Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Ex nihilo or ex-Parrotface? a note on the tangled origins of Monty Python's Parrot sketch

The origins of Monty Python's Parrot Sketch have been well documented, but on the eve of the team's imminent reunion I think they could stand a little more examination. And as the cowriter of Freddie Davies' autobiography Funny Bones, to be published by Scratching Shed on July 31st, I may be able to add a further note.
The essence of the joke has been traced back to Ancient Greece but let's begin a little later, with Michael Palin's supremely evasive car salesman (above) in a sketch in the one-off pre-Python show How to Irritate People; if you are unfamiliar with it you can see it here.

As is well known to aficionados, that situation was reworked for a Python sketch with the garage replaced by a pet shop and, at Graham Chapman's suggestion, a parrot replaced the car as the faulty object. (At one point a toaster had also been mooted, which suggests it took a while for the shop's identity to settle.)

 You will find occasional references online to the idea being stolen from Freddie "Parrotface" Davies. That would be getting rather silly, as the late Colonel Chapman might have put it. Nevertheless, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that Freddie's standup act may have made a small contribution towards this enduring sketch.

It's quite conceivable that Chapman's idea of a parrot may have come from a memory of seeing Freddie perform on TV, as he was a ubiquitous presence at the time. This had begun with a 1964 appearance on the talent show Opportunity Knocks: Freddie did a joke he had honed in the clubs about a furious but essentially idiotic customer complaining to a pet shop owner about a budgie he had been sold which didn't talk, as promised.

It wasn't original, just a favourite old joke - you can find a version as told by Terry Thomas here - but Freddie's characterisation of the two people involved made it something special. Freddie's affronted customer, with a homburg hat pulled down over his ears and a curious delivery somewhere between a lisp and a rasp, was seen by around twenty million viewers in those two-channel days. It made him famous overnight. After that, the joke became associated with him and the customer was given a name: Samuel Tweet.

In later TV appearances Freddie performed variants on the joke, further altercations with the pet shop owner who persistently sold him "duff budgies". In fact you can see one online here, taken from a a 1966 show at the ABC Theatre in Blackpool, where Freddie was doing a summer season. (Younger viewers may need to be informed that a birdseed company's slogan was "Trill makes budgies bounce with health.")

So there you have it: my small contribution to Python lore. When Chapman made the suggestion which brought the sketch to life could it have been inspired by the man who became known as "Parrotface"?

Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by Freddie Davies will be published on July 31st. Find more details and preorder a copy on the Scratching Shed website here.[UPDATE: IT'S AVAILABLE NOW, AS A PAPERBACK OR LIMITED EDITION HARDBACK]

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