Monty Python: The Beatles of Comedy
The dead-parrot sketch debuted on episode eight of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which aired in Britain on December 7, 1969. The sketch epitomized everything that was striking about the new show: its impatience with the old formal rules, its ability to take good ideas and compress them into diamonds. The car-salesman sketch had been about the absurdity of bad service, but it had attacked that absurdity in a naturalistic way: it started with a plausible situation, and gradually made it sillier. The parrot sketch inverts that approach. It is absurd from the start, but its absurdity represents a compact, dreamlike way of telling the truth. This time the role of the aggrieved customer is taken by Cleese—who plays him not as a straight man but as a Brylcreemed, raincoated weirdo. In the world of Monty Python, even a guy with a valid beef is a lunatic. As for Palin’s salesman, this time his denials of the undeniable have an existential audacity: he is ready to claim, and keep claiming, that the palpably dead parrot is just resting. Cleese, indignantly brandishing the bird’s corpse, is the victim of the ultimate—the archetypal—rip-off; but he remains an Englishman. Nutty as he is, he declines to vault over the desk and punch Palin’s lights out. Language is the only weapon available to him. So his tamped-down rage becomes a torrent of increasingly baroque synonyms for death, which Cleese and Chapman composed with the aid of a thesaurus.
Monty Python’s signature move was to thrust something very salient into the wrong context.
When that outburst of manic poetry is over, the Pythons don’t bother forcing the parrot sketch toward a well-made conclusion. The quest for punch lines bored them. Instead the sketch collapses into a series of bizarre digressions, and finally Cleese’s character turns to the camera and declares that the situation has become “too silly.” And that’s that: we move on to the next item. I concede that there are people who don’t find the parrot sketch funny at all. I know a couple of them personally. They are unmoved by the sight of John Cleese in his raincoat, wielding that stuffed parrot and saying, “It’s bleeding demised.” I know them, but I can’t help them.