Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cameo #1 - Lurking Humorously

FADE IN to scene. A young and lovely writer, MISS ERIN PALETTE, is tied to a chair by what appears to be a green garden hose.

(Groggily, as if sedated)

"Huh? Where am I? What's going on here?"
(Struggles against her bonds)

"Erin Palette? Erin Palette! Fifteen seconds to your blog post, Miss Palette!"

"Scooter? What are you doing here? What am I doing here?"

"Why, you're the first guest author for Mr. Adam's blog, Miss Palette! Adam's missing though so Barkley said to bring you in anyway. You're here to talk about Muppets, Monty Python, and subversive humor."

"So I've been shanghaied?"

(Scooter nods assent)

(Shaking her head is resignation)

"Done in by my own rules. Isn't that ironic?"

(Scooter checking guest list)
"No, Alanis Morissette isn't until next week."

(SFX: Sad trombone)




Er… hello, everyone. Apparently I'm today's guest author for Adam's blog. I knew that making rules suggestions and revisions for his Muppet RPG would eventually have repercussions, but I had no idea it would be something like this. Oh well. At least I'm earning that co-author credit!

When I started reading Adam's posts for Muppet Madness Month, I noticed an amazing bit of similarity between the humor of the Muppets and that of Monty Python. Compare the following videos:

Beef Falling Dramatically

French Secret Weapon

Now you may well be asking "But Palette, what do these two sketches have in common other than airborne beef?" That's a good question, and thank you for asking, purely theoretical audience who might be only the voices in my head. I'll tell you: Both are forms of subversive humor.

When I say "subversive," I don't necessarily mean treasonous, radical, or designed to overthrow established social order (although some sketches on both sides frequently satisfy that last definition); I instead mean that they take the audience's expectations and subvert them humorously. Well, what's a subversion, then? It's what happens when the audience is led to believe one kind of thing is going to happen, and something else – perhaps even something completely different – happens instead.

The classic example of this is the speeding car hurtling down a busy street as two workers are carrying a pane of glass across the road. The audience expects that, one way or another, that glass is going to be broken dramatically. Played straight, the car will smash the glass. But if something else happens – the car avoids the glass, something else smashes the glass instead, or perhaps the car itself shatters after hitting the glass – that's a subversion. It is essentially messing with the minds of the audience, wherein what happens is funny not necessarily because it is humorous, but because it is so unexpected that it strikes the viewer as absurd, and therefore hilarious.

Both the Muppets and Monty Python are masters of this technique, and pioneered it at a time when humor was very straightforward and formulaic. Both heavily influenced the evolution of televised humor, and both are still immensely popular over thirty years later – a testament to the immortality of their craftsmanship. "But what about this alleged similarity you talked about earlier," I hear you say.

Well, my thesis is quite simple. Monty Python has never been especially huge in the United States, due perhaps to its very British-ness, despite how absurd or subversive it could be. But the Muppets – cute, unassuming, and decidedly American – made this form of humor much more palatable to U.S. audiences. In fact, Muppet humor is doubly subversive, because audiences are not inclined to expect sophisticated wordplay from brightly-colored pieces of felt with funny voices.

Van Gogh Impressions

In fact, I would go so far as to say that The Muppet Show is, in fact, Monty Python made American. An American Python, if you will.

The GREEN HOSE that was wrapped around PALETTE twists and shifts, revealing itself to be an oddly-dressed snake. He hisses in PALETTE's ear.

American Python: You rang?

PALETTE shrieks and faints. AMERICAN PYTHON shrugs – don't ask me how a snake with no shoulders manages to shrug, he just does, okay? – and continues narrating in a voice much like David Ogden Stiers, only prissier and more New Englandish.

Oh dear. I seem to have startled the poor dear. But not to fret! I studied theater at Haaaaahvaaaaahd.

To illustrate the point that the Muppets are American Python – hellooooo, everyone – watch this clip from 1967 and pretend that instead of Jim Henson doing the computer voice, it is actually John Cleese. I think you will find that it would be quite at home in any Flying Circus episode.

IBM Training Video

And wouldn't this sketch be simply splendid performed by Muppets?

Military Fairy

Yesss. Yesss, indeeeeeed.

And so, my friends, in conclusion, please consider the following:

What's That On The Television?

"Our first rule was: no punch lines.. [some sketches] start brilliant, great acting, really funny sketch, but punch line is just not as good as the rest of the sketch, so it kills the entire thing. That's why we eliminated them." -- Terry Gilliam, Monty Python Live at Aspen, 1998


"What my father figured out was if you can't get out, you just either blow something up, or you eat something, or you just throw penguins in the air." -- Brian Henson, Brian Henson Introductions, 1999

Thank you very much, and goodnight.




-- Erin Palette

Barking Alien


  1. Oh my! What a delightfully well-written article this is! I must that I find the author of this article to be quite erudite and persuasive, as well as charming, whimsical, and pleasant to smell. You really should have her write more articles for you!

    An anonymous commenter who is absolutely not Erin Palette

  2. It's not a comparison that ever occurred to me, but now that I think of it, I think you're on to something.