From the archives: A manifesto for Python?

❉ John Cleese and Graham Chapman set out their stall for 1969 – the year that Python began.

“Of course, we have absolutely no idea what any type of new show will actually be about… And even if we did know, we wouldn’t tell you, you thieving villains, or you’d be up there doing it before we’d got to our typewriter. “

Here’s a bona fide piece of forensic comedy archeology: An article from the 4-10 January 1969 issue of TV Times, where John Cleese and Graham Chapman set out their stall for 1969.  They could not have known that this would prove a massively important year for them and indeed the history of comedy.  It was to be the year that Python began – over at the BBC…! Detail-obsessed Pythonettes may care to note the use of Python monikers ‘Stig’ and ‘Ethel’.

TV Times magazine (4-10 January 1969)

 ARGUMENT by John Cleese and Graham Chapman

They’ve got to take risks to make you laugh!

Two veterans of At Last the 1948 Show strike a blow or two for TV comedy.

TV Times, 4-10 Jan 1969, page 8.

Suddenly Stig sprang from the tea chest, leapt across the room and struck the marmoset fiercely on the temple with its own back leg.  (This isn’t strictly relevant to what follows but it is an attention-grabbing first sentence.)

Where are they now?  The young men who not so long ago were mercilessly lampooning the bubble round the sacred rhinoceros of British Pomposity and blazing a barb-strewn trail into the hinterland of something or other?  John Bird, David Frost, Peter Cook, David Frost, Dudley Moore, David Frost, John Well, Eleanor Frost, David Bron, Alan Bennet-Frost and of course, David Frost, not to mention Stanley Baldwin?

Let’s face it, nowadays, apart from Dudley Frost, they’re not often on the box, are they?  Especially Stan.

They’ll all be back in time.  Most of them are writers as well as performers, so they have to go away sometimes to think about what to do next.

But their absence has created a vacuum in the less-controversial-type-of-British-comedy-show-field, almost total except for Horne a’Plenty, It’s Marty Feldman, the bits the two Ronnies do in the David-Bird-Cook-Wells shows – and the all too infrequent appearances of Clive Jenkins.

Is this vacuum going to be filled? Not unless the ITV companies take risks, rather than relying on the tried and tested formula of well-known guests and well-known jokes.  (The other sure recipe for an ITV comedy success is to put the show on opposite any programme with Robin Day and Robert MacKenzie – an old trick.)  To be fair, they have taken risks.   There was At Last The 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, which was almost a junior edition.  But it’s a conventional scene at the moment. The BBC, which takes more risks, has only one really new-style show running now, and that’s an American import, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  On BBC-2.  Even the BBC likes to take its risks in private.

Let’s tell them about Laugh-In, Ethel.  It’s a very fast-paced show, packed with so many jokes that you have to like some of them.  Very short sketches.  It’s purely televisual.  You never feel it’s being done primarily for the benefit of the studio audience.

It makes other sketch shows look rather like Outside Broadcasts from a theatre.  Clever Laugh-In.

And how do they do it?  They record the show over two days, with no studio audience.   (Except a few friends.)  If something goes wrong, they re-take it, without having to worry whether a studio audience will laugh again at the joke they’ve just seen.  In other words, they can do it properly.  (Special P.S. for watchers.  The laughter is put on afterwards.)

Now, Ethel, the majority of British comedy shows are recorded in front of a studio audience – often a positive hindrance.

First, producers worry more about the reaction in the studio than about whether the show is actually funny on the screen. Secondly, the more a show is designed for television, with inter-cutting between cameras and use of film and captions, the more difficult it is for the studio audience to follow what’s going on.

Thirdly, as we’ve said, it’s very difficult to do things again if they go wrong.  Fourthly, there’s a tendency to rush the recording, in case the audience fidgets.

And fifthly, there’s a fair chance the show will get really loused up by a rotten studio audience.  (This isn’t the audience’s fault.  A TV studio can be a very strange place if you’ve not seen one before and it does sometimes put audiences in the wrong mood.)

Why do TV executives think audiences are necessary then, Ethel?  First, they say, performers need an audience for reaction.  Well, most performers quite happily make films without an audience.  In fact,  technicians working on a film set are not allowed to laugh.  (What a good point!)

Secondly, it is alleged that people at home will not laugh unless they are prompted by laughter from the screen . . . rather insulting to the ordinary-man-in-the-street’s intelligence; but anyway, why not play the show back to an audience when it’s finished, or put a dubbed laughter track on it?

(Don’t laughter tracks sound artificial?  Not if they’re done properly, Ethel.  And if a show isn’t funny, an over-enthusiastic laughter track’s only going to irritate people at home even more.)

If you’ve started reading here, you’ve missed us saying that if the powers that be forgot about studio audiences, they might produce programmes that were much more suitable for TV.  And of course, if they took a few risks.  Fat chance, Ethel.

Of course, we have absolutely no idea what any type of new show will actually be about.  That’ll just depend on whichever strong personality turns up.  And even if we did know, we wouldn’t tell you, you thieving villains, or you’d be up there doing it before we’d got to our typewriter.

You never know, it might even be satire.  Which would be good news for the critics.  “At last a show with bite!”  We’d go along with that.  We’re all for a better world.

P.S. What does Robert MacKenzie think he’s doing?

❉  Reproduced for review purposes according to Section 30 (Criticism, review and news reporting) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA). Source: The National Newspaper archive.

Become a patron at Patreon!