Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a British comedy series of the early 1970s that is one of my favorite shows of all time. The series was clearly an influence on sketch comedy shows that came decades later such as HBO’s Mr. Show with Bob and David of the mid-1990s, another one of my favorites. Until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to the Pythons’ influences. The absurdity of their skits was wholly a product of their vivid and wild imaginations, or so it seemed.
One of the Pythons’ most famous sketches was the “Dead Parrot sketch.” In the bit, John Cleese has just bought a Norwegian Blue parrot from a pet shop, only to find out later that the parrot is dead. He returns to the pet shop to complain, but the owner, Michael Palin, will hear none of it. Palin puts forward all manner of silly explanations for the bird’s behavior, claiming that it is “resting,” or “stunned” or even that it is “pining for the fjords.”
Cleese is taken aback by the shop owner’s patently false characterizations, and launches into a tirade about the bird’s true state of health.
John Cleese: It’s not pining, it’s passed on…It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.
After doing some investigation on the Internet, I learned that the Dead Parrot sketch was inspired by a sketch the Python gang performed a year earlier for a different program, called “How to Irritate People.” In the earlier incarnation, future Python cast member Graham Chapman takes his brand new car back to the dealership after discovering numerous problems with it. The salesman, played by Palin, refuses to admit there is anything wrong with the car, even as it comes apart before his eyes. This sketch was itself inspired by an experience Palin had with a car salesman in real life.
Learning the history of the Dead Parrot sketch reminded me of a seemingly unrelated story in the history of science. If you asked people around here, “Who invented the light bulb?” I think most of them would say Thomas Edison, who invented it in 1880. And that is correct, at least if you live in the United States. If you ask that question in Britain, the answer you’ll get is Joseph Swan, and if you ask it in France, you’ll hear the name Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, while the Russians will tell you it was A. N. Lodygin. In some sense they are all correct, depending on what counts as a “light bulb.”
In the 19th century, scores of researchers in several countries were producing ever better vacuum seals and carbon filaments. The light bulb was not produced by a single person sitting in a room for hours on end, but through the exchange of ideas (and patents) among many experimenters. I’ve found that is true in the world of comedy, too. Funny skits do not usually spring into existence after an epiphany or Eureka-moment. They’re often the result of a long succession of refinements, just as a carpenter makes finer and finer cuts from a block of wood until his masterpiece is finally revealed.