There’s a news story making the rounds about the disovery of a fourth-century* “direct ancestor” of Monty Python’s most famous sketch–you know, the one that features the line “THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!”
Apparently, the joke, which is found in a Greek book of 256 jokes called the Philolegus (loosely, The Joke-Lover), goes something like this:
Slave Owner: The slave you sold me yesterday died.
Former Slave Owner: By the gods! When he was with me, he never did any such thing.
I say “apparently,” because none of the news outlets carrying the story give this purported ancestor joke in full–likely because they’re all cribbing from the same press release for a new “multimedia version” of the Philolegus which doesn’t give the whole thing, either.** I suspect that the joke is being selectively quoted in order to make the similarity more pronounced, especially given how poorly the release represents the Dead Parrot sketch itself, describing it like so:
In Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch, written 16 centuries later, a pet-shop salesman makes similar excuses when a customer complains that the parrot he has just bought from the shop has died. The seller adds that the parrot, a Norwegian blue, is “pining for the fjords”.
There are a lot of versions of the Parrot Sketch floating around–a medievalist might be tempted to say that it is extant in many recensions–but none of them feature a shopkeeper making an excuse similar to “he never did that when I had him,” because the basic premise that drives the sketch is not the parrot’s death, but that the shopkeeper refuses to admit he’s dead. Indeed, the fact that the parrot is dead is pretty much irrelevant to the Pythons’ joke. The humor comes from Palin’s slimy delivery of increasingly absurd excuses in the face of Cleese’s increasingly irate tirades. You can replace the parrot with anything, and the joke stays the same.
In fact, the Pythons did just that, about twenty-five episodes later, in the Cheese Shop sketch. Palin plays a slightly more good natured version of the shopkeeper, and Cleese goes for a quieter rage as the customer, but it’s pretty much the same sketch with the dead parrot replaced with an absence of cheese.
As it turns out, the Pythons have been interviewed many times about the Parrot Sketch’s origins. See this You Tube video for one such interview. (The discussion starts at around 4:00.) Here, they freely admit that the Dead Parrot Sketch was a revamped version of a sketch Palin had done for an earlier show, How to Irritate People, which featured a car salesman instead of a pet shop owner.
If you want to trace the descent of the Dead Parrot back a bit further, Cleese and fellow Python Graham Chapman had worked on the earlier BBC sketch comedy special At Last the 1948 Show, which featured a Bookshop Sketch that is essentially the Dead Parrot Sketch in reverse. There, Cleese plays a shopkeeper who tries to accommodate the increasingly absurd requests of a customer (Grate Expectations by Edmund Wells, Rarnaby Budge by Charles Dikkens with two Ks, the well-known Dutch author, etc.), eventually building into full on “wakey-wakey this is your nine o’clock alarm call” mode by the sketch’s end.
Of course, I’m now fairly deep into a blog post and have only managed to trace the joke back about two and a half years,**** well short of the sixteen centuries the guys with the press release are claiming in order to hawk their brand new digital multimedia online downloadable web 2.0 super-absorbant individually-packaged editions of the ancient joke book, which is why, I guess, I am not in marketing. However, to end on a medieval note, let me say that if you do happen to be in the market for a several-century-old analogue of the Dead Parrot sketch, I think the ending of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess is close enough, and certainly much closer to the spirit of Python than the dead-slave joke.
In The Book of the Duchess, “Chaucer” has a dream vision in which he meets a Black Knight grieving over the death of his lady. Always the dolt, the “Chaucer”-dreamer proceeds to completely misunderstand what the knight is sad about. At first he thinks it must be a hart that the knight has lost in the woods. When he realizes it’s a lady, he assumes the knight must mean he lost her romantically–i.e., she broke up with him. This goes on for some time, until finally the knight loses it and says exasperatedly, “She’s dead!” After the climactic outburst, everything wraps up in a few short lines, just like in the Dead Parrot sketch.***** Of course, the Knight’s speeches are far too long for back and forth rhythm of Cleese and Palin, but Palin’s oblivious confidence is a pretty good fit for the Chaucer dreamer.
*Though the fourth century is a bit out of bounds for this blog, the Python angle puts it squarely under my purview. 1/5 of the on-air Pythons were, after all medievalists. And didn’t one of them teach Latin…? And yeah, I know this story’s a week old.
**The edition seems to combine a new translation with videos of the jokes being performed by a former British game show host (a steal at only £5.95!).
***The Cheese Shop sketch also reuses the joke of having Palin announce he’s going to “have a look around in back” while standing still.
****And Now the 1948 Show came out in 1967, its name a joke on how long the BBC kept shows in the can back then.
*****At least, like the version of the Parrot sketch that ends with the shopkeeper and the customer going back to his place. Like I said, multiple recensions.