My aunts used to tell a really bad joke about a man who goes to prison. On his first night, several of the other inmates begin shouting numbers.
“Seventy-four!” one yells, and the others all laugh heartily.
“Eighty-nine!” another bellows, and is rewarded with wild laughter and applause.
The new prisoner is mystified until his cellmate explains that the men have all told the same jokes so many times that they have assigned a number to each joke, and they now simply shout out the numbers instead of taking the time to tell the entire joke.
“I see,” says the new inmate. He clears his throat and then roars, “Forty-two!”
When his attempt is greeted with silence, his cellmate shrugs and tells him that “some can tell ‘em and some can’t.”
Dumb, right? But to this day, members of my family will giggle any time we hear the number forty-two. That’s right, the Hyde family recognized the humorous potential of that number long before Douglas Adams decided that it was the Answer the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.
I was reminded of the joke the other night when I cracked myself up by making a Monty Python reference. My kids didn’t catch it, of course. They stared at me, wide-eyed, and wondered why I had suddenly cried out, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
Being a modern mother, I later talked about it on Facebook, only to realize that many of my friends have never heard of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Oh, my God.
Somehow, I got old. Old and out of touch. And, apparently, a failure when it comes to teaching my kids about humor.
But then a strange thing happened. Some of my older friends started commiserating, making comments like “Dead Parrot!” and “Crunchy Frog!” And I realized that my generation has become those prison inmates from my aunts’ joke: we no longer have to tell the entire joke or watch the entire comedy routine. We just shout out a line or a few words from a Monty Python bit and collapse into giggles.
For those of you too young to remember the Pythons, it is impossible to convey just what was so great about them. They were hilarious, irreverent, naughty, and oh-so-smart. But watching the show was more than just watching the show. It was an experience. For my generation, being a fan of Monty Python was like being part of an elite, secret club. Joking about killer rabbits or migratory coconuts made us feel so very smart, so cool.
And daring. I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that our parents definitely did not approve. Not of the Pythons or Benny Hill or any of the other British comedians that we watched on fuzzy PBS stations late at night while wrapping foil around a battered set of rabbit ears just to get the channel to come in. Our parents didn’t get them, man. They couldn’t understand why we laughed so hard about a pet store clerk refusing to admit that he has just sold a dead parrot; they didn’t see what was so funny about Spam or the word “Abatross!”
It was like a secret code. The Pythons were ours. Terry Gilliam’s manic animation and inability to keep a straight face, John Cleese’s constant air of affronted British dignity and Terry Jones’ apparent willingness to do anything for a laugh. Graham Chapman’s ability to look utterly serious no matter what kind of insanity was spinning out of control around him. There was Eric Idle’s versatility and gift for accents, and Michael Palin’s rubber-faced, wide-eyed cheekiness.
The Pythons have gotten old, and so have I. I sit here and shake my head as I lament that there is just nothing today that matches the humor my generation saw in the Pythons. Okay, I laugh at the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, and Rodney Carrington can make me laugh so hard that I physically ache afterward. Jeff Dunham has made Diet Coke come out my nose on more than one occasion, and I’ve been known to laugh so hard that I have to pause the show before I end up peeing.
But it’s just not the same thing.
Oh, sure, the kids and I will snicker if one of us ends a sentence with “ . . . on a stick” or “Here’s your sign.” I love it when the Big Guy sings about “Titties and Beer”. But we’re enjoying the jokes, not fully reliving the moments.
Children of the 70’s and 80’s do more than just enjoy the jokes. We relive the moments of watching the Monty Python show and movies. All we have to do is shout out “It’s just a flesh wound!” or sing “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay” and the Python fans will let us know who they are by singing along or laughing.
Even Margaret Thatcher got into the act once.
The Pythons taught us that comedy could be smart and stupid at the same time. They made fun of everyone and everything, from Hitler to Catholicism (oh come on, you know you laughed at “Every Sperm is Sacred”). They dressed in drag and made garters funny, poked fun at the Olympics and pretention. They could bounce from the most low-brow fart jokes to smart humor about ancient philosophers (sing along with me now: “Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable. . . ).
Crunchy Frog. Dead Parrot. The Lumberjack Song. Sit on my Face and Tell Me That You Love Me. Ministry of Silly Walks. Confuse A Cat.
I’ve got to stop now, before I pee.