There’s a brilliantly funny sketch that ran on the seminal British TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus that’s been bothering me lately … but it’s not because I don’t like it.
The sequence starts with a darkened studio that shows two figures on the stage while jazzy music plays in the background. We can see that one of the figures has a humongous, completely exaggerated fake nose. When the lights come up, the interviewer, played by the wonderful Michael Palin, introduces the other fellow as “one of the country’s leading skin specialists, Raymond Luxury Yacht.” After Yacht, portrayed with magnificent indignation by Graham Chapman, protests that his name is pronounced “Throatwobbler Mangrove,” Palin’s interviewer tells him: “You’re a very silly man, and I’m not going to interview you.”
Then comes the truly bizarre, far-out stuff.
“Aha!” cries Mr. Yacht/Mangrove. “Anti-Semitism!”
“Not at all,” responds the interviewer. “It’s not even a proper nose.” He takes the protuberance off Yacht/Mangrove’s face. “It’s polystyrene.”
All right … that’s a very wacky sketch indeed. And it’s an enormously funny bit of nonsense. Still, there’s an intriguing amount of subtext there that I think we should be mindful of. It’s twofold: One is the idea that Jews go around crying anti-Semitism where such issues are not present, and the other is that old stereotype of Jews having big noses.
Oh, Monty Python. You complex, insane comedy group, you.
I’m not at all worried about the repercussions of this sketch; after all, it’s more than 40 years old and has always been a bit of a throwaway item that’s never found a niche in the pantheon as one of the troupe’s most famous and beloved bits. Yet there’s something here that perturbs me. Perhaps it’s the fact that it brings up the old canard about Jews having big noses, which has been used in anti-Semitic imagery for ages. Or it might be something that is similarly problematic: that some people perceive accusations of anti-Semitism to be unwarranted. This is definitely an issue when it comes to discussing matters pertaining to Israel and to Jews as a whole. And it relates quite a bit to bigots’ questions of Zionism versus Judaism.
OK, so what? Are we really going to make that big a deal out of an old, absurd skit?
Well, no. Monty Python was no-holds-barred when it came to insulting religions, and nearly every denomination (including the ones adhered to by the Pythons themselves) was lampooned during the group’s heyday. Still, the residue of how anti-Semitism and encounters with it are viewed is lasting here, and that’s more than a little unnerving. If comedians 40-odd years ago saw it as something to laugh at, who’s to stop others from doing so as well? Who’s to stop neo-Nazis? Conspiracy theorists? The far right? And the extreme left?
Jews, as a whole, have a tendency to chuckle at themselves when presented with comedy that calls attention to their assumed foibles in a self-effacing manner. When non-Jews take this role, however, the tables are turned … and things may start to become uncomfortable. Can we allow such a thing to happen without taking offense? Can we differentiate between playful jabbing and mean-spirited bigotry? Or are they one and the same when it comes to stereotypes?
I don’t have the answer for this. All I know is that I’ve laughed and will continue to laugh at the Raymond Luxury Yacht interview, though always with a caveat. For I can discern funny, and it certainly falls under that banner.
Whether it falls under the sign of prejudice is another, altogether scarier, matter.