And Now For Something Completely Different

I am most at home among those who’ve an appreciation of the absurd. To detractors this would perhaps be characterized as the silly or, at further depths of condescension, the juvenile. I don’t much mind either characterization and will plead guilty as charged if pressed to do so. You see, my people have a touch of anarchy about them as well as a suspicion (perhaps more than a suspicion) that human pretension, and especially the human pretension toward civilization, is at bottom ridiculous and thus fit for ridicule. An effective mode of ridicule I find is the raspberry, the gesture which indicates that its object is regarded with a lowly contempt precluding a need of serious rebuke. Better still is whimsy for its own sake. On that foundation rests my preference for comedy and comedians aspiring to no identifiable social purpose, for examples and in no particular order Gilda Radner, Jackass, The Mighty Boosh, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This preference took root in my childhood, which suggests the term juvenile does have merit. 

The list above may seem odd at first glance, but all entries manifest the comedy of play for its own sake. One thing I enjoy in small amounts but which I sometimes find tiresome is the Jon Stewart type of comedy, the not-really-joking joker who undertakes a fish-oil-and-sugar-dispensing operation. I suspect that much of the constituency which feeds regularly of this genre, and which (again, I suspect) gets most of its serious information about the world from this infotainment source, is either not quite seriousness enough or perhaps quite too serious for my taste. In either case, it’s sometimes a matter of mixing two things that I enjoy a bit more on their own.

Here is an example of how low I am happy to sink. The following is from a Monty Python sketch built on the elegant notion of an impossibly long surname. The joke is simple and in my estimation effective: a documentary is being made on the life of a composer, but his name is so long that the film consists principally of an absurd and laboured recitation, over and again:

Figgis: “Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Panties…I’m sorry…Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Bach. Names that will live for ever. But there is one composer whose name is never included with the greats. Why is it that the world never remembered the name of Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon- fried- digger- dingle- dangle- dongle- dungle- burstein- von- knacker- thrasher- apple- banger- horowitz- ticolensic- grander- knotty- spelltinkle- grandlich- grumblemeyer- spelterwasser- kurstlich- himbleeisen- bahnwagen- gutenabend- bitte- ein- nürnburger- bratwustle- gerspurten- mitz- weimache- luber- hundsfut- gumberaber- shönedanker- kalbsfleisch- mittler- aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm? To do justice to this man, thought by many to be the greatest name in German Baroque music, we present a profile of Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon- fried- digger- dingle- dangle- dongle- dungle- burstein- von- knacker- thrasher- apple- banger- horowitz- ticolensic- grander- knotty- spelltinkle- grandlich- grumblemeyer- spelterwasser- kurstlich- himbleeisen- bahnwagen- gutenabend- bitte- ein- nürnburger- bratwustle- gerspurten- mitz- weimache- luber- hundsfut- gumberaber- shönedanker- kalbsfleisch- mittler- aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm. We start with an interview with his only surviving relative Karl Gambolputty de von Ausfern…” (fades out)

[Cut to old man sitting blanketed, in wheel-chair, as he speaks, intercut with shot of interviewer nodding and looking interested.]

Karl: “Oh ja. When I first met Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon- fried- digger- dingle- dangle- dongle- dungle- burstein- von- knacker- thrasher- apple- banger- horowitz- ticolensic- grander- knotty- spelltinkle- grandlich- grumblemeyer- spelterwasser- kurstlich- himbleeisen- bahnwagen- gutenabend- bitte- ein- nürnburger- bratwustle- gerspurten- mitz- weimache- luber- hundsfut- gumberaber- shönedanker- kalbsfleisch- mittler- aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm, he was with his wife, Sarah Gambolputty de von….”

And so on. The question with which I find myself confronted by the detractors of this kind of silliness is this: Why do you find it so funny? There are many thousands of examples of things that I find funny in the work of Monty Python, but I have chosen the above example because it strikes me as an especially pure example of the absurd, and as such it recommends itself to me. My immediate response to the sketch was and has always been inseparable from my awareness that someone (probably John Cleese) had committed a good degree of labour to the invention of this name and furthermore to the memorization and recitation of it. This and other sketches (the Cheese Shop, Philosophers’ World Cup, and the Semaphore Version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ come to mind) are the result of considerable forethought, planning, and work — work comparable in measure to the “serious” undertakings of business and politics. All to yield an absurdity, again for the sake of doing so and nothing more. That in itself is ridiculous. As an instance of the elaborate joke, which one apparently either gets or does not, the stuff is hard I think to outdo.

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