Tragedy plus time
"This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be!" Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Sometime in the 1960s, as he later explained, the British actor Michael Palin had a car that wouldn't run and a repair guy who never believed him:
“He was one of those people who could never accept that anything had gone wrong. ... [T]he brakes seemed to be gone, but when I told the mechanic this, he said, 'Oh, well it's a new car, bound to happen.'
He had an answer for everything. He would never, ever accept any blame for anything at all. I'd say, 'Well, the door came off when I was doing 50 mph,' and he'd say, 'Well, they do, don't they?'"
It was a frustrating experience, I'm sure, but a few years later when Palin, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman were writing for Monty Python's Flying Circus and looking for material, Palin told them the story of his disbelieving car mechanic.
That story ultimately provided the inspiration for one of their most famous bits, which happens to have premiered on British television exactly 53 years ago today: the Dead Parrot sketch.
I first heard of this sketch and saw it during a college writing class called Comedy. This was well before YouTube, but my professor had some kind of bootleg VHS recording.
We watched it several times, broke it down, and tried to figure out why it was so funny.
I don’t want this to get overly academic. (Also: I don’t remember). But, some people say it has to do with the artful collision of reality and absurdity. And I’m also partial to a quote that’s often attributed to Mark Twain on the subject, which is that comedy is simply tragedy plus time.
Back to the Parrot. The premise is simple: A man called Praline played by Cleese tries to return a parrot to a pet shop run by Palin. The parrot is dead. But Palin as the shopkeeper, simply refuses to admit it.
Very edited version, to give you an idea:
Praline: "I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. 'E's dead, that's what's wrong with it!"
Shopkeeper: "No, no, 'e's uh,...he's resting."
Praline: “'E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ... Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! ... 'E's hopped the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! He's f*ckin' snuffed it!..... THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!”
Here's the whole thing:
I was telling a friend who had never seen this sketch about it the other day (as I considered whether to write about it here).
When I explained that it's about someone simply refusing to believe irrefutable facts, she pointed out that it seems even more timely today.
Anyway, there are many different versions of this sketch, but in most of them, the performance ends with a non sequitur, when Chapman, playing a stiff upper lip British colonel, enters the pet shop and announces that things have gotten too silly and it’s time to move on.
Twenty years after the sketch first aired—and thus 33 years ago now—Chapman died of cancer at age 48. His casket was adorned with hops as a testament to his fondness for beer, and the Rolling Stones sent flowers with "thanks for all the laughs.”
Cleese gave his eulogy:
“Graham Chapman, co-author of the parrot sketch, is no more. He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky …
I feel that I should say ... ‘Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard. I hope he fries.’
And the reason I think I should say this is, he would never forgive me … if I threw away this opportunity to shock you all on his behalf.”
Have a great day. Laugh and try to make somebody else laugh, too.
7 other things worth knowing today
In the week ending November 26, more than 34,000 positive flu tests were reported in the U.S., more than in any single week, going back as far as 1997. Some portion of this steep rise is due to increased testing. However, there are corroborating warning signs that this is truly a bad season. (Vox)
A bill protecting federal recognition of same-sex marriages that has the support of both LGBT advocates and religious groups is expected to pass the U.S. House of Representatives this week with bipartisan support, a sign of a significant cultural shift in a divided nation. The Respect for Marriage Act, which passed the U.S. Senate last week, was designed as a backstop to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. (Reuters)
In any given week, about 1 in 7 U.S. adults (14 percent), women more often than men, suffer from abdominal bloating—the sensation of having a full and tight stomach that might also look swollen, according to a report in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. The findings are based on data from a nationally representative sample of 88,795 adults. (WashPost)
Two subsidiaries of the Trump Organization were convicted of multiple crimes, including tax fraud, falsifying business records and conspiracy after a trial in New York City. The Trump Organization faces fines of up to $1.6 million. (CNBC)
Walmart stores across the U.S. are grappling with an uptick in shoplifting that could lead to higher prices and closed stores if the problem persists, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said Tuesday. “If that’s not corrected over time, prices will be higher, and/or stores will close,” McMillon said. (CNBC)
An association exists between people who obtain a higher percentage of their daily energy from ultra-processed foods and suffering cognitive decline, a large study with long-term follow-up released Monday suggests. That includes sweet and savory snacks, confectionery, breakfast cereals, ice cream, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meats and ready-to-eat frozen meals. (UPI)
I'm including this here because I cut it from the essay above, but I liked it. It's the 41-word description of the first 22 years of Graham Chapman's life from the story of his passing in People magazine back in 1989: "Born in Leicester during a German blitz to a police inspector and his wife, Chapman entered Cambridge to study medicine, a career that got sidetracked when he discovered that formaldehyde was less to his liking than Footlights, a campus comedy review." (People)
Very good. This is worth a newsletter all on its own: “a friend who had never seen this sketch”
O.M.G. Those guys were so funny. I remember watching them my first year of college. And all their movies. John Cleese was the consummate actor. His Faulty Towers is an annual binge watch for us.
Only John could write a eulogy like that, much less deliver it with a straight face.