The only thing missing is “Oliver Cromwell.”
Otherwise, Monty Python’s Total Rubbish: The Complete Collection is complete indeed. Or complete enough, at any rate. It’s a collection of all nine albums the comedy troupe released in the U.K., remastered and split among nine CDs (or 10 vinyl LPs) with a lavish book featuring a foreword from Michael Palin and archival photos.
It’s not the first compilation the Pythons have released: they’ve put out a steady stream of best-of discs over the years, and repackaged eight of their albums into The Instant Monty Python CD Collection, a six-disc box set, in 1994. That would have sufficed, if not for the annoying way the discs were organized: instead of individual tracks for each sketch, each of the eight albums in the collection was split into vinyl sides, meaning there were two tracks per CD, along with a list of what each 20-plus minute track contained.
That was fine for binge-listening on car rides and the like, but made it irritating to find specific sketches without a lot of fast-forwarding. By rectifying that particular oversight, and adding a ninth album, Total Rubbish offers the single best overview of Monty Python’s career, from their 1970 LP debut Monty Python’s Flying Circus through their last original album in 1983, the soundtrack to Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
It’s been more than 30 years now since Monty Python released anything new (apart from “Oliver Cromwell,” a song that first came out in 1989 and appeared on the group’s 1991 compilation Monty Python Sings), and yet the troupe’s influence endures—even flourishes, given the massively successful reunion of the surviving Pythons earlier this year in London—in what looks like a golden age for comedy.
In fact, there’s no way to overstate the influence Monty Python has had on comedy over the past 45 years. From Saturday Night Live to Portlandia, Adult Swim to the Jash comedy collective on YouTube, and TV shows including The Office, Arrested Development, Flight of the Conchords, South Park and too many others to count, Monty Python is a common thread connecting them with deadpan treatment of outlandish premises.
John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones weren’t the first to do ridiculous things with a straight face—The Goon Show predated them in Britain and Firesign Theatre in the U.S.—but the Pythons were masters of the form, and their mix of surrealism, social satire and studied British understatement remains funny decades later, without coming off as a relic from a different time.
Part of the reason their humor endures is context: they rarely took on contemporary social or political issues of the day, leaning instead toward oddball takes on history, absurdist twists on everyday situations and trends in culture, both popular and high. Poking fun at the amoral expedience of the advertising industry on “String,” from Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, or listening to Idle’s breathless soliloquy about the hell that is other people on package vacations in the “Travel Agent” sketch from Monty Python’s Previous Record—“swimming pools full of fat German businessmen pretending they’re acrobats, forming pyramids and frightening the children and barging in the queues”—are still funny because they still ring true. Indeed, when the Uruguayan soccer player Luís Suarez bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup this summer, the English announcer’s initial reaction—an understated “Oh dear”—called to mind Palin in the “Festival Hall Emile” sketch. When a lovely solo is interrupted by the sound of crunching wood, Palin interjects, “Oh dear, Gilbert has trodden on his violin.”
It also helps that the Pythons, six upper-crust white men, delighted in lampooning their own social class, giving working-class types the upper hand over the stuck-up sticky-beaks (to quote “Bruce’s Sketch” from Matching Tie and Handkerchief) in bits like “Cheese Emporium” or “Dead Parrot Sketch,” which proved so popular the Pythons took to calling it “Oh, Not Again.”
They were irreverent about organized religion in short sketches like “Martyrdom of St. Vincent” and in longer forms, such as Monty Python’s Life of Brian and parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life, all of which are included in Total Rubbish. They had a knack for sending up high culture in sketches like “Novel Writing,” which lends a sports-fanatic air to the decidedly more sedate activity of Thomas Hardy writing the opening lines of a new novel.
They were pioneers in the comedy of irritating repetition (the nasal song “Here Comes Another One,” for example, or the extended clattering mayhem of “Mary Queen of Scots”), and masters of wordplay on “Contradiction,” “Argument” and “Neville Shunt,” a send-up of critical reviews like this one. They were funny in song (“Every Sperm Is Sacred,” “Medical Love Song”), and had an impressive affinity for treating the bizarre as normal on “An Elk Sketch,” “Crunchy Frog (Trade Description Act)” and “Eric the Half a Bee Sketch” and accompanying song.
In fact, it’s hard not to gape at the sheer scope of what Monty Python accomplished. As with so much comedy, explaining the joke is also what ruins it, and a huge swath of Python sketches are best appreciated by listening to them. Total Rubbish offers the best of them.