Monty Python and the Absurd (Lilja Valtonen)

Nigel Warburton talks at length about absurdity from a philosophical standpoint in his article ‘The Absurd’. In it he writes, “In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality”,[1] i.e. life is absurd when what is expected is not realised. Absurdity is humorous to many because it goes against all reasonable expectation. Much of what I find funny, for instance, is rooted in the unexpected. Irony, slapstick, escalation jokes, and pranks all have in common the element of surprise as a reason that people laugh. When I think of the absurd, my mind goes to Monty Python, modern-day memes, more recently Buster Keaton, and the French philosopher Albert Camus, due to my extensive reading of his work at the edgy age of fifteen.

The Monty Python sketch ‘Whicker Island’ is an example of surreal, absurdist comedy. It is framed as a television special on a Caribbean island inhabited entirely by Alan Whicker impersonators one-by-one having a turn in front of the camera to report the news. The sketch is so absurd that it makes one think of even more absurd things to ask about the sketch, like where did they come from? Why do they exist in this reality? Are there multiple cameras or just the one and are they simply waiting for their turn to speak for eternity? Do cameras exist on the island or is this just a one-time occurrence recording what life on the island is like? Much of Monty Python’s humour is meaningless, bizarre, and absolutely bonkers, but yet it endures after all these decades and is transnationally amusing. Their most famous sketches, ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ and ‘The Spanish Inquisition’ are perfectly absurd.

[1] Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd,” in The Journal of Philosophy 68:20 (1971), 718.

3 comments

  1. This is a great example of absurdist comedy. You can trace this line of thinking throughout much of Monty Python’s comedy, especially in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which there are many different absurdist jokes throughout the move that don’t pertain to the story at all.

  2. In your post you mentioned that the post evokes even more absurd questions from the viewer about how this situation came to be. By asking questions are we the viewer attempting to bring the situation closer to reality or are we trying to induct ourselves into this absurd world by understanding the workings and parameters of it?

  3. I loved this example of the absurdist. After watching this, I have the same set of questions you do. Why are these people here, in this very specific place, doing this ridiculous thing? I liked the idea that our expectation is played with, because we would definitely not expect to see a scene like this playing out. And because it doesn’t meet our expectation, we can laugh at how insane it is.

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