Monday, October 31, 2005


Do Not Adjust Your Set was a TV series of great significance in the history of British comedy. It was written by Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, who starred in it along with David Jason and Denise Coffey; and Terry Gilliam contributed some animations. it was ostensibly a children's show, but in fact Idle, Jones and Palin simply sought to be funny, without aiming at children in particular. It was Idle, Jones, and Palin's first regular TV series, and featured many of the characterizations, themes, and techniques that would they would make use of in Monty Python's Flying Circus, which began a few months after Do Not Adjust Your Set ended. Recently, a 2-DVD set was released collecting nine episodes from the first series.

And it isn't funny. Most of the ingredients of Python are there: Idle, Jones and Palin play the same sorts of characters they would on Python, the structure is similar, there's the same emphasis on parodying TV itself, and there are even sketches which are germs of specific Python sketches. But while on Python these ingredients combined to produce brilliant comedy, here they just lie there, inert. The main problem is the writing: most of the jokes are telegraphed a mile away. This is particularly true of the punch lines, which are usually thuddingly obvious, so much so as to make the sketches they conclude seem even less funny than they were. (I wonder if the experience of this show wasn't a factor in Python's decision to abandon punch lines.) Also, the pace is much slower than in Python. So, whereas Python kept its viewers constantly off balance, Do Not Adjust Your Set is all too predictable.

The first two shows are particularly painful to watch. As the season wears on, the show gradually improves, and the best sketch on the entire DVD is an extended sequence on the last show, "covering" the end of the first season in the style of an election-night special (a clear precursor of Python's election night sketch). And one scene within this sequence, of Eric Idle as a "hip" Conservative delivering an election message, would not have been out of place on Python. (It occurs about 20 minutes and 40 seconds after the start of the episode; there are no chapter divisions within episodes, annoyingly.) Presumably the second series would be even better; unfortunately, it appears that only one episode from the second series is known to survive. Also unfortunately, there are no Gilliam animations on the DVD.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was the show's house band, performing a number in every show (and occasionally acting in sketches). This was before they dropped the "Doo-Dah" and became a rock band, albeit a satirical one; and the emphasis in most of these performances is on theater, with the music in an auxiliary role. The performances here aren't funny funny, but they are entertaining, especially Vivian Stanshall's impersonation of a crooner. (And watching them also made me realize why a good deal of the Bonzo's recorded output, especially on the first album, seems so pointless: many of their numbers were never intended to work separately from the visuals.)

As with the show as a whole, the best of the Bonzos' performances on this set by far is the one on the last show (which begins about 6 minutes and 40 seconds after the start of the episode). This is a parodic rock song entitled "Metaphorically Speaking," which the Bonzos apparently never recorded for some reason; but it's worthy to stand beside such later-album gems as "Rockaliser Baby" and "Busted", and has an insanely catchy chorus (the chorus of Reunion's 1974 hit, "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" is very similar melodically, rhythmically and harmonically).

I wouldn't recommend buying this unless you're a Python completist or a dedicated Bonzos fan. But it's worth renting, if only for the historical significance and for "Metaphorically Speaking." Here's a track listing of the DVDs. (Note that the Bonzos actually perform only one number in episode 2: the first "song" listed there is actually just a regular sketch. Also, their number in episode 8 is "Tubas in the Moonlight," not "Tubas in Midnight" as that listing states.)

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