Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Madness with a Definite Method
By David D. Day
Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays, edited by Kevin J. Harty (McFarland and Co., 2002)
Introduction: Criticism of any comedy as apparently random as the Monty Python troupe’s always runs risk of being caught up in the very absurdity it analyzes. Professional seriousness and pompousness were always among the troupe’s favorite targets, and when writing about their comedy it is hard to avoid sounding exactly like one of the hapless academics they so loved to skewer. When I look candidly at my first essay on the film from the first edition of this volume, now more than ten years old, I find this apprehension grows on me, for reasons obvious to me and probably anyone who reads the essay now. But it is important to resist such self-consciousness. Succumbing to it out of a fear of appearing humorless prevents analysis of some of the smartest comedy to come out of Britain in the 1970s, and misses the possibility that sophisticated comedy is carefully crafted as any other narrative form, more so than many. Simply put, that Monty Python’s humor is very funny makes it no less worthy a subject of serious analysis.
What I would like to attempt here, without becoming too serious myself, is to analyze one of the more notably consistent of Monty Python’s comic techniques, one readily found in some of their television programming and repeatedly used in what is probably their most sophisticated work of all, Monty Python and the Holy Grail; the juxtaposition of unlikes. Interestingly, given some shifts in academic and critical thinking in over the last decade, this technique curiously parallels the concerns of modern medievalists with the ways we try to understand the Middle Ages. Although my position on these questions is not really much different from what it was in my first essay on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I will focus here more precisely on one or two of the ways the Python troupe gets its laughs, and suggest how, even more strikingly than I originally thought, they anticipate, parallel, or mock academic concerns about how we recapture the past.