No-One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

The Influence of the Pythons is more than just spam



I recently had a discussion with another lawyer about the Ontario election. Instead of discussing voting patterns and demographics, I blurted out something about the “Swing” and the “Swong,” and both of us laughed because we’d seen Monty Python’s “Election Night Special” sketch in 1971 (and perhaps a hundred times since) and “got” the cultural reference. No election is safe from references to swings, swongs, Jethro Q Walrustiity, Tarquin fin bin lim bin fus top f’tang ‘ftang ftang ole biscuit barrel and my favourite quote about elections: “The election went largely as predicted except that the silly party won. This is largely due to the number of votes cast.

Given that two colleagues of mine flew to London to see The Last Night of the Pythons in July (I’d call them miserable gits, but one of them brought me back a T-shirt), it’s probably time to remind everyone how culturally significant the Pythons still are; how they changed humour, popular culture and more than a few words in the English language.

Case in point? Well, the name of a horrible canned lunchmeat was turned into a surreal sketch (and a funny song), which others stole years later to describe unsolicited email; something very apropos in light of Canada’s new anti-spam law. The Pythons didn’t call unsolicited email “spam” (email didn’t exist in 1970). It’s just that the “Spam” sketch got into the culture and then the culture changed the word.

Like swing and swong, words like coconut, swallow, parrot, sherry, Vicar, Proust, blancmange, brontosaurus, luxury, Belgian, nudge, wink, slug, shed, shrubbery, Burma, creosote, obvious (as in “Ron”), Larch, anchovy, elderberry, plumage, lifeboat, penguin, kamikaze (as in “Scotsman”) and even camembert (it’s a little runny sir) have been “Pythonized” into our culture and our language. Like quantum physics, “Pythonized” words and phrases (whether they are woody or tinny), take on slightly sillier meanings than their standard dictionary definitions, depending on who’s in the room with you.

The “lupin” is the funniest of all flowers only because of the Dennis Moore sketch. “Albatross” can be a sea bird, but when screamed loudly, it becomes something sold like ice cream in a theater by an obnoxious lady (without wafers). The “Spanish Inquisition” can’t be referred to, even seriously, without the reply everyone expects. You can’t discuss live parrots without thinking about dead ones. Frogs are always crunchy. Bananas are dangerous. It takes four hours to bury a cat. Cheese in a cheese shop is a surprise. A dirty fork in a restaurant means the waiter will commit suicide. “It’s only a flesh wound” is said when someone is seriously injured. And medieval history will always conjure up images of “bring out your dead,” a Black Knight, and shrubberies.

How Karl Marx could be a contestant in a game show, (hoping to win that beautiful lounge suite) or an Icelandic saga could morph into promotional film for “North Malden,” are but three… no two... two illustrations of their surreal and absurd comedy; comedy rarely tied to the curse of a punch line.

Judges, lawyers and particularly accountants weren’t safe from mockery, but neither was religion. In the Life of Brian, religious zealots argue about whether gourds or shoes are symbols of the divine, more or less explaining the entire history of religious schisms.

I don’t know how long I have before I shuffle off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and join the bleedin’ choir invisible, but I would hope that at my memorial service, those in attendance would break into a rousing rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” There will be lots of wine, together with Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce, garnished with truffle pâté, brandy and a fried egg on top. And Spam. (Baked beans are off).

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