Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
A&E, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono, subtitles: English, 2 disc set, single side-single layer, 6 chapters, rated NR, 204 min., $44.95, street date 11/16/99.
EPISODE 14- Face The Press contains The Ministry of Silly Walks & Piranha Brothers
EPISODE 17- The Buzz Aldrin Show contains Motor Insurance & The Bishop
Monty Python's Flying Circus wasn't the first TV show to focus on sketch comedy, but it certainly stands as the most influential. Some might argue Saturday Night Live deserves that honor, but I disagree, if just because MPFC has stood the test of time so much better than many/most episodes of SNL; too many sketches on the latter belonged too strongly to their time period, whereas the bits on MPFC possess much more of a timelessness.
Indeed, while MPFC wasn't the best show in its genre - SCTV easily wins that honor - it has held up extremely well over the years, as the new series of MPFC DVDs demonstrates. Actually, it's a miracle much of this material plays in the US at all, since so much of it seems particularly British. However, since all good comedy succeeds more through the quality of its performers than its content, MPFC remains funny and entertaining even with those obstacles.
Of course, each show isn't an unbridled victory, as the DVDs 5 and 6 show. (Why did I review these and not the first four or the subsequent two? Because these are the ones my Dad got, and I had access to them. Pretty simple, huh?) While at their best, the Pythons could be undeniably hilarious, but many of their sketches misfire; it's a true hit or miss proposition.
As far as these DVDs go, number 5 is easily the better of the two. Each DVD includes three separate episodes of the show; DVD 5 gives us programs 14, 15 and 16, while DVD 6 features episodes 17, 18 and 19. DVD 6 has some moments, particularly in show 17 ("The Buzz Aldrin Show"), which presents the terrific spy spoof, "The Bishop"; it'd been years since I'd seen this, but the image of Terry Jones made up as a tough-guy bishop as he stalks the streets with his gang of priests remained etched in my brain.
Unfortunately, "The Bishop" and a few other sketches are rare high points for these three episodes. Most of the remaining skits seem to have the right elements but they don't register. The shows aren't necessarily bad, but they lack spark. DVD 6 generally seems to be a bit of a dud.
The same cannot be said for the sketches on DVD 5. Although episode 16 falters a bit, the first two shows are generally terrific. The Pythons are at their peak in this material, with classic skits like the Ministry for Funny Walks and the Spanish Inquisition. Another high point comes from the "Piranha Brothers" piece, which left the sound of giant hedgehog Spiny Norman stuck in my head for years. As is typical of many Python pieces, some of these sketches tend to go on too long; the semaphore version of Wuthering Heights is funny but is just plods along past the point of interest. Still, DVD 5 offers some prime Python.
One consistent irritation I have with MPFC is the apparently elevated ruckus from the laugh track. According to a snippet on these DVDs, no artificial laughter was employed; it all comes from the studio audience, and if a sketch failed to garner an adequate level of hubbub, that piece was cut from the show. (That fails to explain the presence of duds like episode 18's "The Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things", which barely generates a titter from the crowd; I guess they must have been desperate that week.) Anyway, even if this is the case, I wish these shows lacked the laugh track. I realize there's nothing they can do about this if the laughs indeed come from a studio audience (unlike my beloved SCTV, which used the most over the top canned laughter I've heard), but the crowd becomes a frequent annoyance.
All of the episodes on the Monty Python DVDs appear in their original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, single-layered DVDs; as such, they have not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The cases greet us with this statement: "Now in glorious DVD format so that you, the digital aficionado, can enjoy the original scratches, pops and hisses with crystal clarity." Despite that disclaimer, the DVDs generally look and sound surprisingly good.
Really, two different picture quality grades apply because the shows were shot both on videotape and on film. The taped segments occur for set pieces in the studio, while the filmed shots take place on locations. Terry Gilliam's famous animations also seem to have been filmed and they display a level of quality similar to that of the location pieces.
The videotaped material looks quite good. It seems somewhat drab but manages to appear fairly clear and clean. Sharpness looks very slightly soft, but not problematically so; for the most part, focus seems strong and accurate. Some tape flaws appear - usually in the form of odd glitches - but these happen only on rare occasions; otherwise the tapes seem pretty fresh. Color looks a bit flat but generally appears pretty bright and vivid. Black levels are unspectacular but perfectly adequate. Due to the way these shows were taped, shadow detail isn't a concern - no shadows appear to potentially hide anything! On their own, the videotaped segments earn a solid "C+" rating.
Much less pleasant to watch are the filmed pieces. These look quite bad. Sharpness is consistently very soft and murky; I think a couple of actor close-ups seemed relatively focussed, but those were the extreme exceptions. Print flaws abound; scratches, speckles, marks and occasional grain almost constantly mar the picture. Colors look very flat and bland with absolutely no life to them; yeah, England's a fairly gray country, but this is ridiculous! Black levels also appear pretty muddy and dull. I have no idea why there's such a discrepancy between the videotape and the film segments, but it's there. On their own, the filmed shots earn a "D"; as such, we average them out to an overall grade of "C-". MPFC remains watchable throughout, but the poor quality of the filmed scenes is a disappointment when compared with the surprising sharpness of the videotape.
Sound quality seems more consistent, though the filmed shots still display more problems. The monaural soundtrack focusses mainly on speech, and dialogue seems nicely crisp and clear. Actually, I had trouble understanding the actors some of the time, but that's due to the accents feigned; it had nothing to do with the sound itself. Thankfully, the DVDs provide some good subtitles; I was able to decipher some speech that had long mystified me. A slight amount of distortion mars the dialogue at times; this is more prevalent during the filmed scenes but remains negligible throughout the program. Music and effects stay in the background but sound fine. It's a modest effort, but the audio adequately replicates the original material.
A few fun supplemental features have been included on these DVDs. Most extras can be found in the "Loony Bin" section of the DVDs. Both discs include "Meet the Chaps", which feature some very basic biographies of the six main Pythons; each bio really just details date and place of birth and how each member became involved with the group. Cursory filmographies follow on a second text screen. One fun touch is that each biography is preceded by a brief clip of each member's Python work. This feature appears to be identical on each Python DVD (i.e., you see the same introductory clip on both DVDs 5 and 6, and I'd guess on the other six as well).
The remaining supplements differ between DVDs. Disc 5 includes a "Pythonism Glossary", a listing of different terms such as "spam" and their Python meaning. This is a short but fun feature. Two of the other supplements - "Gillianimations" and "Naughty Bits" - essentially function simply as promos for other Python offerings; each shows a few minutes of Python footage from different episodes. This is interesting but nothing more than a promotional piece.
In the same vein, although it doesn't tout one of these MPFC DVDs is "Silly Walks Live", which shows that skit as performed on the Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl film. I haven't seen this entire program, but if it follows along the same lines as this sketch, I don't want to see it; this segment simply shows the Pythons as they replicate almost exactly the skit on a live stage. I thought this seemed somewhat sad as they trot out their "greatest hits" for no apparent reason; what's the point of replicating a TV sketch on stage? Don't ask me, but it's here. (MPLATHB does not appear to be available on DVD; I have no idea when or if it will be.)
DVD 6 offers some other features. We get "A Trivial Quest", which provides two different three-question trivia games. As is the case with these DVD contest, you get multiple-choice questions and receive a different "reward" or "punishment" video clip after you respond. Thankfully, this game is a little more forgiving than many; while some make you restart the game with an incorrect answer, this one lets you try again until you get it. You also get to see some of the sketches in question when you reply correctly. It's not much, but it's sort of entertaining.
"Gilliam's Attic" provides a small look behind the scenes; we see some on location snapshots from four different sketches. It's brief but interesting. "Monty Queries" and "Tutor Manners" fall back into promotional mode; these pieces show clips from sketches about quiz shows and "how-to" programs, respectively. I liked seeing these clips, if just because I don't have any of the other DVDs, but they remain advertisements nonetheless.
Finally, some Python trivia can be found on these discs. When you access the menus for each episode, there's a section called "Useless Tidbits". Each of these offers one piece of trivia, such as that laugh track comment I mentioned earlier. I wish they'd included more of this, but at least the trivia featured is compelling.
All of the Monty Python's Flying Circus DVDs are available in different configurations. You can buy each of the eight currently-released discs on their own or as parts of two-packs, such as the one I got from my Dad, which has DVDs 5 and 6. You save a few bucks with the two-packs; they retail for $44.95, whereas the single releases go for $25.
Whether that's worth it to you depends on your level of Python fandom, I suppose. While the picture, sound and supplement quality probably remains consistent throughout the series, the caliber of the sketches themselves varies radically, from side-splittingly funny to quite blah and forgettable. I'd recommend you go with DVD 5 and skip number 6; the former includes some classic pieces but the latter largely lacks merit.