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Games, Subgames and Character Games in Comedy Writing: As seen in original Monty Python scripts!

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

I run a comedy writing course at the British Library in London where you will see original Monty Python scripts! (See above for an example from Life of Brian.) Here I write about ‘games’ in comedy and you’ll hear from library curator Greg Buzwell as he describes some of the comedy history treasure he shares with us. (The course last ranin spring 2023. Join my mailing list to find out about future courses.)

One of my most enjoyable teaching gigs is running a comedy writing course at the British Library in London, not least because the course includes an exclusive, up-close-and-personal viewing of original, often handwritten, Monty Python scripts from the Michael Palin archive.

On the most recent course, curator Greg Buzwell explained to us: ‘this is my favourite archive in the Library. It’s actually quite a new one. Michael donated it to us, which is incredibly generous when you think what it could have achieved on the open market. The part we’ve got covers his career from his very early days up to the late 1980s. It includes all of the Monty Python material.’

Picture the scene. We are in a stylish seminar room in the British Library in London and on a table before us are laid out fifty-year-old notebooks with comedy history inside. Literally within touching distance. (But probably best we don’t touch.) Greg shows us the pages of a notebook of Palin’s handwritten Python scripts and explains, ‘most of it is Michael's handwriting, but every so often Terry Jones’s handwriting appears. They're obviously using the same notebook, almost certainly sitting side by side, and bouncing ideas between the pair of them.’

Greg turns to an example: ‘here’s the Spam sketch, which is in Michael Palin’s handwriting. Of course, the phrase “spam email” comes from this sketch.’ In the sketch, a couple are ordering food in a greasy spoon cafe where all the dishes have spam in them. So the game of the sketch is trying to order a dish without spam in a cafe that serves nothing but wildly spam infused dishes. The term 'game' comes from improv and means the central comedic idea of a scene. Used in this way, game wasn’t a term that had currency at the time the Python’s themselves were writing, but looking back we can use it to describe what they were doing, and looking forward it will help us in our own writing. It becomes particularly helpful in more dense scenarios when we bring in the term’s siblings: subgames and character games, as we go on explore.

Here is an excerpt from the menu in the spam sketch: ‘egg and spam; egg, bacon and spam; egg, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, bacon, sausage and spam; spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon and spam...’ The rhythm of the list is carefully played, and having the benefit of the written text to study we can see that there are many small rewrites and adjustments to the menu items to improve the rhythm. There was a lot of rewriting evident in the scripts. For example, squinting closely at the original handwritten script, I saw a nice example of a rewritten line. In the original line, the woman, Mrs. Barton, says ‘have you got anything without spam?’ The waitress originally replies with something like (the handwriting was rather messy): ‘egg, bacon, and sausage. But it’ll probably taste of spam.’ This was crossed-out and changed to ‘well, there’s spam, eggs, sausage and spam. That’s not got much spam in it,’ which is a funnier line. When I read the original line out to the rest of the group at the British Library, it got a smile: then I read the re-written line and it got a big laugh. Often the first version of the line gives you the idea, and then you can finesse it and make it funnier. You can imagine Palin and Jones playing around with variations of the line until they got one that made them laugh.

Greg then shows us another notebook. ‘This is, again, one of Michael's notebooks. As you can see, it’s very anarchic: lots of doodles. I think this was done when all the Pythons were sitting around the table in a meeting, and they’re working on a running order for their sketches’. This was for the Spanish Inquisition episode of the Flying Circus, Series 2, Episode 2, first broadcast on 22nd September 1970. Greg points to a scrawled list surrounded by doodles. ‘I brought this one along because I think it’s a great example of how anarchic, creative and freestyle a lot of their meetings must have been. You get strange squiggles and doodles. Some of the doodles we actually reproduced in the Palin archive exhibition graphics, and we had to go back to Michael to say "is this one of your doodles, or is it Terry Jones’s?” And of course, he can't remember. Why should he? It’s 50 years ago, but he thought most of the doodles were probably his. Here, you can see the names of different sketches written down. Here, for example, you have the Spanish Inquisition.’

As you doubtless know, the Spanish Inquisition is a multi-part series of sketches and it has a complex layering of games, subgames and character games. The set-up of the opening sketch in the sequence begins with what is evidently a drama in a northern mining town. There is theme music and a caption. Then the dialogue starts between a working-class northern mill worker (Graham Chapman) and a middle-class women (Carol Cleveland). There’s trouble at the mill. The woman wants to know what kind of trouble. Chapman explains that ‘one of the cross beams has gone out askew on the treadle’ but the woman has no idea what he’s talking about. He doesn’t really know either and, feeling interrogated and getting defensive, the man says, ‘I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition’ (i.e. he didn’t expect an interrogation). At which point we there is a dramatic, jarring chord and three members of the Spanish Inquisition burst in (Palin, Jones and Terry Gilliam) and exclaim that ‘no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ A breathtaking leap.

For all of its anachronisms, not least the Spanish Inquisition being in the wrong historical era, the game at the heart of the sketch is the trio of inquisitors trying and failing to be a terrifying force who can extract confessions. These are characters who lack the skills they need but nevertheless keep trying to get what they want despite their limitations – a classic trait of comedy characters. First of all, they fail to deliver an intimidating speech, despite multiple takes, where they have to keep going off and coming in again, with the now bored Graham Chapman having to repeatedly provide the cue line: ‘I didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition’. Latterly they have failed to bring the torture instrument, the rack, to use on Carol Cleveland, instead bringing a washing-up drying rack.

There’s a subgame running through the scene in which the use of captions on TV is subverted; at the start a caption comes up telling us that it’s "Jarrow, New Year’s Eve 1911," but with a title card featuring a modern nuclear power plant. And then bells ring midnight and the caption changes to "Jarrow, 1912". Later on, after a burst of evil laughter from the cardinals, an on-screen caption reads "DIABOLICAL LAUGHTER" followed by a caption that in a moment of meta-comedy reads “DIABOLICAL ACTING”. There’s also a very random character game in this sketch – one of the inquisitors is Biggles, the flying ace from 1930s children’s books. He wears a red cardinal’s uniform topped off with a flying cap with goggles, and he has a British accent and a bristling moustache.

When Palin’s Cardinal Ximénez gives up on delivering the supposedly intimidating speech, he gets Cardinal Biggles to do it, who also fails. And later it is Biggles who has brought the washing-up rack by mistake and has to tie Carol Cleveland to it, and to Palin’s embarrassment, goes through the motions of turning it to torture her. In the next sketch, the game of being hopeless at torturing and extracting confessions continues when their method of torment is to seat an old lady in ‘the comfy chair’.

It was a hallmark of Monty Python to have this dense layering of detail and it helps us keep track of it all by thinking in terms of games, subgames and character games. And in your own writing, making sure your sketch or scene has a clear game, with clear character games, and potentially a subgame or two, will help you ensure your scenes are clearly layered and filled with comedic interest.

Meanwhile, back at the British Library, we come to the scripts for Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Greg asks us ‘has anyone heard of the Lazarus sketch?’ We haven’t. He shows us the script for it and explains: ‘it didn't make it into the film.’ The game of the sketch is that Lazarus, having been raised from the dead, goes to see his doctor. His doctor says “I didn't expect to see you again,” The doctor goes on to talk about his frustration with Jesus raising people from the dead and putting pressure on the health service.

Then Greg shows us a draft of the scene where Pilate, Biggus Dickus and the centurion appear on the balcony in front of the crowd to announce the release of a prisoner (see the image above). The combination of typed up script and Palin's handwritten rewrites, and old school literal cut and paste with scissors and tape, reveals Palin’s editing process. The game of the scene is Pontius Pilate not understanding joke Roman names. Greg: ‘We had it displayed in a show in the Treasures Gallery. I think it’s suitably surreal because the Treasures Gallery is, basically, all the top treasures, it's all illuminated manuscripts, and then in one corner, there was this one thing saying “Biggus Dickus.” For the British Library, it was quite radical.’

Join me then for my next comedy writing course. at the British Library, to work on your games, subgames and character games in your own comedy scripts, learn many more inspiring techniques and get to see these Python treasures – and more – for yourself. Plus, as if that wasn't enough, you also get to feast your eyes on original PG Wodehouse manuscripts, including from Jeeves & Wooster!

The course last ran in spring 2023. Join my mailing list to find out about future courses. @ The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB map

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