If you’re driving around by yourself listening to a comedy album – a strange act in itself – and it makes you laugh out loud despite a self-conscious urge to keep a straight face, then you’re probably listening to Monty Python.
Reissues of the British comedy troupe’s Contractual Obligation Album, Matching Tie and Handkerchief and The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail are reminders that important comedy albums don’t come around anymore. Everyone remembers the dry, quotable humor found in the Monty Python films like “Holy Grail,” but these albums are the true height and essence of their comedy.
Sure, there are tons of skits where a man walks into a shop asking for something the shop doesn’t sell – a classic Python situation – and those are hilarious. But it’s the cutting, socially conscious humor that makes their work, tackling hard-hitting issues like race, religion, the threat of nuclear war and Finland.
While picking a best album of the three would be silly, Contractual Obligation certainly provides the harshest (and funniest) criticism of 1980s society.
“I Like Chinese,” on Contractual Obligation, is an ode to Chinese people, who Python apparently see as a soothing alternative to the brutish rest of the world. Ever politically correct, Python’s Eric Idle sings, “I like Chinese / They only come up to your knees / Yet they’re always friendly, and they’re ready to please.”
If reinforcing stereotypes or being blatantly racist toward the Chinese isn’t enough controversy, there’s always “Never Be Rude to an Arab” on the same album. Instead of singling out a group (as the title would suggest), it asks listener to refrain from being rude to an entire list of groups like the Irish, Jews and blacks. Of course, the track follows up this kind suggestion with a negative stereotype that exemplifies said rudeness.
These tracks are certainly some of the most provocative and outlandish, but without the subtlety that defines most of their work, they would mean little. It’s easy to be shocking, but what Python does is much more difficult: They toy with your expectations.
The Holy Grail album leads the listener to believe he is about to hear a soundtrack comprised of songs from the film. And, the album does contain songs and clips straight from the motion picture. But it’s also much more. On perhaps the funniest track (excluding scenes from the film), “Logician,” a man speaking with a vaguely German accent claims to be a logician. He proceeds to explain in lofty fashion why the previous clip on the album, the scene where the townspeople prove a woman is a witch by comparing her weight to that of a duck, is scientifically inaccurate.
The logician then descends into a tirade about how his wife doesn’t understand logic and how she’s screwing the milk man. Somehow, this rant turns into the logician explaining how he ended up having sex with his wife on the floor of his home.
And that’s the beauty of Monty Python. Every line is another 180-degree turn from where you expected to go. On Matching Tie and Handkerchief, the paradoxical flow takes the form of a lecture on medieval agrarian tendencies set to heavy metal. On Contractual Obligation, it’s a bishop doing a beer commercial set to heavy synthesizers (three contradictory items!).
The new editions bring the skits and songs a new clarity. The mixing on the albums is perfect. You can hear the mumbling asides in the sketches without making the more epic numbers seem any quieter.
The albums also contain bonus interviews and promotional material from when the albums were released. At first, you could easily confuse these interviews with dry skits on the album. It’s refreshing to hear that members of the Monty Python crew are actually like that. They banter as if they’re in costume and in your backseat.