Monty Python Goes Back to School

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In America, Monty Python addicts were once the outcasts and the eggheads. Awkward teenagers discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS in the 1970s and were hooked by the British comedy troupe’s avant-garde, irreverent style, choosing to watch John Cleese and Eric Idle in their parents’ basements instead of going to Friday-night football games.

These same geeks are now serving time as perennial graduate students and scoring tenure. Their arcane obsessions are intact, however.

Last fall academics gathered in Lodz, Poland, to hold the first-ever conference celebrating Monty Python. The attendees–80 percent male–discussed Python’s relevance to philosophy, religion, literature, history, political science, and the media, reports Randy Malamud in The Chronicle Review (Feb. 4, 2011). For two days, they attended lectures such as “Monty Python in Its British and International Cultural Contexts, or, How to Recognize the Spanish Inquisitions from Quite a Long Way Away” and worshipped at the altar of assorted Python scholars, including Brigham Young University professor Darl Larsen, who penned the book Monty Python’s Flying Circus: An Utterly Complete, Thoroughly Unillustrated, Absolutely Unauthorized Guide to Possibly All the References from Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson to Zambesi.

“Academics venerate Monty Python,” notes Malamud, a professor at Georgia State University, “because we find the troupe’s subversive critical analysis and its vast portfolio of cultural and intellectual references congruent with our world.”

That, and they’re damned funny.

America isn’t the only country where Cleese, Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, and Terry Jones have won over the intellectual bourgeoisie. In Poland, the site of the conference, knowledge of the troupe’s oeuvre is a sign of sophistication. “It’s a little snobbish to be a Monty Python fan,” says graduate student Wojciech Wozniak. “Those who are able to get the point demonstrate their cosmopolitanism.” Students in Lublin, Poland, of similar mind recently organized a festival in honor of their comedic heroes, complete with discussion panels and silly walks.

It’s the stuff of which Cleese and Co. could only dream: earnest academic conferences and serious-minded books and lectures, all based on a motley 41-year-old comedy troupe from Britain that found an American audience on late-night public television.

This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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