The only circus I have attended made its debut on the BBC on October 5, 1969. I was less than a year old that day and more than seven or eight years away from encountering it for the first time, on American television, PBS to be exact.
PBS, America’s Public Broadcasting Service, is a non-commercial broadcaster, and its hundreds of member stations must each do what they can to fill the broadcast day. This is less true for New York City’s PBS station, the famous Channel 13, or Los Angeles’s PBS station, as these two have many subscribers and can afford to create their own programs.
When the BBC started to make its programs available for sale in the 1970s, episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus started to appear on American television sets. On PBS stations, because the BBC was selling the rights for not very much money at all, as I understand it. As a viewer of Channel 13 when I was a pre-teen, because it aired many (inexpensive to produce) children’s television shows, I wound up seeing Monty Python’s Flying Circus at perhaps too young an age. Seven or eight. Perhaps my parents thought something along the lines of “It’s on Channel 13, and it says it is a ‘circus,’ so it must be a kid’s show.” To this day, I sometimes watch episodes of Monty Python with that thought—it’s a kids’ show—in mind.
(Some of the group’s members had helped write and perform on a daytime children’s program, Do Not Adjust Your Set, before Python.)
Thus, somewhere around that age, I first saw “The Fish-Slapping Dance.” If you find “The Fish-Slapping Dance” funny, you and I will more than likely be friends for life. The video:
It may be the Monty Python troupe’s quickest route to the biggest laugh. If you do not “The Fish-Slapping Dance” funny, it may be because you find the waste of intellectual effort silly or even offensive. Or perhaps fish jokes generally turn you right off. The question “How is this funny?” becomes the same question as “Why is this funny?” or “Why is T H I S on my screen?”
“The Fish-Slapping Dance” actually can be seen as a depiction of the “How is this funny?” conversation: Michael Palin, the “little fishes,” dances the question, and then John Cleese, the “big fish,” delivers the only possible retort: “It is or it is not.” Splash.
I can over-intellectualize and explain how the bit does not work, but every attempt I make falters the moment Michael Palin hits the water, when I laugh, sometimes quietly and sometimes out loud, every time.
I knew approximately two things when I wrote about this a few years ago: that my girlfriend, the closest friend I have, probably does not know much if any Monty Python material (she is twelve years younger than me so our cultural references are different), and that I do not know if we share a sense of humor, even though she and I laugh a lot at many of the same things and same comics. For instance, her response after listening to some recordings of my radio show was to say that it was “nice hearing my voice and that it sounded like you were enjoying yourself.” Um, it is a comedy show, so a chuckle would not have been inappropriate.
Thus, I was rather nervous when I posted the Monty Python video above, in a previous column, as she might very well read what I wrote, view the classic bit of comedy, and then instant message a break-up text with me. (Which emoji might she use?) I did not know what I did not know, but I was going to learn sooner or later. Are we companions for life, based on one 16-second joke?
“I’ve been sitting in my office, laughing at that.” she wrote me that night. Thus, my belief that “The Fish-Slapping Dance” is the litmus test of comedy, a proof of companionability, was sustained.
Kindergartners may have the most effective conversations for establishing a friendship: favorite color, up versus down, favorite letter, favorite word. Matters of eternal importance like those. We grown-ups do not have half as effective a means of establishing friendships. I consider the above video to be one, and those four questions are pretty good, too, come to think of it. In case anyone wants to know: Green, down, the letter N, the word Yes.
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The above is an expansion of a piece started almost two years ago.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 17 asks us to reflect on the word, “Fishing.”
The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 14 asks us to reflect on the word, “Fish.”
The WordPress Daily Prompt for May 31 asks us to reflect on the word, “Circus.”
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