Why do nerds/geeks like Monty Python so much?
January 19, 2009 7:20 PM   Subscribe

Why do nerds/geeks like Monty Python?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that poindexters prefer Python. But why? Other classic nerd obsessions seem readily explicable - Star Trek, for example - but I've never really understood what makes Python so very appealing to nerds. Can you explain it?

The only explanation I've been able to come up with is that Python routines often develop logically from an absurd premise, which would appeal to nerds' respect for logic, and that this kind of humor exposes the arbitrariness of many social rules, which would appeal to a demographic that, at least according to stereotype, finds it difficult to deal with the ins and outs of interpersonal communication. But this kind of humor is not exclusive to Python, and seems insufficient to explain the intensity of the cult.

I've observed this phenomenon among nerds from many English-speaking countries, so I'm not looking for explanations that focus solely on Python's American fans.
posted by ShameSpiral to Society & Culture (36 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, "Monty Python" was pretty much the only choice in the US if you wanted to watch intelligent humor. It was basically "Monty Python" or "Three's Company." The jocks and their ilk watched "Three's Company." My nerdy friends and I watched "Monty Python." It was quirky like we were. There were literary references. And since most of us desperately wanted to escape, it helped that it was a British show.

My guess is that the show still appeals to nerds because it's smart. But it's probably also just been passed down from nerd-generation to nerd-generation.
posted by grumblebee at 7:30 PM on January 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

We like catchphrases that we can incorporate into our discussions during night-long sessions of D&D inbetween scoffing Cheetos and gulping down Mountain Dew, you very naughty boy!
posted by Effigy2000 at 7:31 PM on January 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

A lot of non-nerds/geeks like it as well.

I'm tempted to be flippant and just say, "Because it's funny?" But that would be removed as noise.

Honestly, a lot of times in any subculture something it liked because the others in the subculture are watching it. Like MST2K. I watched it, but mostly so I could relate to the others in my group that thought this was the coolest thing ever. Same with Python.

I think you also touched on the answer in your question. Many of the skits are socially awkward. So are a lot of geeks.

And I think a lot of nerds can see themselves in these skits. People tend to relate to the shows that relate to them.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:31 PM on January 19, 2009

It's smart and funny. Few things are both. You sort of have to be a nerd to laugh when St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas referee a soccer game played by German and Greek philosophers. By that point, all the people who don't get it have flipped the channel.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:36 PM on January 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I suspect the relative difficulty of watching a British show in America also contributed. Doing something in a more complicated/more difficult way than strictly necessary (and then being proud of doing so) is another of the hallmarks of nerdhood. Why just turn on the TV when you can import a British show and watch that?

Also seconding
- Intelligent, dry wit
- Made by guys who are pretty nerdy themselves
- Cultural choices to separate the "nerd" identity from the mainstream, then passed on to other nerds or down to nerdy children

I even think the throwaway line about "providing catchphrases for D&D games" isn't far from the mark. Many self-identified nerds have a deep love for trivia and memorization of factoids, and Monty Python is chock-full of one-line quotes which can be memorized and trotted out in a variety of (inappropriate) situations.
posted by Scattercat at 7:43 PM on January 19, 2009

Another thing that may be hard to understand in the age of "Kids in the Hall," "The Simpsons" and Ceiling Cat... In the 70s and early 80s, there wasn't a history of absurdist humor ("Laugh-in" was a lame exception) in the mainstream media. I remember when "Python" came on the scene, there were people who were baffled by it. "Why does that guy keep saying 'wink wink nudge nudge?' I don't get it."

But American nerds my age were used to Frank Zappa, John Lennon's trippy lyrics, Firesign Theatre, etc. Since we were into sci-fi, we were exposed to Dr. Who. So we got "Monty Python." And, as often with happens with cliques, it helped that the more "average" kids didn't get it. It was like a secret handshake for us.
posted by grumblebee at 7:43 PM on January 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

It's smart and funny. Few things are both.

More specifically, I think, is that its intellectual humor mixed with wacky slapstick, something very hard to pull off. This is a good example.
posted by zardoz at 7:46 PM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and the idea of a "nerd" has become much more narrow nowadays. It seems to be centered around computers. When I was a kid, computers were rare and I knew plenty of nerds who had never touched them. "Geeks" -- if there's a difference between them and nerds -- tend to be specialized, as in "music geeks." But in my day, geeks/nerds were more likely to be generalists -- generalizing in anything that wasn't mainstream.

My friends were into movie monster magazines, Wacky Packages, spelunking, counter-culture music, odd TV shows, etc. Anything to distance themselves from the norm.
posted by grumblebee at 7:48 PM on January 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Perpetual motion! Usually you see it for the first time because you're 8 and your dad is a nerd or you're 14 and your friend's dad is a nerd but no matter when you see it you're amazed because OH MY GOD. You didn't know funny could BE this funny. Also the suits that don't quite fit, skinny frames, general absence of women, the aforementioned dry wit/slapstick combo, and lack of bro comedy staples (re: anything Adam Sandler made in the 90's) in Python tend to look like more appealing a future than anything Dane Cook's lifestyle can offer. Hence, as caddis said, like attracts like.

Further reinforcement comes in the forming of cliques. You show your nerd friends some Python and now you all know something about FUNNY that you're convinced the rest of the school doesn't know. And you only show it to those you deem worthy/girls you're trying to impress. So it stays in the nerd circles, more or less.

Also see: Weird Al, Rocky Horror Picture Show (nerds discover sex/musical theater), They Might Be Giants, MST3K, and high school journalism, etc...
posted by greenland at 7:56 PM on January 19, 2009

Five of 'the boys' are Oxford or Cambridge graduates.
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:03 PM on January 19, 2009

Not to take away from the excellent writing/performances/etc. in Monty Python, but I think grumblebee's point about availability is a good one: Monty Python was available on PBS stations in the U.S. in the 70s and 80s -- well, up to today, really -- while other British comedies that were just as wacky, smart, and had plenty of nerd appeal (The Goodies, anyone?) did not become cult favorites, simply because they weren't picked up by PBS.

Also Monty Python would put off the older generation -- there's a certain "I don't get it" appeal to them that would allow you to be a member of a club if you were a MP fan.

I can't speak to the issue of MP in other English-speaking countries.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:03 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, it's irreverent and cheeky!
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:04 PM on January 19, 2009

I think there are two separate questions here:

1. What is it that geeks like about Monty Python?

2. How did it come to be that Monty Python became so popular among geeks?

These are different questions. To draw an analogy if someone asked you why you like carving things from wood, you might say "It's calming and there's something satisfying about working with your hands and at the end I have the satisfaction of holding something I made." That would be the answer to "What do you like about carving wood?"

But there's another answer you could give that's equally valid: "When I was a kid I used to visit my grandfather in his workshop and he had the coolest tools and showed me how to use them. He used to give me scraps of wood to try my hand at carving. When I was twelve he got me a little toolset of my own and took me to pick out a big hunk of wood that he bought for me." That's the answer to "How did you come to like wood carving?"

So the answer to "what do geeks like about monty python?" has been answered by several people already. However, an equally valid answer speaks to the question, "How did Monty Python come to be popular among geeks?" And the answer is social networks. Geeks are friends with other geeks. Some geeks like Monty Python and they introduce it to their friends either directly (come watch this DVD) or via media targetted to geek culture. Then you have contagion. Once the average geeky Monty Python fan is infecting more than 1.0 other geeks, you guarantee yourself a monty python epidemic among geeks.

Ok, I haven't actually seen the contagion curve on this so I don't know for sure that it meets the technical criteria for an epidemic, but the answer remains: social networks.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:08 PM on January 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: It's highbrow and lowbrow at the same time, plus to Americans it has a whiff of pretension because it's obviously foreign. But it goes deeper than that.

Absurdism is high on the funny register for nerdy people. We'd need a Ph.d in cog sci to explain why, but you can start a list of geek institutions that lean heavily absurd starting with Douglas Adams or They Might Be Giants.

And it ties into Python this way: I think the secret about American perception is that Flying Circus seems much more absurdist than it really was. For example, as 12 year olds watching Flying Circus on PBS, my friends and I thought "Ethel the Frog (Pirhana Brothers)" was pulled straight out the writers' butts. And we were all rolling on the floor thinking "how did they even start with this idea?" not knowing that when it was made it was a very topical parody of the Kray gang in the news. I didn't know who the Krays were until college. But the topical stuff went over our heads (and I recognize more of it the older I get) so every half-hour was pretty much a synapse-scrambler of "Confuse-A-Cat"-style "How did they get here?"
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:16 PM on January 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have noticed that many 'comedy' movies often make me cringe, and I find some scenes, often those involving embarrassment for one party or another, to be excruciating and not at all funny. Instead, I feel empathetic toward the characters and want to turn away. Monty Python (and Kids of the Hall, Mr. Show...) is mercifully free of this phenomenon.
posted by alexei at 8:43 PM on January 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

FWIW, while I'm a geek, I first watched python (both the shows and the movies) with entirely non-geek friends, about a dozen of them on my floor from a very wide variety of discplines (humanities, social sciences, public policy etc). Not a single geek among them except for me. I didnt even know about the stereotype about 'geeks liking python' until much, much later. It wasnt my experience anyway; in my experience python has a very wide and diverse fan base. (undoubtedly left-leaning, so if anything I'd say they have a politically skewed fan base rather than one skewed by discipline).
posted by jak68 at 9:01 PM on January 19, 2009

Response by poster: Some very good answers, thank you. I just want to clarify one or two points:

First, I should clarify that my definition of 'nerd/geek' has interest in scientific and/or mathematical matters as a central criterion. There are asteroids, a dinosaur and a programming language named after Monty Python, which does suggest that it has a disproportionately large following among scientifically-minded people. Some answers, though, seem to assume that the absurdism and intelligence of Python is sufficient explanation for its following among nerds. Many cult shows/movies are intelligent and absurdist, but few are so stronly identified with the nerd subculture as Python. I understand that non-geeks like Python (I am one of these Python-loving non-geeks) but nothing else out there seems to be so strongly identified with nerds without having an obvious inbuilt 'hook' for the science/math crowd.

Also, the answers that have talked about the particular appeal of Python to Americans are interesting, but beside the point. I was already aware of how the mechanics of how the Python cult grew in America, but nerds here in Australia are also Pythomaniacs, and there's never been any special difficulty in accessing British TV in Australia. Python stuff has been on state-funded and commercial airwaves as far back as I can remember. Python still stands out as a geek-interest above other UK cult faves like 'The Goodies', even though that show has always been readily available in Australia. 'The Goodies' even has a crazed scientist as a main character, but it's still not as strongly identified with nerds as Python is.
posted by ShameSpiral at 9:02 PM on January 19, 2009

Monty Python & Philosophy

I've not read it but after a quick skim it seems like it might give you some ideas.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:10 PM on January 19, 2009

It could just be that Python has been around for far longer, and been more prolific, than other subversive comedy groups. Apart from their TV shows, they've made three films, and Terry Gilliam went on to direct Brazil, Time Bandits, Munchausen, and Twelve Monkeys, all of which are popular with geeks. (Disclaimer: I just spent a weekend at the MIT Mystery Hunt on the Central Services team. ("We do the work, you do the pleasure."))
posted by A dead Quaker at 9:41 PM on January 19, 2009

Best answer:
Also, the answers that have talked about the particular appeal of Python to Americans are interesting, but beside the point. I was already aware of how the mechanics of how the Python cult grew in America, but nerds here in Australia are also Pythomaniacs, and there's never been any special difficulty in accessing British TV in Australia.
Actually, I think that's right on the point.

My father, as un-nerd-like as they come, was a fan of MP ever since they first appeared on Australian TV in the 70's. Others I know of the same generation were the same. I grew up in that time, immersed in Monty Python, but was never a great fan (at least, not of the 'quoting it all the time' type, although my younger sister is). Everyone I've met here of the nerd persuasion who displays great knowledge of Python came to it via exposure to US nerds who coveted it as part of their shared 'culture'.

In other words, although Australians were associated with Monty Python, the association of Monty Python with nerdism came via the US. It's not something inherent in MP itself, it's due to the way MP was received/treated/accessed in the US. There, it became a nerd thing; from there, it travelled to here as a secondary path.
posted by Pinback at 9:55 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Many cult shows/movies are intelligent and absurdist

I came in to say what cranberrymonger said, that the MP humor was developed at Oxford/Cambridge and further with David Frost's show.

"Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government!"

"So, logically, . . . "

Are you the Judean People's Front?
Fuck off!
"Judean People's Front." We're the People's Front of Judea! "Judean People's Front." Cawk.

♪ Just remember that you're standing on a planet that's evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour . . .

IMO MP created mind-expanding humor of the highest form reached so far. Nothing that I've been exposed to comes within an order of magnitude of their body of work; perhaps Red Dwarf is the closest. Certainly nothing on US TV. The closest there might be Max Headroom -- but that of course was also British, and lasted 14 episodes. Firefly is another example -- terminated after two seasons.
posted by troy at 9:55 PM on January 19, 2009

two seasons less than one season
posted by troy at 10:01 PM on January 19, 2009

Because it's antisocial, immature, and more than slightly anarchic?
q.v. an interview with Eric Idle:


No, I wouldn't say that," Eric Idle retorts. "It's not sexist to talk about your penis." He looks at me with watery blue eyes, serious yet mirthful, allowing a pause to interrupt our banter. "Not if you have one."

I had asked the Monty Python alumnus whether he would consider his brand of British humour sexist. It wasn't a serious, feminist line of questioning or anything. It just seemed natural to ask it. There's the famous Penis Song, after all. Sample: "Isn't it frightfully good to have a dong?/ It's swell to have a stiffy/ It's divine to own a dick." There's Sit on My Face, an anthem to oral sex. Part of my preparation before talking to him involved listening to these songs and more on his CD, Eric Idle Sings Monty Python, released in 2000 to capitalize on his successful one-man tour, Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python.

"I don't think anything is taboo. Nothing should be forbidden. It's sexist if you demean people because of their sex or gender." A smile cracks his serious mien. "A penis is funny," he laughs, before turning erudite again. "If you look at a jester, the very thing that they used to flap people with was a penis. Penis and balls."

He sits back thoughtfully, his mouth now pursed, his expression as philosophical as an anthropology professor who has just illuminated a great cultural truth. "Comedy," he opines, "has very much to do with the penis. I'm sorry to have to tell you this. But it's true." He follows this with another giggling laugh, shaking his head a little as he bends forward.
posted by aquafortis at 10:27 PM on January 19, 2009

Best answer: I'd suggest that Python has a "nerd/geek" audience because that's who they catered to. Just consider the Philosopher Song, Oliver Cromwell, and the Galaxy Song. The first one names all the major philosophers as well as some of their major theories while joking about what a drunken lot they are. The second covers Oliver Cromwell's life in historical detail while mocking him mercilessly. And finally, the Galaxy Song is a musical portrait of our galaxy by speed, size, shape, and age; my high school physics teacher insisted on playing it for the class years ago. Monty Python definitely has hooks for the geek crowd aside from the absurdist stuff, it just isn't as readily obvious as in the other shows you mentioned. Another example would be the witch trial in The Holy Grail which is about logic and the scientific method gone awry. All of this stuff is amusing on its own right, but the more you know about any of these subjects the more you feel like you're in on the jokes.
posted by CheshireCat at 11:37 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

cranberrymonger: "Five of 'the boys' are Oxford or Cambridge graduates."

To further this point, I had my mythology professor tell me that because of their education, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the most accurate retelling of the Arthur story that's been put to film. Not sure if that's really true or not, but it would dovetail with your question.
posted by phaded at 11:42 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

A catholic priest I once knew, who was something of a local expert on ancient Middle Eastern society and scripture, used to point out that "virgin births" weren't such a rarity in writings of the time - it was one of those polite fictions used to explain away unwed mothers or children born 6 months after the wedding.

Which I always though dovetailed in nicely with the "Are you a virgin?" / "Yeah, she must be..." scene from Life of Brian.

I don't think the spaceship scene was entirely accurate, though von Daniken might disagree with me...
posted by Pinback at 12:36 AM on January 20, 2009

Because they can learn them off by heart and repeat them ad nauseam. A certain kind of person loves that, usually in his late teens.
posted by holgate at 12:51 AM on January 20, 2009

I think partly an ego thing. If you perceive yourself as smart, watching Benny Hill smack some poor little old guy on the back of the head repeatedly and then he makes a tit joke -every week? That just isn't going to do it. Python makes me laugh but the gray matter's working. It's still smart stuff, even with the topicality and the occasional corny "I don't like all this sex on the television; I keep falling off " joke.

People forget that they weren't all that popular with the vast majority of Britons, either, during their original run. The Black And White Minstrel Show was still on in prime time, while Python was getting cancelled one week or another for the Horse of the Week show, or some crap, and was on really late Sunday nights when it aired at all. More people watched The Goodies back then, who were in prime time and a huge hit.

For the record, I'm also a big Goodies fan, and I rediscovered them in Australia. I'd forgotten that I'd seen the Kitten Kong episode as a small child in the 70s, but it came rushing back after seeing it again 25+ years later. A very strange sensation, let me tell you.
posted by droplet at 1:30 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1. Absurd but logical, which makes nerdbrains happy.
2. Intelligent references plus slapstick - same as above
3. Quotable, massively quotable - boy to nerds like to quote things
4. "general absence of women" is mentioned upthread - this is important. MP has a lot of stuff nerds like/find easy to deal with, and a total absence of anything else. The only lasses who appear are the pythons in drag squawking unpleasantly. It's safe territory for people afraid of women.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 1:36 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think part of it is the "brand name" nature of Python, as well. It's quirky, without being incredibly subversive. It's weird, and occasionally sweary, but it's nothing you couldn't watch with your parents in the room. There are topless women, but they're vaguely wholesome and within context. Considering so much of it came from Footlights sketches, it's not surprising that a bit of the humour references things that most people don't continue on with after university. (philosophers, for example)

Basically, it has enough component parts to appeal to people who either want to be or feel they already are different from jock MTV culture, without a really dangerous edge. The art is slightly trippy without being full on stoner. Full On Stoner implies drugs and implies those slightly scary kids that law abiding nerds don't want to know. You can buy Python tat at your local mall, so it's very accessible.

And I think it's also that it's slightly annoying to be around. Going on about the parrot sketch and mimicking high voices and accents, at length - it's a social crutch. If you're with the Initiated, they'll join you when you Parrot Sketch. If you're with someone who doesn't think it's funny, their scorn is a reinforcement of your special place in a group of people who "get it". If they've outgrown Python, or are just tired of hearing nerds repeating sketches that are almost 40 yrs old at this point, it's not that it's gotten old... it's that you're old and past it. I've never met anyone who didn't get Python, by the way. Maybe some of the specifics of the language used, but they get the overall content of a scene.

I don't think it's much to do with anarchic elements, or even exclusivity. I'm old enough to remember MTV ran Flying Circus along with the Young Ones. Young Ones is completely anarchic, from start to finish, but I don't think the Cult of Young Ones is nearly as great as the Cult of Python. Young Ones is too British and slightly gross in places... like Bottom. (Personally, I think Rik Mayall is a British national treasure) Python is much more polite and linear than either series.

For what it's worth, the kiddies these days seem to be doing this sort of tribal division with Mighty Boosh.
posted by Grrlscout at 2:53 AM on January 20, 2009

In the 70s, you couldn't record the shows on VHS, and you couldn't buy a box set of DVDs. Being able to quote a sketch had more entertainment value than it has today (besides being fresher back then).

Unless the show was on your PBS station that week, your access was via vinyl records, sound only (!), compilation/souvenir books, or as happened once when I was much younger, someone got hold of a print of Monty Python and the Holy Grail on actual film and did a private screening in a commandeered classroom. All those are more likely to be found in a nerd ecology, particularly the film projector: nerd tech par excellence.

Also: what Mayor Curley said. My point of view is yet another U.S. one, of course.

(I had a similar experience the first time I saw CBC broadcasting in Canada in the mid-80s: I had had no idea that "Hinterland Who's Who" was an actual spot. I only knew it from SCTV.)
posted by gimonca at 6:02 AM on January 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have noticed that many 'comedy' movies often make me cringe, and I find some scenes, often those involving embarrassment for one party or another, to be excruciating and not at all funny. Instead, I feel empathetic toward the characters and want to turn away. Monty Python (and Kids of the Hall, Mr. Show...) is mercifully free of this phenomenon.

Quoted entirely for truth. What passes for mainstream comedy, is, for me, unwatchable. Shame-based comedy, whether it be Woody Allen's Sleeper or it be the Zemekis brothers' "There's Something About Mary", is simply intolerable. Public shaming, particularly of characters I've been encouraged to empathize with is extraordinarily uncomfortable for me to watch. I've never been able to sit through an entire episode of The Office, for example.

I don't know why I react so strongly and negatively to shame. Is this rooted in the public rejection that happens if you're geeky and socially awkward as a kid? Possibly, but it could simply be a result of social interactions being so draining for me. In any case, it's basic to the way I'm built and that doesn't seem likely to change.

On the other hand, humour based in manipulation and juxtaposition has enormous appeal. Puns are the simplest form; absurdism is concept puns. Even better for me is humour that treats it's characters with an essential dignity but is playful with roles and concepts: Terry Pratchet, for example.

So humour that relies on difficult social situations does not for me. Impossible social situations, on the other hand, are hilarious.
posted by bonehead at 8:09 AM on January 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

Because their sketches are smart and silly at the same time. Most geeks I know, including myself, can relate....
posted by Lynsey at 10:46 AM on January 20, 2009

all i know is that i started watching monty python when some of my junior high geek friends told me about the full frontal nudity.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 11:07 AM on January 20, 2009

all i know is that i started watching monty python when some of my junior high geek friends told me about the full frontal nudity.

I think that speaks to the fourth point in Cantdosleepy's comment (and a very good point it is).
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 12:19 PM on January 20, 2009

You've all been implying or stating outright that you are geeks and explaining why, therefore, you like/love Monty Python.

This is fine. But/and now, for something completely different, I'd like to say that I am not a geek and pretty much can't stand Monty Python.

I hate the silliness and totally absurdist humor. It runs too far afield from what I know of as "reality" for me to take it seriously enough to find it funny, if you know what I mean. It's too "out there" for me, too infantile. I hate slapstick and I hate puns unless they're Dorothy Parker's (she took puns to another level of cleverness). Python is generally much too broad for me. I hate repetition for the sake of repetition. It makes me weary and annoyed. I hate silly voices. I want people to say clever, sophisticated things in regular voices. I want the Python people to calm down and stop thinking that all that to-do is funny.

As for what I, a non-geek loves in the way of humor, I love Woody Allen's standup material (about marriage, relationships, and going to the level of absurdity of the couple who come to the party dressed as a moose -- but that's the limit for me). I think ANNIE HALL is a perfect movie, but grew tired in the middle of BANANAS. I adore SEINFELD and loved CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM until the last couple of seasons, when Larry David seemed to turn himself into a cartoon of himself.

Somewhere in the middle might be John Stewart. I think he says clever things, but I want him DESPERATELY to stop all that yelling and mugging. It doesn't add anything to the humor. It's just stupid.

So -- does my non-nerdiness lack of Python fandom substantiate the notion of nerds liking Python or is that not logical? (I'm not nearly as logical* as most of the people in here).
Or are the two notions "orthogonal" (is that what you math people call it?)

posted by DMelanogaster at 6:59 PM on October 16, 2009

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