In Praise of Non-Cleese Monty Python

Mr NeutronI was recently reminded of the line, “Mr Neutron: easily the most dangerous man the world has ever seen…” It is from one of the last Monty Phyton episodes made. The joke is that Mr Neutron is really dangerous, but all he wants to do is hang out in the London suburbs gardening and wallpapering. When I first saw it as a teenager, I didn’t find it all the funny. But it was something that stayed in my mind and it became more and more humorous over time.

I found it online and watched it again. It is entirely typical for Monty Python: it is uneven. I found some of it hysterical and some of it tired. In particular, there is a recurring bit about an American general who is obsessed with his body odors. I find it kind of creepy, but I think that is just because the British find the American obsession with hygiene to be creepy. And they are right.

Here is the first part of it:

After watching it, I did a little research and I came upon an article by J Walker on the website This Was Television, Same As It Ever Was?: You’re No Fun Anymore – Monty Python Minus One. It is about the last season of Monty Python after John Cleese had left. The writer takes special aim at “Mr Neutron,” and claims that the problem was the lack of Cleese. It isn’t anything special about Cleese — it could have been any one of the cast members — it was just that the group had some kind of magic balance.

This is nonsense. The whole article suffers from what I wrote about this weekend, No Real Reason I Liked The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The writer had just decided to have a particular outlook on the episode and so focused on the problems in it. Above all, the complaint is that the episode is not like episodes that did have Cleese, which is a true but useless observation.

My guess would be that “Mr Neutron” was primarily the work of Michael Palin and Terry Jones. It is very much in keeping with their excellent series, Ripping Yarns. Much of the “now for something completely different” transitions are gone and a coherent plot is in place. If the absence of Cleese was important, it was that it gave substantially more power to Palin-Jones to take the series in a different direction. Looking at the fourth season overall, the worst you can say is that the show was heading for a new equilibrium that it hadn’t quite reached.

The whole thing reminds me of what is absolutely most annoying about self-proclaimed critics: their tendency to find fault with a work of art because it is not what they want to see. So as far as Walker is concerned, the fourth season of Monty Python is weak because it is distinctly different from the first three seasons. But it has to be judged on its own terms. And I agree: it is not as consistent as the best of the first three seasons. But the first three seasons were not as consistent as the best of the first three seasons. It also isn’t as good as Ripping Yarns. But again: Monty Python was not as good as Ripping Yarns. And even with Cleese, the fourth seasons was bound to have been somewhat tired. Cleese thought that in the third season — that’s why he left.

I recommend checking out the fourth season episodes. But do it as you would any new comedy series. Because it isn’t the old Monty Python. But if they had gone on another two years, there might be a raging debate now among fans as to whether Python I or Python II was the best. To me, it would always be a mixed bag. You are always better off with Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns and the two main films.


Here are the six episodes with (probably temporary) links:

The Golden Age of Ballooning
Michael Ellis
The Light Entertainment War
Mr Neutron
Party Political Broadcast

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