building up to a punchline
that will validate the whole setup. But at the absolute last moment the
sketch takes a sudden left turn, and instead of bringing the skit to its
natural close, the (intentionally corny) punchline completely shatters the
whole construct. The punchline isn't funny because it brings the joke to an
amusing close, it's brought under ridicule as a concept. This sort
of respectful-yet-deconstructive approach to the traditions of the craft is
what lies at the heart of Monty Python's comedy: they're happy to follow
the established rules when it's funny, but they're certainly not afraid to
break them if it's even funnier.
And Now for Something Completely Different brought an all-star array
of Flying Circus sketches to the silver screen. These were the days
before home video, so rewatching programs already broadcast usually wasn't
an option for the regular consumer. Thus, the repackaging of sketches also
made sense in the domestic market. Still, the main aim of the film was to
introduce the Pythons to foreign markets, the biggest of which was,
naturally, the United States.
While rewriting the sketches into a feature film, several changes were
made, most of them small, some of them bigger. A lot of these were made so
that the film would work better as a whole; for example, sketches such as
Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit and The Dead Parrot, that
originally were several minutes long, were significantly shortened to
better keep the pace up and reduce the film's runtime. The film's
relatively low budget can also account for a number of these changes. Some
of the changes, however, seem to have been made to make the sketches more
relatable and easier to understand for international, and especially
Changes in Language
The British terminology is kept mostly intact throughout the film. For
example, in Hell's Grannies, a policeman (played by Graham Chapman)
talks about the town's grannies going wild on pension days, blowing it all
on "tinned meat for the cat." While "canned" would be the American word
and, probably, the more internationally recognized way of saying it, the
original form is kept. Regarding the subject, Terry Gilliam is quoted
saying the following:
John [Cleese] would say we've got to say canned peaches for
America. I would say, 'No, you've got to say tinned peaches. It's an
English word and Americans will have to learn what tinned means. And they
will learn and will get excited by the idea of learning.' (Pleasing)
This attitude towards Americanizing words and expressions can be seen
throughout the film, but there are some instances where the British word is
thrown out in favor of its American cousin. These, however, are so few and
far between that the changes seem really quite arbitrary. In the same
Hell's Grannies sketch, the original's "telephone kiosks" is changed
into "telephone boxes", while the aforementioned "tinned meat" is kept in
its original form.
Another such instance is in Lumberjack Song. In
the original TV version, the manly lumberjack's "best girl" lets her
feelings about his cross-dressing and flower-pressing habits be known with
an anguished cry of "Oh, Bevis! And I thought you were so rugged!" In the
film, this is changed into "Oh, Bevis! And I thought you were so butch!"
This is even though both words are used in both British and American
English, and (despite having partially differing definitons depending on
the context) in the context of the sketch neither can really be taken to
mean anything else than a masculine, outdoorsy type of man.
One word, however, that pops up in a number of sketches and is more or
less consistently edited out in the film, is the word "knickers". In the
sketch Sir Edward Ross, John Cleese interviews Chapman's Sir Edward
character and starts calling him increasingly bizarre nicknames, starting
with Ted and ending with "Little Frannie Pooh". The movie version is
otherwise almost a carbon copy of the original, but one of Cleese's
nicknames is omitted "Frannie Knickers". "Knickers" is definitely
not what an American would call a woman's undergarments, and it's not
widely used anywhere else outside the UK either.
Another case of knicker-blight strikes in the Bank Robber sketch.
A bank robber, played by Cleese, heists a lingerie shop by mistake. The
robber holds the store owner (Eric Idle) at gunpoint, demanding gold,
diamonds, cash in easy-to-carry bags, anything. When he hears that they
haven't got any of these, he finally settles for "just a pair of knickers,
then." In the movie, this last line is changed into "just a pair of
panties, then," even though Idle's character clearly mentions knickers
earlier in the sketch when listing things they do have in the shop instead
of gold and cash. Considering the quote by Gilliam above, it seems that
Cleese is more susceptible to Americanisms than the rest of the crew.
Changes in Cultural References
A lot of changes in many sketches, however, were made with references to
British culture and society, much more than changes in the words and
expressions used. The first of these changes is in the sketch Musical
Mice, in which Terry Jones plays a musician who has trained mice to
squeak out a tune when hit with a hammer. In the original version, this
tune is "The Bells of St. Mary." In the movie, the tune is changed into the
more widely known and rather more obvious "Three Blind
Sir Edward Ross has one of these, as well. In the original,
Cleese's interviewer suggests calling Chapman's Sir Edward "Frank" after he
gets mad at the interviewer for calling him "Eddie-Baby," "sugar plum" and
"angel drawers." The interviewer says that it's a perfectly nice name and
that "Robin Day's got a hedgehog called Frank." Robin Day, who was an
esteemed political broadcaster and commentator in Britain, would not
necessarily be internationally recognizable, so the line is changed into
"President Nixon has a hedgehog called Frank." Richard Nixon, one might
assume, is somewhat more familiar to Americans than Sir Robin.
In Vocational Guidance Counsellor, Michael Palin's meek-mannered
accountant Mr. Anchovy goes to meet the eponymous counselor, played by
Cleese. In the TV version, Mr. Anchovy's occupation is a "chartered
accountant," but in the movie this is changed into plain old accountant.
"Chartered accountant," as a job title, doesn't exist in the States.
Rather, the profession most closely similar to this in the US would be
"certified public accountant." This, in turn, isn't as internationally
recognizable, so simplifying the title does make sense. In the original,
there were also references to the department store Harrods, which is where
Mr. Anchovy purchased his "lion-taming hat," and Eric Robinson ("[A lion]
could rip your belly open before you could say 'Eric Robinson'."), who was
a conductor and presenter of music for the BBC in the 1960s. These are all
absent in the movie version.
Mr. Anchovy does, in the end, get a new job out of his trip to the
counselor, and in Blackmail, he's seen as the presenter of a
television game show called, naturally enough, "Blackmail". In the show,
discriminating evidence of adultery, sexual deviance, and other merry
pastimes is shown live on the air, and the people involved may call in the
show and pay to stop their private beastly business becoming prime time
television. One of the happy participants is a Mr. S. from Bromsgrove, a
company director, freemason, and a conservative MP. While "MP" isn't a term
that's used in America or anywhere else abroad, simply because it refers to
an occupation in the British parliament that's specific to the UK, it's
nevertheless kept in. However, the original TV version refers to Mr. S. as
a "Tory MP," and this is changed into the aforementioned "conservative MP"
in the movie. "Tory" is a nickname for a member of the Conservative Party
in Britain. This term, it seems, was deemed too Britain-specific and was
Something Completely British
And Now for Something Completely Different, all in all, is comprised
of dozens of sketches, and only a handful of these were in any significant
way altered for the film's international audience. Many famous sketches,
such as Nudge Nudge and Upper Class Twit of the Year, were
recreated on film painstakingly faithfully and remade following the
original scripts almost word-for-word. And even if there was a word changed
here and a reference removed there, one can hardly accuse the Pythons of
selling out their artistic integrity; the sketches aren't "watered down" in
any way, and the changes made never dilute the effect of the sketch or
somehow veer it away from its original point. All the changes were made
simply to better bring the point across to audiences unfamiliar with the
minutiae of British popular culture; unnecessary references to Robin Day
and Eric Robinson would've only confused people not familiar with them.
Since knowing who these particular people are was never the point of any of
the sketches, keeping the references in would have probably hurt the
sketches more than excising them actually did. Knickers or panties, the
bank robbery was just as great a failure either way.
- The names the sketches are called vary; the movie's DVD menu, the
series box sets' DVD menus and the official Monty Python YouTube channel
all have different names for various sketches, suggesting that there are no
"official" names for them. In this paper, I have used the names listed on
the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment DVD releases of the original series.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus, Season 1. Created by Graham
Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael
Palin. 1969. DVD. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2007.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus, Season 2. Created by Graham
Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael
Palin. 1970. DVD. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2007.
- And Now for Something Completely Different. Written by and
starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones
and Michael Palin. Directed by Ian MacNaughton. 1971. DVD. Oy Future Film
America. The Jobbing Scriptwriter. Last updated in 15 March 2007.
Viewed 13 November 2011
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