The Knights of Ni. Heh.
May 9, 2006 9:28 PM   Subscribe

What did nerds recite before Monty Python existed?

Monty Python seems to be a touchstone of nerd-specific culture (whose boundaries have always been porous, and ever moreso after the dot-com boom). What were the corresponding shared bits of culture that helped establish us vs. them, among college nerds (say) before Monty Python existed? I've asked my parents (nerds) but they can't remember.
posted by Aknaton to Society & Culture (51 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: previous thread about how to get people to stop reciting Monty Python, that doesn't seem to answer this question
posted by Aknaton at 9:29 PM on May 9, 2006

Well, there's the question of whether there were nerds of the kind we're talking about before the late 60's, when people born in the 50's were entering or leaving their teen years. I'm not old enough to know that -- I'm part of the Python generation, who grew up on the records in the 70's (we didn't get the TV show in my one-horse village in the north). The nexus of comics/python/science fiction/humour/technophilia and so on, combined with the nonjockery debate-club highschool genesis, which go some way to defining modern nerdery certainly didn't exist in the same way amongst teens in the 60's, I wouldn't think, even if it did exist.

A similar question that I think about sometimes is how the cultural touchstones of educated people would have had to have been novels and poetry (or folk tales or whatever) and such before the advent of radio and TV and records and tapes and the internet, and how deeply that's changed these days, for most of us. That's a bit of a tangent, maybe, but not entirely unrelated.

I would imagine part of the pre-Python nerd humour lingua franca it might be things like the Harvard Lampoon. Even things like underground comics didn't really exist until around the same time Python appeared.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:42 PM on May 9, 2006

the goon show?
posted by prettypretty at 9:47 PM on May 9, 2006

I'm fairly certain there have always been nerds of some sort or other. I'd wager that pre-Python nerds recited stuff like The Smothers Brothers, and before that probably whatever smartass intelligent comedy team was popular. What kind of stuff were the kids repeating in Stand By Me? What might Proust have recited when he was young? Poetry? Scenes from plays?

It's an interesting question...
posted by jdroth at 9:56 PM on May 9, 2006

A thorough knowledge of Monty Python is like underwear. Everyone should have it, but it shouldn't be displayed in public.

Old nerds of my acquaintance report huge memorized archives of filthy limericks.
posted by Sallyfur at 9:58 PM on May 9, 2006

Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass. I still use catch-quotes from those; Python and HHGTTG are just rich additions to the list.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:05 PM on May 9, 2006

Judging by my parents and their friends, pre-TV nerds used to recite Tom Lehrer and Flanders & Swann lyrics.
posted by nicwolff at 10:15 PM on May 9, 2006

My first guess would have been the Goon Show , but, beaten to the punch, I'll submit Burns & Allen. Prior to that, I'm guessing Vaudville like W.C. Fields ('Twas a woman who drove me to drink. I never had the courtesy to thank her.)
posted by lekvar at 10:25 PM on May 9, 2006

Tom Lehrer, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin & others from the satirical school of comedy that emerged in the 50s & 60s, all had record albums that would've been endlessly played in college dorms.
posted by scalefree at 10:27 PM on May 9, 2006

Five years previously- The Firesign Theatre.
"Shoes for Industry!"
"The far flung isles of Langerhans"
"I was right! Everything I knew was wrong!"
posted by pointilist at 10:29 PM on May 9, 2006

I have heard old hippies go on and on about Firesign Theater and Stan Freberg, including excruciating verbatim reenactments. They predate Python by just a bit -- Firesign overlaps -- but I imagine just as annoying in the late 60's & early 70's.

This page of comedy albums mentions in passing earlier 'party albums' like Belle Barth, Moms Mabley and Skillet & Leroy -- they get you back into the 50's, but they were more blue than geeky.

Anybody know what the nerdy teenager of the 50's would annoy you with?
posted by troyer at 10:34 PM on May 9, 2006

If you read "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" you will see that catchphrase comedy goes back
a long way. But I would vote for The Goons as the immediate predecessor too. My late mother could recite whole Goon shows from memory.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:37 PM on May 9, 2006

The Goon Show?
posted by pompomtom at 11:01 PM on May 9, 2006

Yeah, the Good Show. Also, Pete and Dud.
posted by hot soup girl at 11:03 PM on May 9, 2006

Mike Nichols and Elaine May (here, on American Masters). Also, Gilbert & Sullivan.
posted by mozhet at 11:55 PM on May 9, 2006

Back in the 70s, Tom Lehrer was the litmus test. Lots of people liked Monty Python, but you had to be a hardcore nerd just to get Tom Lehrer in the first place.
posted by fuzz at 1:12 AM on May 10, 2006

Any group that loves puns can safely be classified as nerd material, in my opinion. Part of nerd culture? Perhaps. That said, I love puns with an undying passion.

I remember reading about Richard Feynman - practical jokes and pranks seem to be the calling card of nerdy engineers from time immemorial.

Also, the Principia Discordia was published back in the 60s and was certainly full of nerdy joke potential.

Not to mention Dungeons and Dragons, created in the 50s I think.

And then there's that old standard, Lord of the Rings (published in the 50s), originating with The Hobbit in 1937.

Also, any form of philologist is a nerd (see J.R.R. Tolkein). This also applies to fans of dead languages.

Limericks, jokes, and puns of all kinds relating to academic subjects or historical subjects would qualify in my opinion - the things I listed above would have been easy for people to latch onto as convenient memes for conversation and entertainment, I think.

Your mention of Monty Python inspired this train of thought because they were Oxford and Cambridge students pre-Python, and probably were well-versed in naughty, funny history and literature as well as lyrical joke-telling. Stuff like castles, and witches, and maidens and what have you. Think of Canterbury Tales, except in sketch comedy form.

Your question raises another good question: How could nerds have lots of in-jokers outside of small communities? Word of mouth isn't as easy without ubiquitous internet and tv, and so one would imagine things like nerd-culture were far more local, outside of the typical liberal, Western body of knowledge. Apologies for rambling.
posted by tweak at 2:13 AM on May 10, 2006

Also, famous vaudeville acts, Will Rogers quotes, and early film comedies would probably qualify.
posted by tweak at 2:14 AM on May 10, 2006

I had the worst job in the world. I had to extract the lobsters from Jayne Mansfield's arsehole.
posted by flabdablet at 2:19 AM on May 10, 2006

Since the original question was not limited to comedy, but all the responses are about comedy, I will point out the obvious "nerd touchstone" of the 60s: Star Trek TOS.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:15 AM on May 10, 2006

Also, The Day The Earth Stood Still - "Klaatu barada nikto!"
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:20 AM on May 10, 2006

Not to mention Dungeons and Dragons, created in the 50s I think.

The first edition of D&D was published 1974, so it's not as old as it seems!

But I'll also vote for THE GOON SHOW, it was (and still is) highly quotable, especially if you like putting on silly voices!
posted by timpollard at 4:13 AM on May 10, 2006

Gilbert and Sullivan.
posted by furtive at 4:28 AM on May 10, 2006

Firesign Theater.
posted by zaelic at 4:46 AM on May 10, 2006

posted by emmling at 5:14 AM on May 10, 2006

Firesign Theater, and before that, Mad Magazine. Yes, you young whippersnappers, there was a time, before you were born, when Mad was the cutting edge of hip humor. Then Harvey Kurtzman, whose baby it was, lost control to Gaines and it started sliding rapidly towards the infantile source of cheap humor you all know and despise. But back in the day, "Potrzebie" was the equivalent of "all your base" or "I, for one, welcome..." The ubiquity of Alfred E. Newman signaled the shark-jumping, much as the ubiquity of Snoopy did for Peanuts.
posted by languagehat at 5:53 AM on May 10, 2006

Baseball, both stats and plays.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:22 AM on May 10, 2006

I thought it was "potzrebie," languagehat, but I should've known you'd be careful about that (Googlefight has your version by nearly 4000:1).

How about Beyond the Fringe?
posted by Songdog at 6:40 AM on May 10, 2006


Ding ding ding! Winner!
posted by Hildago at 6:46 AM on May 10, 2006

My father is the biggest nerd who ever nerded and owns the complete Flanders & Swann. He also recites Monty Python.

If his equally nerdy limerick-reciting father makes references, I don't catch them. I try not to understand what my grandfather says. It's better that way.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:50 AM on May 10, 2006

Goon Show is an obvious precursor, but I'm pretty asure Americans became familiar with it only AFTER Monty Python introduced British comedy to the country. But for British nerds (and many other British folks, too, of a certain age) -- sure.

Stan Freberg is probably a decent American example, as is the aforementioned Firesign Theater.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:00 AM on May 10, 2006

MAD Magazine.
posted by unixrat at 7:15 AM on May 10, 2006

Routines by the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges. "Who's on first?" And before that, there was "Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang."
posted by La Cieca at 7:21 AM on May 10, 2006

flabdablet, Derek and Clive came in the mid-'70s, about the same time Monty Python became a cult hit in the US.
posted by nicwolff at 8:27 AM on May 10, 2006

Another vote for Gilbert and Sullivan. Man, I hate those fuckers.

What about P.G. Wodehouse?
posted by 912 Greens at 8:31 AM on May 10, 2006

I thought Potrzebie was equivalent to "How's your fern?"
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:39 AM on May 10, 2006

"Eat it raw!"
"Rah rah rah! That's the spirit!"
posted by schoolgirl report at 9:24 AM on May 10, 2006

posted by Good Brain at 9:27 AM on May 10, 2006

Bill Cosby (and in my extreme case) Pigmeat Markham routines, from their comedy records.
posted by Rash at 9:34 AM on May 10, 2006

This poll discusses many of the alternatives.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:36 AM on May 10, 2006

Surely there was a lot of memorized (and then saterized) classical poetry, latin sayings and what not? Among the nerds at Eton and such...
posted by Squid Voltaire at 10:11 AM on May 10, 2006

Laugh-In, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (where the Smothers Brothers made their tv debut), even, believe it or not, Bill Cosby.
posted by Lynsey at 10:42 AM on May 10, 2006

TV Debut on Sonny &amp Cher?
Not really, Lynsey -- from Smothers Bros in Wikipedia:

In the 1960s, the brothers appeared on numerous television shows as guest artists and hosted two series of their own, the situation comedy The Smothers Brothers Show (1965–1966), in which Tom played an angel come back to earth, and then the variety show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967–1969).

Sonny & Cher's show didn't debut until 1971. And I loved the first (non-variety) Smother's Brothers show, but can't recall ever reciting their routines, since that would involve singing.
posted by Rash at 10:59 AM on May 10, 2006

Tom Lehrer and Firesign Theater were the ones right before Monty Python, I'd say. Laugh-in and Sonny & Cher were too mainstream for real geek quotability...
posted by klausness at 1:01 PM on May 10, 2006

the OED has nerd appearing as early as 1951:

1951 Newsweek 8 Oct. 28 In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.

i think i'm inclined to agree with stavros - the notion of nerd culture is a relatively modern development from the 60s and 70s. geek's earliest entry is 1957. before that, nerds were obsessively devoted to their nerdly pursuits, and the rare ones who liked to have fun too were probably forced to entertain themselves, which is why modern nerds are probably a lot less capable than the old-fashioned type.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 1:08 PM on May 10, 2006

Dorothy Parker. Ogden Nash. Bits of Oscar Wilde.

You can get an idea of what highbrow literary nerds did by reading Dorothy Sayers.
posted by dilettante at 2:08 PM on May 10, 2006

I got curious after reading your question, and started googling. Check out the The Fanac Fan History Project

Among other things, they have Classic (pre-1980) Fanzines online.

The article on the history of filk lend support to the Gilbert & Sullivan as a pre-Python source of humor:
Most pre-cassette recorder filk falls into two basic categories: 1) Melodies written for poems from professional fantasy and science fiction (with lyrics by such authors as Myers, Tolkien and Heinlein), and 2) Lyrics written by to well-known melodies (folk songs, show tunes, Gilbert & Sullivan, popular songs)
I will also second Tom Lehrer, who's songs have been popular nerd culture since his records first were pressed.
posted by fings at 2:41 PM on May 10, 2006

This may be obvious, but just for the record, U.S. and U.K. nerd culture (or whatever you want to call it before the '70s) had very little in common before the popularity of Monty Python reached the States. Very few Americans have even heard of the Goon Show, and I suspect the same is true in reverse for Tom Lehrer (though I'd be delighted to be proved wrong).

before that, nerds were obsessively devoted to their nerdly pursuits, and the rare ones who liked to have fun too were probably forced to entertain themselves

No, there have always been fun-loving nerds, though they didn't call themselves that. Personality types don't vary much over time. Check out Erasmus's Praise of Folly sometime; there's a guy who would have enjoyed Monty Python.
posted by languagehat at 3:15 PM on May 10, 2006

I'll put in another vote for Tom Leher, as that seems to be the oldest of that sort of thing still in Circulation at CTY
posted by Suparnova at 6:17 PM on May 10, 2006

I resent being called a nerd.
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 1:51 PM on May 11, 2006

In the UK, my impression is that proto-nerds quoted appalling puns from humorous books which played with knowledge gained from a typical public school [UK defn] classical education. 1066 and all that - "... was a bad king"; Through the Looking Glass - "Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow but never jam today"; How to be Topp - "hello clouds hello sky".
posted by boudicca at 5:15 AM on May 12, 2006

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