Saturday, June 07, 2008


Here's a question for you: which of the two versions of this routine works best,
and why? If you're like me you'll prefer the top version with John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who also wrote it...but why is their performance better? No fair saying "Because they're geniuses," because that only begs the question. Of what does that genius consist?

Watch both videos and try to make an answer before you read what I've written below.

I'll be interested to see if anyone has a thought about this. I can't really answer my own question. Certainly the one on the bottom which, you have to admit, is still professional, lacks a musical sensibility. I always see ensembles of actors as a jazz combo with the sound of each voice being a separate and distinct musical instrument. There's no variety among these lesser actors.

Also you don't get the feeling that the guys on the bottom are really friends, or that any of them care what the others are saying. They all seem to be in a rush to start their dialogue right on the heels of the last guy. That, and their readings lack emphasis.

Last but not least, none of the bottom actors seem to realize the value of a good set-up. Why didn't they do what the top actors did and walk in as if they were tired from having eaten a big meal? They should have flopped down and spoken wistfully, as if they were in a rare philosophical mood. Of course I only know that because I saw Cleese and friends do it that way.

The problem is, that this isn't all. There's clearly a big difference that I'm not getting. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Its the difference between watching Elvis Presley and an Elvis Presley impersonator sing love me tender.

Just watch Graham Chapmans face when hes not talking, thats something 4 years at julliard wont teach tou

Michael Sporn said...

The Monty Python people not only played the scene but had a second level in elbowing a type of stock character and scene that borders on "stock".
The second group just played the scene.
It's the secondary story - the funny one - that makes it worth watching.

Anonymous said...

The one thing that had bugged me about the second video was the severe lack of rhythm and anticipation, and in which you probably know already, timing is critical to the success of a visual narrative: to convey time.

That dimension of human understanding can enable us to be familiar with and be empathetic to shock, fear, absurdity, hunger, and the whole range of the human experience. As the great Will Eisner once said, I quote: “Timing is the manipulation of the element of time to achieve a specific message or emotion; to frame a period of time will make the plot or final action empathetic,” unquote.

Also, take note that the perspective (or P.O.V.) for the Python film gives us a more interesting view, just below ground level. It makes us, the viewer, become more involved in their conversation, as if we were a “Fifth” Yorkshire man, so the impact of the sketch comes off far stronger. In the second video, the view takes place from the P.O.V. of the audience, and since it simulates a sense of detachment, there is little feeling or involvement.

Finally, the guys in the top video had wisely decided not to choose a set and few props, so in place of a mansion or study hall, there’s a black curtain, making the actors read a lot clearer and keeping our attention to them, so neither their white suits or the background fight for dormancy.

For the second video, I had kept switching back between the background and the actors, since there was no central focus; it soon became distracting, furthering my lack of interest.

So, how did I do, Uncle Ed: Did I screw up, or did I accomplish what I was told?

From an inspiring animator/ artist

jesus chambrot said...

I think what the one atop has that the bottom one is lacking is that in some instances the characters
pause a bit after what they heard to give them a chance to one up the other.

You can see it in John Cleese's face when he incrediously looks around the room at each participants statement. You can tell that John is thinking up of something with some outrageous hyperbole to upstage the others in his group. He even closes the skit with the ultimate tale of child beating.

The guys he bottom though don't give tat themselves a chance to think of a comeback since he comeback has already been written down long before this scenario ever took place.

Anonymous said...

The top one does not feature Graham Chapman, it features from left to right, Michael Palin, Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese and Terry Jones. I have no idea who those men are at the bottom. Other than Atkinson, the other 3 on top were in Monty Python together for years so it's only natural they'd seem more like actual friends than the men below.

Nico said...

The Pythons at the top are actually into the characters. Each person is still in full performing, even when only one person's speaking at a time.
The guys below are just reciting the lines with none of the acting.

Pete Emslie said...

I believe that Graham Chapman was there, his cremated ashes hidden amongst the cigar ashes at Michael Palin's feet.

And he was LUCKY!!!

Anonymous said...

There is an earlier version, from at last the 1948 show, but maybe one of your clips has that tagged on, as the youtube comparison I found had them put together that way. (Sorry, didn't check them out for this discussion, being limited in bandwidth at the moment and somewhat familiar with the sketch anyway.

I would think the 1948 show as possibly fresher, and the later versions (Which I probably have not seen since they were first made public) to have more seasoned portrayals, and perhaps some more improv riffing.

Sometimes revisiting the material makes it better, sometimes it makes it more tired.

Any one want to comment on differences between Clampetts Porky in Wackyland, or whatever it was, and the direct remake a few years later in color, what by Friz, and with Daffy in the porky role?

It was odd revisiting the original python broadcasts, that the version of a particular sketch in my memory may had been from a later live stage show. Was the later version better, or worse? Memory tends to conflate towards making things BETTER than they were.

Nick said...

For me, the best version of the sketch is the original from "At Last the 1948 Show!". This one is in black and white and features Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Tim Brooke Taylor and Marty Feldmen. Barry Cryer briefly appears at the beginning as well.

cableclair said...

The first one is a lot better because the characters care a lot more, there is more at stake, they really want to top the other fellows with a more shocking story, more drive, better timing. And they don't act it tongue in cheek, like the bottom fellows, they act it dead pan serious, which makes it so much more funny.

Anonymous said...

excellent point cablechair!

I find that the funniest actors are serious ones who are playing funny material straight. Look at Christopher Walken on SNL.

I think it also applies to cartooning as well, compare Gary Larsons drawings to a syndicated panel cartoonist, His drawings are just funny without really trying to be while the drawings in most syndicated panels really try to ham it up.

I dont mean to criticize genuinely funny performers like Chris Farley who were hilarious without trying, more the overeager amateur improv comedy troupe types

The Jerk said...

I think the difference for me is that python performs the scene as a team, where the second version is done by a group of individual actors. each actor is the second version plays as if THEIR version is the FUNNY one. When the others speak, instead of the "give-and-take" that an acting ensemble should have, where you support one another's performance by giving attention and reacting in character, they are anticipating, "hurry up, it's my line soon, and I'M gonna make 'em REALLY laugh."
By not listening in character, the jokes aren't as funny, because there is not a sense of "building up" to the punch lines, it becomes just one line following another- you say a line, then I say a line...

also, as you pointed out in a previous post, "reaction" are more entertaining than "action." Yes, they could have given better readings of lines, but they don't seem to be reacting to each other the way python does. In Python's version, we can see the frustration of the other Yorkshiremen being out-done and see them thinking as they listen to each other, trying to come up with a way to prove how their childhood was worse than the one before.

Anonymous said...


Taber said...

I noticed a LOT of reaction shots of the other character in the Python version and delay between responses where the others seem to be formulating there responses while considering the previous statements.

That stuff to me is where the comedy was really allowed to sink in.

Trevor Thompson said...

Actually, a much better remake of this wonderful sketch ( NOT A PYTHON SKETCH, BTW... it's from At Last The 1948 Show and it was written by Graham, John, Tim-Brooke Taylor and Marty Feldman ) is the one done by Comedy Masterclass:

Harry Enfield
Alan Rickman
Vic Reeves
Eddie Izzard

Here it is: Comedy Masterclass presents: The Four Yorkshiremen

Also, for your continued speculation, here is THE ORIGINAL version of The Four Yorkshiremen from At Last The 1948 Show.

- trevor.

Trevor Thompson said...

The difference between these two? It's like seeing the roof of the Sistine Chapel in person vs. someone drawing a sketch of it on a napkin.

The Elvis vs. Elvis impersonator theory doesn't work for me because the impersonators at least copy SOMEthing that Elvis did, they didn't just sing his songs.

These guys are reading the lines they've memorized. They don't even know how to do a Yorkshire accent or even why it's funny that someone from Yorkshire would have these stories.

I feel the same way when I see someone perform the Parrot Sketch. Everyone knows the pain of going into a store to return something or complain and getting told that you're wrong and that nothing can be done, but when that sketch gets performed by upstart sketch groups they never use that pain, they just parrot ( pun intended ) Palin and Cleese's already elusive accents and perfornances.... and often not very well.

- trevor.

lastangelman said...

For the first video, I was very fortunate to be present that night at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane (it was an Amnesty International Benefit, I'd gotten half-price tickets earlier that day). It was the The Secret Policeman's Ball, I was laughing so long, loud and hard, I just about fell out of my seat and into the aisle several times (I was assisted up twice, then the ushers just gave up and left me to giggle and roll about like a insane hyena). It was my first exposure to "The Four Yorkshiremen" sketch. After the show, I took the Tube back to the flat I was staying, but stopped off at the pub (The World, off Marylebone Road & Baker Street) first, for a nightcap. I recounted the highlights to friends and when I confessed I had never heard "Four Yorkshiremen" before, everyone busted in performing their version. It was like attending a barbershop quartet convention but instead of every quartet performing My Wild Irish Rose, it was The Four Yorkshiremen. It was quite bizarre, the barman yelled "time gents, please!" several times, while there was this huge debate on some of the nuances and timing of the sketch.

Years later, I was delighted to find the show on record and VHS, including said sketch. I cringe sometimes when I play the video because I can hear myself guffawing or screeching from the audience.

Rowan Atkinson did a fair job keeping up with Cleese,Palin and Jones. They are all great masters of comedic exposition and timing. And when they deliver the goods, it is top notch. Palin looked, while remaining in character, like he was enjoying himself immensely. The other fellows in the second video, I have to say, were going through the motions, there was no joy, or love or camaraderie between them, nor was there any feeling they were into their characters. If you want an extremely good examples of The Pythons at the top of their acting game, it is definitely Meaning Of Life. Granted, it's a sketch film, but the performces in many of the sketches are the best than any member of the troupe have ever given before or since in any other endeavour. Why this is, is a mystery, and has even been acknowledged by the Pythons themselves. Life Of Brian may been their meisterwerk, but Meaning Of Life is their acting performance tour de force.

Whoa, I seem to have deviated from the subject at hand. Well, as said before, in first video clip, three of four actors had been immersed in this routine for years and could probably perform it in reverse in Farsi if held at gunpoint. It is like members from an old acting class belovedly reciting and reenacting a classic scene from a Shakespeare or Chekov. Rowan Atkinson, a comic genius of no small potatoes himself, kept up rather well with the old guard, though it wasn't quite a passing of the torch moment. Now in the second clip, we have these fairly well established actor types, familiar with the material, given props enough and proper set, yet, it was a dead uninteresting run through, not a recreation nor a new interpretation, rather flat actually. Looking at this again, it's safe to say, I have to blame the director. He (or she) could have inspired the actors to do something with it, put a little life, some oomph. It's not that difficult a sketch to perform successfully. If the director worries more about the ambience and costume than the performances, well, it's going to show. Perhaps the director thought the familiarity of the sketch to the audience would fill in the holes these actors couldn't fill. Sometimes that approach works - but not this time.

The original was a radio sketch, so it was created with the listener in mind. It was transferred to small screen once or twice, and The Pythons had adapted and perfected the routine for their live performances. For the Pythons (and acolytes like Atkinson), it's like water running over a pebble. So it may be a little unfair to completely dump on the actors in the second clip.

Sorry, if I went on a bit.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Boo: Good links!

Everybody: Sorry I waited so long to reply. I had this feeling that a great and really definitive interpretation of this sketch was in my mind trying to be born, and I wanted to give it time to develop. The problem is that I waited so long that anything I could have said was said much better by the commenters who posted here. Boy, there's some pretty sharp people posting here!

Trevor Thompson said...


I TOTALLY agree! The Pythons best acting is in Meaning of Life and their best writing is Life of Brian.

I thought I was the only one who felt that.

- trevor.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the first time is best, sometimes later revisits do add something special, but not always, depending on how the participants may have been cajoled into the role.

One of my favorite stories is actually a take on an older joke, which is a bit harder to trace. James Thurber did a parody or satire of the "No Soap" joke using preview copies of his latest book instead of soap. The original joke is from the Victorian era, at least, and is a dialog of memos of a hotel guest who is so allergic to soap he requests the maids not to leave any with notes saying "No Soap", which they always interpret as his wanting more as his supply is depleted.

Unknown said...

The pauses and reactions really do breath life into the Python version. The last two lines in bottom version were delivered way too fast for comphension. Even the replacement of the word "poison" for "sulphuric acid" detracts from the overall effect. Of curse the Pythoners could have also dreamed up some elaborate deadly drink, but that's not the point. They chose the word poison for readability's sake. The whole thrust of Cleese's last line is that it is absolutely unbelievable, not just an exaggeration. Saying simply "poison" is synonymous with death. When the audience hears "sulphuric acid" they have to think, that';s that stuff that burns thru things ... and i guess that might kill you" and by the time you absorb that the rest of the line is delivered and lost.

But that's just one symptom of the whole lack of insight these actors have. They say sulphuric acid because they think that it's funnier and more imaginative "poison". But in reality it distracting. They deliver the lines imitating the syllabic accents of the Python version, but don't speak any of the lines organically. They rely on the words alone to carry the act.

Aaronphilby said...

We're made to enjoy the silliness in old British culture a little bit. That's one thing. These actors create these silly characters. They're probably lampooning what they saw growing up or something. And we could relate to it and enjoy the silliness because they presented it to us in a way that draws us in and holds our interest. That's like what you said about the timing and musical quality to it. And, like you said, they make it seem like there's a real relationship there, and thought is taking place (other than 'what's my next line?!) with that element of reality there, the joke about the spirit of competition within a social group can come through clearly. I think all the funny left after that is silly words that make silly phrases that aim to paint the worse condition possible for people in the old days.

Anonymous said...


Teens watching Meaning of Life when it first came out thought it was both too gross, too subtle, and not silly enough.

Twenty years later, it is funnier because it is more subtle, and maybe the jokes need a more mature mind to appreciate.

Anonymous said...

graham chapman isn't in either of the videos


Gochris said...

With the bottom set of actors, the director failed to get them to play what the scene really is - it's a group of guys one upping each other.

The scene appears to be people reciting a list of very silly stuff. What it REALLY is is a look at a bunch of old geezers who have to impress each other.

So the missing element is the rivalry - the competition - the DRAMA of the thing.

Comedy sketches are characters acting out some sort of problem, and the beauty of this scene is that the problem is eventually resolved. So the scene feels complete in a way that many Python sketches are not complete.

(Not that incomplete sketches were a problem! Python made them a virtue.)

The bottom guys do a good job for what are clearly a bunch of fan-boys. I mean, they aren't really professional comedians, right? It looks like video of an amateur talent show or something... So it's OK that not all of them have that special timing gene a comedian needs.

But the scene is a one-upsmanship scene, pure and simple. They just aren't playing it that way.