A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 496 – How to Irritate People / The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It

How to Irritate People / The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It – July 9th, 2011

When Andy and I went through our VHS cassettes to find some Muppet movies we knew we owned we also came across a number of other items we’d stashed under the television. Some were feature length, but others weren’t. Still, they were little oddities we wanted to be able to include in this project, so we checked the running times and paired them off. These both star John Cleese but are non-Python pieces, so they really do work together. I’ve owned them for years, but it was nice to see that the tapes were still in good shape and in more exciting news, our VCR didn’t try to eat either one!

I’m going to approach this review in two parts, because these aren’t really connected even if we did watch them together. Overall, my thoughts on the two of them together are that they do showcase Cleese’s sense of humor, but also that they’re both very much made on a tight budget and show their ages.

How to Irritate People

Watching this tonight I was amused to note that it was produced by David Frost. It’s a pre-Python sketch comedy special starring John Cleese. He does a number of host segments wherein he lectures on various techniques to irritate people with and then introduces sketches that demonstrate some of these techniques. Then he stars in said sketches, either as the irritant or as the victim.

As a precursor to Monty Python this is a nice little curiosity. Some of the sketches in it clearly had bits repurposed for later Python sketches. They’re certainly rougher around the edges and created for a specific purpose (to showcase methods of irritation) but they’re still quite funny. They do tend to be less fantastical and more rooted in the real world than Python, but that’s not really surprising.

It’s amusing to see John Cleese doing the hosting segments completely straightfaced. He does play a good straight man and here it’s apparent just how good at it he is. Every joke is delivered seriously, with a hint of long-suffering. He’s sharing these irritation tips with you in order for you to help him get back at every pain in the rear he’s ever met, or so I assume from his tone. I imagine this is what Cleese might be like doing stand-up, delivering every joke as a lecture.

When in the sketches, however, Cleese comes to life. My two favorite segments of the special both star him but in very different roles (though it’s suggested they’re the same character). In one, he’s a young man visiting his parents for Easter. His mother is the queen of irritating, prodding and disapproving and emotionally manipulating. She can cry on demand and does so in order to keep her son at her side or wheedle information out of him. As the son, Cleese exudes exasperation. He simply can’t win, and in the end he doesn’t, even if he does get to do what he wanted to do in the first place. In the second segment – which is my absolute favorite – Cleese plays an airline pilot who, along with his copilot and the chief steward, irritate their passengers by giving out complex directions and telling them not to worry. The wings are not on fire. Both sketches are fantastic, but really most of the others are too. There’s some severely dated humor and some misogyny I’m really not pleased by, but overall this one stands the test of time. Edit out the bad joke sketch and the Indian restaurant sketch and you’d be good to go.

The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It

So. Very. Dated. Also So. Very. Culturally. Insensitive. Really, it’s impressive how horrible some of the jokes are here, and I’m not just talking about the bad impressions. But despite all that, I still enjoy a good chunk of this. It’s messy and hasn’t aged well, but the core concept is still fun and the jokes aren’t meant to be complicated or subtle, so what works definitely works and what doesn’t could easily be removed and replaced if this were to be remade.

The idea is that it’s the 1970s and someone claiming to be a Moriarty is making demands in return for not killing off a bunch of important people. A supercomputer determines that there is indeed one last member of the Moriarty family and the best way to cope with the threat is to call in the last member of the Holmes family: Arthur Sherlock Holmes (played by Cleese). What follows is a series of referential jokes and puns and very little in the plot department. There’s no time for plot! We have politicians to make fun of!

This special takes shots at a lot of things, among them British politics and foreign cultures. The military representatives who meet to discuss the Moriarty threat are a whole host of offensive cultural stereotypes. And it’s a pity that those scenes are so painful because the European representative is played by Denholm Elliott and on his own he’s got some fantastic lines and moments. The joke with the sniper no one seems to bother getting rid of? Predictable after the first time, but still funny. If only the scenes weren’t riddled with prejudice.

On the other hand, this special has given me at least one frequent reference and some of my favorite pun-based humor ever. “Grab a crossword,” Holmes tells Watson. “We have several moments to lose!” And so they work on the crossword together, figuring out the answers to such clues as “Conservative pays ex-wife maintenance” and “A simple source of citrus fruit” with each answer being a play on “Elementary, my dear Watson.” (The answers to those two being ‘alimony Tory’ and ‘a lemon tree’). This is hands down one of the simplest, most ridiculous and most amusing jokes I know of. All the humor between Holmes and Watson is fun, really.

The movie ends somewhat abruptly, with very little in the way of plot resolution. But plot was never the point here. The point was to make jokes about Holmes’ drug habits and Watson’s cluelessness. The point was to use a classic reference as a way to make lots of thematic jokes. There are repeated cameos by various other famous detective characters (impersonated rather badly most of the time) and an atrocious Scottish accent from Mrs. Hudson (it slips into US deep south in places) and a whole bit about pot smoking bus drivers in London. Overall it’s a very strange little piece of silliness. I wish it had aged better, and I’d love to see it redone without some of the more offensive humor, but I can still enjoy it.

July 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Irritate People / The Strange Case of the End of the World As We Know It

July 9, 2011

How to Irritate People / The Strange Case of the End of the World As We Know It

We have in our collection a few movies that are too short to really qualify as movies. They’re television specials, really. We wanted to feature them as part of our project anyhow though, and the way we’ve decided to handle this is to combine two specials together into a single feature length viewing experience. Today’s features are both John Cleese specials from the sixties and seventies.

How to Irritate People:

First up we have a sketch comedy special that John did with Michael Palin and Graham Chapman in 1969 before they were part of Monty Python. Cleese hosts with what could be considered very short stand-up routines between the sketches which act to hold the piece together, presenting each segment as an example of methods that might be used to irritate people. Irritating people displayed include parents, “pepperpots”, used car dealers, airline pilots, restaurant patrons and servers, actors and talk show hosts.

I saw this for the first time when I met Amanda. I recall her bringing it down to the AV lair where we both used to hang out and showing it to the whole group, and we were mightily impressed. It’s like getting a more coherent bonus Monty Python episode for those of us who had seen every one and crave more. The feel and writing is very familiar (seeing as this special came out the same year as the first year of Monty Python that’s no big surprise.) There’s even an entire sketch, the job interview, that was used word-for word in Python (episode 5 – Man’s Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the Twentieth Century.)

John’s then-wife Connie Booth (who also appears in our second special for this evening’s viewing) takes all the young female parts, while Gillian Lind plays a couple of irritating mother roles. (Of course all the middle-aged ladies are just the male performers in drag.) There’s also a couple non-Python performers here: Dick Vosburgh in two very minor one-line appearances and Tim Brooke-Taylor who plays the hapless job applicant and the funniest of the pepperpots.

The sketches themselves are for the most part fun. There’s only one that drags a little bit, and that’s kind of part of the joke (the talk-show-host who takes so long to introduce his guest that there’s no time for an interview.) A couple of them stand out for me as the absolute funniest. Tim Brook-Taylor as an addled pepperpot competing on a quiz show (a sketch which was adapted for Python but was not exactly the same) is absolutely hilarious. The used car dealer is clearly the inspiration for the Bolton pet-shop owner who sells a less-than-fully-alive parrot to John Cleese in the Python show. Then there’s the great segment where Cleese and Chapman play airline pilots who irritate their passengers with announcements like “The wings are NOT on fire.” That’s probably my favorite sketch in the program and the one that stuck in my memory longest after first seeing the show.

This special is full of that particularly great and quintessentially British humor which John Cleese excels at. It’s all about people being friendly and understanding in the face of unbelievably irritating behavior, internalizing their anger until they inevitably explode. Graham Chapman in particular, during the “freedom of speech” segment loses his temper in a particularly outrageous and hilarious manner. I remember being delighted when Amanda first showed this to me, and I continue to enjoy it to this very day.

The Strange Case of the End of the World as we Know It:

The second half of our John Cleese double feature is this very strange little film. It has a coherent story throughout although it still feels somewhat like several comedy sketches linked together. It also has a significantly higher budget than I’m used to seeing in 1970s British television, with location shots, larger crowds, and a generally more polished feel than, say, Python ever had. On the other hand, it hasn’t aged quite as well as most Python stuff. It’s very much a parody that is part of its time period, particularly the second half with all the impersonations of current TV detectives.

The film follows a nefarious plot by the last living descendant of Professor Moriarty to destroy civilization as we know it. It starts when American diplomat Henry Gropinger has his diary stolen, leaving him disoriented and causing him to greet a delegation of Arabs in Hebrew. They promptly kill him. The bumbling President of the United States (probably meant to be Ford) dispatches his head policeman (who appears to be an Italian gangster) to confab with other civilized nations and figure out how to stop the end of civilization. The confederation of policemen is wince-inducingly painful and filled with dated stereotypes like the Austranian, the Chinese, and the backwards African.

These fools choose to find the last living descendant of Sherlock Holmes to do battle with Moriarty. Arthur Sherlock Holmes is played by John Cleese, his trusty (but dim) sidekick Dr. William Watson is Arthur Lowe and their strangely accented housekeeper is Connie Booth again. Holmes hits upon the scheme of having every great detective in the world come together in one place, which will draw Moriarty out of hiding because there is no way that such a tempting target can be ignored. This sets up the final act of the movie which involves farcical versions of well-known detectives being killed by Moriarty in disguise. There’s Collumbo and Hercule Poirot and Sam Spade and some guy from Hawaii 5-0 and Macleod. Again, it has a pretty seventies feel to it.

The best humor in the film comes from the interactions between Holmes and Watson. John Cleese is of course always fun, but it is Arthur Lowe who stands out for me as the runaway star. His trademark “good lord!” and “you never cease to amaze me, Holmes” are wonderfully funny. The two stand-out sections of the movie are when Watson and Holmes do a crossword together where every answer sounds suspiciously like “elementary” such as “alimony Tory, my dear Watson” and when Moriarty is disguised as Watson and Holmes must figure out which of them is the impostor. Indeed I’d say that any time Arthur Lowe is on the screen the movie comes to life.

This is an odd little film. It’s a self-contained micro-film at only fifty five minutes long. It has some powerfully dated stereotypes and references to shows and political figures that were popular at the time but are pretty much gone from the public consciousness now (who remembers Kojak? Really? And Jerry Ford?) There are some parts however that are fantastically written and are still funny today. I have to admit that I think those bits do pretty much redeem it.

July 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment