What SpongeBob kids think of Monty Python


What SpongeBob kids think of Monty Python

Few comedians will get laughs from people from all generations. ALI VAN WYK looks at the stuff on television that people have been laughing at for the past 40 years.


FOR years I had been looking forward to my children reaching the age where I could share Monty Python sketches and films with them. My eldest son and daughter both have a healthy sense of humour and an appetite for satire, parody and the absurd.

When the younger one turned 15, I searched YouTube for a bunch of the better Python sketches and got hold of Monty Python's Life of Brian, because it's a full-length film which at least has a coherent story.

I gave everyone a bowl of popcorn, made them sit down, and began with one of Python's most famous and funniest pieces: the Dead Parrot sketch. John Cleese's character takes a “Norwegian blue parrot" back to the pet shop because there is something wrong with it: it is dead.

Once again I was in stitches over phrases such as Michael Palin, the shopkeeper's “It's probably pining for the fjords", or when Cleese says: “If you hadn't nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up daisies!”

My children, however, stared at the screen with growing boredom, only giving a polite grin every now and then, just to keep me from feeling bad.

It was only when I saw a mixture of disgust and despair on their faces as Cleese smacked the parrot on the counter that I realised I'd better move on to the next sketch. Jokes about animal cruelty, even when the animal is dead and the situation absurd, don't seem to work for Gen Z.

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Next I played Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook. It has no animals in it, living or dead. It's Cleese once again playing a customer in a shop, but this time he's a Hungarian tourist who walks into a tobacconist's (Terry Jones).

He uses an English/Hungarian phrasebook for tourists, little knowing that a wilful publisher has sabotaged the book by inserting incorrect translations. For example, when the tourist asks the merchant for matches for his cigarettes, he says: “My hovercraft is full of eels." And when he tries to ask what it will cost, he says: “Do you waaant to come back to my place, bouncy bouncy?"

Once again I almost tore a vital organ as I laughed, while the young people only smiled politely. However, the smiles disappeared when Cleese told Jones: “You great poof!" under the impression that he was enunciating something about the transaction. It wasn't funny to them. I suspect they even found it offensive.

I decided to move on to pure physical comedy. The Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. It's pure Cleese frivolity, and at least it got a weak chuckle or two. Comedy that moves in the direction of slapstick seems to work across generational lines.

Two scenes from Life of Brian brought varied reactions from the children. The crucifixion scene at the end of the film, with Eric Idle's song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, elicited the best response from any Monty Python so far. Blasphemy seems to be the most popular theme in comedy these days. GenZ has less sympathy for the suffering pious than for animals.

Life of Brian so upset the Broederbond dominees in 1979 that the film was banned in South Africa. However, the prophetic pavilion scene, where Stan announces that he wants to be a woman and be called Loretta and get pregnant, dampened the teenage spirit again. My kids didn't find it nearly as hilarious as I did that Monty Python anticipated the liberation of trans people by 40 years and even satirised the far-reaching ideas of more radical trans activists, such as biological men getting pregnant. Whether it's a genius look into the future or a random pot shot is hard to say, but there it is, captured on film for all to see.

Lightning bolt of the meaning of life 

This interaction with the teenagers had my head spinning for the next few weeks. I realised two things in particular. First, the cultural and political context in which I saw Monty Python for the first time was completely different from that of my offspring.

It was my conscription year, 1990. The National Party was still firmly in power, a low-intensity war flared up from time to time in the townships, Namibia was still South West Africa and we last played against the All Blacks in 1981. But Nelson Mandela had been released and the negotiations were on.

As far as Monty Python was concerned, I was thrown in at the deep end. I was on a weekend pass and one night a friend popped a VHS cassette of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life into the machine. The fact that someone in the smoky living room had rolled a “papie” (as Louis de Villiers describes it) and sent it around, among other things, made the Crimson Insurance opening scene in the movie almost short-circuit my brain.

A struggling old-world insurance company in London, Crimson Permanent Insurance, is located in a four-storey Victorian office building, with grey and balding old men lined up at desks rocking back and forth like rowing slaves. Young corporate executives in business suits, from The Very Big Corporation of America, their new oppressive parent company, watch over them complacently. One of the old men is summarily dismissed and the rest throw the young managers out of the windows in a chaotic revolt.

They pull up a giant anchor with a chain from the pavement and the little Victorian building sets off, creaking like a ship on the ocean, into a desert-like no-man's land. In the distance is a hypermodern city like New York, full of glassy skyscrapers. The tallest one is The Very Big Corporation of America.

The old men of Crimson Insurance attack the modern skyscraper like pirates with makeshift weapons. They shoot the drawers of filing cabinets like cannonballs through the windows and swing on ropes with hooks into the building, take it over and throw more young managers with neat haircuts and tailored suits out of the windows. A hostile takeover, literally.

I was too stoned to wonder what these people were smoking. Please take into consideration that the wildest comedies I'd seen at the time were Leon Schuster's Oh Schucks … it's Schuster! and Eddie Murphy's Beverly Hills Cop. The loudest I'd ever laughed was at how uncontrollably my father laughed in a theatre in Germiston at Jamie Uys's The Gods Must be Crazy.

This was a whole new level of humour. It was topical, bizarre and very clever. Some scenes in The Meaning of Life were unwatchably brutal. The king of ultraviolence, Quintin Tarantino, said The Meaning of Life was the only movie that ever made him feel uncomfortable and look away, especially the scene in which Mr Creosote, a ridiculously fat man, throws himself at the food in a haute cuisine restaurant.

The waiter (Cleese) has to fetch a bucket at one point to collect the man's spewing vomit. When the waiter puts a thin piece of chocolate on Creosote's tongue as the final gesture of the meal, his stomach explodes in graphic and well-lit detail. This is just one of the brutal scenes in the film that borders on the obscene.

Is humour violence?

A few years later, I read in drama theory that some humour can be a mild form of violence. In most cases, we laugh to get rid of discomfort. We often laugh when we see other people in a compromised situation, a situation in which we unconsciously experience ourselves and feel slightly uncomfortable, but we also know that we cannot suffer real harm because we are the spectators. We are freed from the discomfort by our peculiar human habit of laughing.

My brother sitting next to me and I, and a few of the other people in the room, instinctively understood what The Meaning of Life was about, even if it is one of the most absurd, surrealist and chaotic films you can think of.

It was a parody and a satire, and it showed a middle finger to all the things that made our lives miserable. Corporate tyranny, political intolerance and oppression, the unreasonable and judgemental church, the dominating patriarchy, arrogant and imposing authority figures from parents to teachers, prudish attitudes towards sex, racism, and so on.

When I look at my children, most of these problems, apart from corporate greed, have either disappeared or become much smaller. They are anxious about global warming and gender identity, not politicians with menacing index fingers, priests or moralists.

I suddenly understood why Monty Python had not interested them. It is satire that sends up a world they never knew. They are as far removed from the humour of Michael Palin and John Cleese as I am from the humour of Groucho Marx. When I look at Marx, I understand something of why he was funny to people in the 1940s, but my laugh doesn't issue from my stomach.

I also realised that the bizarre, surreal and absurd aspects of especially the silly Monty Python sketches must have had the same impact for my children as the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, because their minds had been exposed to children's television programmes that are nothing less than howling LSD trips.

The psychedelia of children’s television

Take the beloved and hysterical SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon. The main character is a lively yellow sea sponge that lives in a pineapple that has fallen into the sea. He's a fryer in the seafood restaurant Krusty Krab and has a pet sea snail, Gary, who meows like a cat. His best friend is a silly starfish, Patrick Star, who lives under a rock.

On SpongeBob's other side is his work colleague, Squidward, a conceited and moody octopus, who resents SpongeBob and Patrick for their childishness. Squidward plays the clarinet and likes to paint. SpongeBob and Squidward work for Mr Crab, a stingy and greedy crab, and his teenage daughter is a sperm whale called Pearl who wears red lipstick.

And that's not all. Across the road from the Krusty Krab is a rotten rival restaurant, Chum Bucket, run by a little green-eyed copepod named Plankton, and he's married to a computer named Karen. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. If your teenager were to write such a story, you would ask around among your friends for a psychiatrist's number. It's more bizarre than anything the Python troupe ever came up with.

Another show on Cartoon Network, Uncle Grandpa, was aimed at smaller children. Uncle Grandpa is a stupid and terribly strong old man who can change shape. He wears rainbow suspenders and a cap with a little fan on it. His entourage consists of Mr Gus, a green dinosaur who is calm and reasoned, Pizza Steve, a talking, self-adoring pepperoni pizza slice with dark glasses, Giant Realistic Flying Tiger, a life-size cutout photo of a tiger, and Belly Bag, Uncle Grandpa's talking red moonbag and best friend.

And that's just the characters. You have to hear the stories. Monty Python looks like a Boy Scout camp compared to this stuff. Those are  just two of many such series.

The Seinfeld years

Most people's taste in comedy changes as they get older. However, most people also react differently to the same joke, comedy or movie as they get older.

When Seinfeld first appeared on television in 1989, it was a huge  cultural event. It was sharper, funnier and faster-paced than the formulaic sitcoms of the 1980s such as The Cosby Show, Who's the Boss? and Married with Children. Young people could at least identify with Jerry and Elaine as believable people with weaknesses, and Cosmo Kramer was surely the funniest character on TV since Tolla van der Merwe told his dentist joke on Spies en Plessis.

Pop culture analysts even talk about a pre-Seinfeld world and a post-Seinfeld world — that's how strong the series' impact was. It felt like Seinfeld treated its audience more like adults than the sitcoms of the Eighties — subjects that had been taboo were treated casually: antisemitism, masturbation, same-sex relationships.

All the seasons of Seinfeld are available on Netflix and I recently talked to several friends who have rewatched parts of it. It was striking to everyone how out of step certain aspects of Seinfeld felt with today's  prevailing cultural values. It's not as if Seinfeld has suddenly become a quagmire of sexism and racism, but you don't have to be a high priest of woke to see that certain scenes, storylines or characters wouldn't make it into a series that was being produced for television in current times.

For example, you will not easily see a series about four Jewish characters, with very little representation of other minorities. A character like Babu the Pakistani (season 3, episode 7), played by an actor of Iraqi/Jewish descent, heavily made-up and with a plastered-on accent, simply would not appear. You will also no longer see a man talking about a woman's breasts as in The Implant (season 4, episode 19), in which Jerry asks Elaine to spy in the gym's locker room to see whether a woman he fancies has natural breasts or artificially enlarged ones.

The arrival of the cringe

To understand what has changed in television culture, you need only look at the next idea that Seinfeld's producer, Larry David, came up with: Curb Your Enthusiasm. It is about him, David, and his wife and a few friends. That's it.

He plays himself, or a hyper-version of himself with certain personality traits emphasised. He's a stubborn, self-centred yet successful television producer who doesn't bother with any social convention if it doesn't suit him. When it does suit him, he tries to enforce his own social rules. Larry is a bit of a knob, but most viewers sympathise with him because he is funny and because his infantile daily struggles are so familiar to us all.

The big difference between Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm is that the main character in the latter is the biggest loser. David says the character of George Costanza (Jason Alexander) in Seinfeld, who is the clumsiest, most selfish, insecure and lazy character, was based on himself, and therefore is the same character as the star of Curb.

When I saw the first episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in 2000, it immediately made sense to me as some sort of sloppy, improv show that was a retirement hobby for David, and I thought it was aimed at a truly niche audience of fringe figures with a quirky sense of humour, like me.

David apparently looked at it that way too. But then it became one of the first successes of a whole new television movement. Ultimately, it lasted 11 seasons (longer than Seinfeld) and was nominated for Emmys 47 times.

Some commentators call it cringe television: comedy that focuses more on people's weaknesses, clumsiness and selfishness than their strengths. It's more honest. It peels off people's masks and shows the painful unpleasantness of daily human interaction.

That it has become so successful is remarkable, because it requires much more from the viewer than to sit back, crack a beer and laugh. Some parts are hard to watch.

The greatest anti-hero

Another important figure appeared on the small screen about a year later. As with Seinfeld, one can indeed speak of pre-The Office and post-The Office in popular culture too. Ricky Gervais's series again swung television in a new direction.

David Brent (Gervais) is perhaps the greatest anti-hero to appear in a sitcom. The Office not only exposes pettiness, thin skins, human folly and venom, it celebrates them. The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm both heralded the beginning of the end of patriarchy — on television, at least.  Larry David and David Brent are self-centred white men in positions of authority, but neither of them has real power over the people around them.

David knows this, but Brent is a bigger idiot. He thinks he's still in control, but he's not, even though everyone around him pretends he is. Patriarchy has become an empty shell and some of us think it's funny.

I will set my alarm clock to remind me to watch The Office again in 15 years' time, to see how much it has aged.

♦ VWB ♦

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