Despite our ever-shifting cultural norms, Monty Python remains the epitome of British comedy- the innovative trailblazers that set a standard even today’s best sketch comedy fails to hit. You can watch their early training grounds on old BBC shows like Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show, which are fun and funny, but more in the vein of Goon Squad-era British silliness than Holy Grail sublimity.
If those shows were Elementary School, 1969’s How to Irritate People is somewhere around Eighth Grade or early High School. Written by future Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman (as well as the great Marty Feldman and Tim-Brooke Taylor,) this hour-long BBC special captures part of the Python spirit clearly in its collection of sketches about- you guessed it- irritating people.
Cleese has clearly developed his stuffy, arrogant and uptight persona by this point, taking the role of host as he takes us through irritating situation after irritating situation. Of course, the whole thing is a sendup of polite British society and the annoying archetypes we all must live with: salesmen, parents, friends who mooch off you, waiters, airlines, job interviews… none escape Cleese’s acerbic wit here. Some of this doesn’t date well in modern eyes, namely the great Michael Palin doing his best Hindu restauranteer impersonation, but to be fair, the Pythons have always skewered all humans with the same satirical blade, “punching up” be damned. We are all equally viable targets in the eyes of a satirist.
Though the sketches are all very much variations of the same premise, they’re quite funny- and more importantly for any comedy historian, the line from here to more famous sketches like Dead Parrot and the Cheese Shop is quite clear (one sketch in particular was recycled into a Python sketch fans will recognize.) Python was to up the ante a few more notches by pushing the absurdity into truly surreal and hilarious areas, but even here, Cleese and Chapman’s ability in constructing a comedy sketch and peppering it with truly sharp dialogue is a true delight.
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