Result of the Python Poll
Stationery Cupboard Prefect
Well, Pythonarios,1 the results are in! SpecGram’s recent poll of ‘top Monty Python lines ever’2 indicates that the most popular Python line of all time isn’t one of the corkers from The Dead Parrot sketch, isn’t anything Lumberjacky,3 and isn’t even ‘Tungsten carbide drills’ as many of the commentariat were predicting. It is in fact the first line (if line be the right word!) ever uttered in the Pythonic oeuvre: it’s ‘It’s ...’! So, let’s take a closer look at this immortal lexeme which can now, as the Pythonic poll-topper, lay claim to be the funniest line in human history. What is its appeal? Why does it endure? Whence its sky-high funny-factor? Does it need its own Ministry? We’ll aim to address all these questions in this piece through an analysis which, as you’d expect this being SpecGram, takes an overtly linguistic tone. We begin however with a survey of two leading non-linguistic scholarly analyses of Python humour.
Gough and Orr’s (1982) seminal work, Python-othon: The Success of the 70s Sextet, contends that Python’s humour was anchored in the irony of humour-architecture of establishment-bending caricatures of post-war British society portrayed by Oxbridge-educated individuals. Drawing on a Bourdieuvian4 neo-Marxist framework, Gough and Orr advise us that, had the sketches been performed by your average variety artist who’d worked their way up from dingy pubs, mangy clubs and smoky music halls, said sketches would necessarily have been less—or even not at all—funny. In strong contrast, Mann & Mann (2012) conjecture that the humour lay in the fact that all central characters were male and women played peripheral and largely sexually objectified roles at best. Mann and Mann propose two explanations for this: 1) men are inherently funnier; 2) women are less funny than men. Mann and Mann go on to claim that the 1980s, the so-called ‘golden era’ of the British sitcoms, failed to produce anything as funny as Python simply because their female actors were lead characters.5
Unfortunately, both analyses fail when confronted by the Python poll result revealed today. In addition to their respective classist and sexist lines of argument, each takes a language-external perspective on what is, ostensibly, actually and, most probably fundamentally centrally, a linguistic type of humour. The indices of neither Gough and Orr or Mann and Mann contain any reference to ‘It’s ...’. Given this glaring lacuna in the work of Those Who Have Gone Before, your humble correspondent feels that she herself may have something to offer. With the neo-Marxist and gender theoretic account failing to speak meaningfully to the top spot hilarity of ‘It’s ...’, allow me to suggest instead a linguistic analysis of this tippest and toppest of Python lines.
Some prolegomenial commentary first: What reasons might underlie a choice of linguistic analysis? Three, in fact. Firstly, none of the Python troupe ever performed mime and none had a background in the silent movies of the 1910s and 20s. Moreover, ⅓ of the Pythons studied English at University and the remaining four regularly used it. Finally, almost all Python scripts made use of language6 and that first word ‘It’s ...’ is, crucially, a word. It would seem then, that assuming a linguistic pou sto is far from erroneous in seeking to explain the poll-topping ‘topularity’ of ‘It’s ...’.7
Let the framework, then, be linguistic. Now, let us go further and unpack the linguistics of this Pythonic number 1. Consider first that, morphologically, the lexeme consists of two elements, the free morpheme ‘It’ which hosts the clitic ‘-s’, the phonologically reduced form of the third singular ‘is’. That the pronoun is neutral, is significant: Python is saying ‘we are neutral observers of this crazy, zany world. We scrutinise it objectively and report on what we see.’ This point of view is literally accented8 by the necessity of the apostrophe separating the two components. The apostrophe connotes brokenness mended, hiatus, partiality, all of which are fundamental underlying themes of the Pythonic oeuvre. Had the grizzled Palin-portrayed hobo who uttered ‘It’s ...’ said instead ‘It is ...’ or worse ‘It now is ...’, a single nervous titter would have been a more realistic expectation that the decades-long gales of laughter that the original, and genius, form has produced.
Phonologically, at the level of the syllable, the lexeme lacks an onset. This too has powerful linguistic connotations and symbolism. If the standard Anglo-Saxon syllable is CVC or thereabouts and the French stratum not infrequently prefers a coda-less syllable, the VCC form of ‘It’s ...’ suggests a dissatisfaction with any previous comedic tradition and stands as a marker that the viewer should be prepared for the avant garde, the groundbreaking and the left-field. As contrastive evidence, consider ‘Let’s go!’ as an alternative opener. Here, even with a quasi-clitic and apostrophe in place, the onset-heavy syllables strain the funny bones of the audience, but alas not near to, at or beyond breaking point.
The articulatory clarity of ‘It’s ...’ is towards the more enunciated end of any spectrum of pronunciation explicitness. The micropause that attends the enunciation moreover only adds power and impact to its delivery. This careful articulation contrasts sharply with the wild and unkempt appearance of the hobo character. Once again, Python is drawing on linguistic energy, juxtaposed with the appearance of the utterer, to drive forward the humour of their work.
A final piece of analysis. ‘It’s ...’, unlike most of Python’s sketches, is monologic. True, there are many pieces where a single individual speaks to camera—but these are often set-ups for or follow-ons of another piece, responding to its inherent dialogicality. ‘It’s ...’, while admittedly a set-up for the show itself, lacks any textual tie in. It is also profoundly a-contextualised in that it is never explained whence arrives the hobo character or why he locates himself in various landscapes as the series progresses. The whole locution is, effectively, textually a-cohesive. The reader will not need to have pointed out to them the clear linguasymbolism of this a- or anti-textuality.
What lessons can be drawn from this? Firstly, scholars such as Gough & Orr and Mann & Mann seem to know nothing—but the only ones who didn’t know that are the scholars themselves. From a linguistic point of view, it does seem that mono-lexical units with zero onsets, clearly articulated and deployed in repetitive-to-the-point-of-entirely-predictable, visual, context-rich, text-initial position of monologic discourses are likelier to be funnier than any well crafted, discourse-embedded clausal utterances situated within a multi-actor scenario which itself has content and comment beyond any given line. In other words, humour proceeds from a bare, minimalistic linguistic formulation judiciously selected and wisely deployed. This was the genius of those six funnymen and the reasons, I contend, behind the success of ‘It’s ...’ in the SpecGram Python poll.
For those of us seeking to emulate or even surpass the achievement of the Pythons, these lessons should be taken to heart. Don’t go for a stand up routine that is rich in observational zingers, punnets of puns or zany madcap rants. Instead, the comedians of tomorrow who wish to follow in the footsteps of Chapman, Cleese, Idle, Jones, Palin, and the American one should locate a monolexical, monosyllabic linguaform with which to kick off their act. If this is well chosen and performed with the dexterity and articulatory clarity that Palin brought to ‘It’s ...’ then all that can result is sure-fire global success followed by global stardom and a trilogy of spin-off films, and a comedic legacy of decades.
So short, so quick, so ostensibly trivial—and yet so funny. ‘It’s ...’ deserves its place at the pinnacle of comedic excellence—and at the same time teaches us so much about the linguistic nature of comedy. Watch this space for the results of other upcoming poll results (top Carry On film, most sexist Bond line) accompanied of course, as you’d expect, with the searing linguistic analysis that only SpecGram can provide.
1 And any Lotharios.
2 Which you may have missed as we forgot to publicise it. All results have therefore been fabricated with the utmost authenticity.
3 Which reminds me of my first girlfriend, Jackie Lumber, daughter of a wealthy timber merchant. We had a wonderful time wandering hand-in-hand amidst the trees of the woods where we grew up. Until her father chopped them all down. And then shot himself. Jackie went on to become a Reader in Sociolinguistics, so it wasn’t all bad.
4 Or is it Bourdieunian? Or Bourdosian? Or Bored-of-it-all? Dunno. Off to Bourdeau.
5 The exception to this is of course Dad’s Army in which almost every episode was male-only cast. This of course was unfunny for other reasons including humorlessness, deficit of jokes, and lack of humour. But don’t panic, Croft and Perry.
6 The reader may object that the Terry Gilliam-produced animations contained little spoken humour. This is more than made up for by the single line Patsy has in Holy Grail which, being funnier than several other lines and almost all of Meaning of Life, ransoms Gilliam from any charge of animatorial tumbleweedery.
7 Another reason might be that, as a linguist myself, it also benefits me. Any such benefit would be coincidental.
8 Literally in the sense that an apostrophe is an accent. Which it isn’t. Literally. But maybe it is laterally, or literarily. Let’s assume that.