For a lot of contemporary comedians—Sarah Silverman, Andy Samberg, Judd Apatow's usual suspects—the job is all about provocation. They're boundary pushers. If you had to trace their predilection for flouting taboos to a point of origin, you might pick Lenny Bruce. Or even Don Rickles. But you couldn't go wrong arguing instead that the dawning of the age of offensiveness belonged, and belongs still, to Monty Python.
Forty years ago, Monty Python's Flying Circus debuted on British TV (an anniversary widely celebrated this month). Sometimes it was silly, sometimes brainy, with lots of smarty-pants allusions fueled by the Pythons' Oxbridge educations. It was also intermittently disgusting, and that was very, very new. All but one of the core Python sextet grew up in dreary, rationing-ruled post-WWII England. With the zeal of missionaries, they set out to shatter the U.K.'s stifling sense of propriety, and if standards of taste didn't survive the onslaught, so be it. Sample shocker: the season-one "Whizzo Chocolate Company" sketch, introducing such flavors as Crunchy Frog, Cockroach Cluster, and Ram's-Bladder Cup Garnished With Lark's Vomit. In season three, Circus spoofed extreme movie violence by picturing a staid old musical called Salad Days as adapted by exploding-squib master Sam Peckinpah. The result was a genteel lawn party laid waste by graphic bodily harm, with tennis racquets impaling bosoms, hands and heads ripped loose, and crimson geysers gushing from the stumps left behind. Bloody hilarious.
The gore quotient accelerated in 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which King Arthur (the incomparably befuddled Graham Chapman) hacks all four limbs off another knight, only to have the fellow insist, "It's just a flesh wound!" The laughs turned to gasps and groans in 1983's ultragross The Meaning of Life, especially a sequence involving the mountainous glutton Mr. Creosote. He pukes his dinner into a bucket with such fire-hose ferocity that even Quentin Tarantino has confessed to feeling nauseated by the spectacle.
In Python's wake, imitators and innovators alike have striven to match or outdo the ick factor. Saturday Night Live built many a skit around barf-making edibles, exactly as Python had. Remember fake commercials for Ronco's Super Bass-O-Matic and Super Bat-O-Matic, blenders that ground up their contents on camera? In '80s and '90s splatterfests like Sam Raimi's Evil Dead sequels, Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator series, and Peter Jackson's zombie farce Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive), the directors played Python-flavored grotesqueries for laughs, piling on the viscera until there was no response possible but to giggle. Jackson, a huge Pythonhead, gleefully pictured his hero chopping the living dead into pulp with a lawn mower brandished aloft, among other excesses. He called the sensibility "splat-stick." In animation, tracing the spirit of Python requires two words: South Park. And Python-revering filmmakers have lately created a new, mutant strain of bullet-ridden, injury-obsessed buddy comedies, among them Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and Hot Fuzz. The strangest of the bunch, Observe and Report, features Seth Rogen playing a psychotic mall cop. But funny. Sort of.
The current comedy game involves making audiences wonder if what they're watching really is a comedy. Dislocation and disorientation rule, as they did in vintage Python. But with favorite routines like "Dead Parrot" and "Argument Clinic" so omnipresent on YouTube and rehashed at such length in umpteen tribute shows (like a six-hour salute on IFC this week), does Python still have any power to shock? Yes, say fans who know the routines by heart. To those who dismiss the old skits as creaky, or who criticize Python as irredeemably sexist, or who dismiss movies like Grail as worn out or overrated, defenders will likely say, now and forever, "I fart in your general direction." In an outrageous French accent, of course.