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Monty Python delivers crucifixion with a smile


There are two essential truths about comedy: It doesn't travel and it doesn't last.

For proof, look at two comedy shows airing on Sunday night. A much-praised English series The League of Gentlemen ( Comedy, 6 p.m.) seems to have lost most of its alleged hilarity in the transatlantic crossing. Exceedingly long minutes roll by at a stately English pace as three funnymen take on dozens of roles in a made-up village. If you've got used to the idea of smart young men playing simple older women, there isn't much else to laugh at. The whole thing is undoubtedly commendable in its relationship to the long and illustrious history of British comedy, but it feels inexplicably foreign.

Proof Number Two: Wayne and Shuster, The First Hundred Years,followed by W. and S., More Masterschtick Theatre ( CBC, 8 p.m.). This isn't even comic history, it's archeology. CBC has raided the vaults to fill some dead air on a slow Sunday night, but what once seemed so clever now looks tired and outmoded. Did the memory deceive? Can there really have been so many pie-in-the-face gags, drumbeat punchlines and nostalgic jokes about Yiddish pronunciation? Were Johnny and Frank really still doing all those vaudeville song-and-dance routines in the Seventies? R.I.P.

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And then along comes Monty Python's Flying Circus and all the old truths about comedy turn trite. At the same time that CBC is reprising Wayne and Shuster's laboured sketch about a murdered ballerina -- Tutu Tootsie Goodbye, the title unfortunately saying it all -- A&E Biography comes to our rescue with a two-hour retrospective on Python's immortal weirdness ( Sunday, 8 p.m.).

Monty Python has aged splendidly since it debuted on the BBC three decades ago, mainly because it never made any effort to accommodate its humour to the spirit of the times in which it was created. John Cleese makes the point early on in Sunday's documentary that the strength of the troupe's early work came from operating in an off-hour, low-budget backwater -- "so we were just able to play."

That sense of playfulness is what you notice first and last about Monty Python -- there was none of that desperate urge to be hip or stylish or sneering that you get in so much North American TV comedy from Saturday Night Live onward. Sunday's documentary may be mostly built for easy entertainment and doesn't go too deeply into where that inimitable Python style came from. But there's some eye-opening old clips from pre-Python British television that proves it didn't emerge fully formed in 1969.

Python scholars -- and there are such lucky creatures -- will know that a BBC afternoon kids' show called Do Not Adjust Your Set,which included some future Pythons, was the direct antecedent for the Flying Circus. Oddly enough, it was the surrealistic artwork of Terry Gilliam -- the marginal American Python -- that set the subversive tone for the series: Imagine the liberating effect on an English child in the Sixties when Gilliam manipulates Christmas cards to make the Three Wise Men chase an out-of-control Nativity star helter-skelter across the desert.

The A&E tribute to Python actually seems to be several programs stitched together -- at one point the American pop star Meat Loaf walks on to discuss Python music and the show falls flat the way it always does when Americans salute Python. For scholarly purposes, the best material comes from the early days -- it's fascinating to see Spike Milligan's pre-Python series called Q5 with a nonsense sketch about standing-still runners that is very close to Python's absurd competitions. Watching this series, the troupe realized that they couldn't just do sketches and blackouts, however crazed, and from that evolved the stream-of-consciousness Python style where any situation could turn into any other.

Monty Python's early TV usually gets the most attention in these retrospectives, with the later films being covered quickly out of some historical duty. Sunday's show rightly adds more emphasis on the films -- the highlight may be Eric Idle's rendition of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,cheerfully warbled as he's being crucified with Graham Chapman's uncomprehending Messiah figure, Brian. But for rare Python extravagance, it's hard to match the Oliver-style production mumber of massed urchins jubilantly singing Every Sperm Is Sacred.

And just to acknowledge that Monty Python exists in the present, Michael Palin leads one of his trademark BBC/PBS exotic tours to a nostalgic place called Pythonland -- the house-proud suburban neighbourhoods mere kilometres from the BBC offices where Python got its start. The vicious keep-left signs, the bullying Hell's Grannies, the extraordinarily loony fish-slapping dance at Teddington Lock, Graham Chapman's mountaineering ascent of the Uxbridge Road gutter -- it's all here, and still just as silly.

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The Masters. Excuse the commentators' reverent tones and watch the most beautiful -- and testing -- golf there is. ( CBS/Global, Sun., 4 p.m.) Eco-Challenge. The fittest loonies in the world climb mountains, run the rapids and race horses across the pampas of Patagonia in a race to prove it can be done. Discovery has four-day taped coverage. ( Discovery, Sun., 8 p.m.) Talk Shows Studio 2. Playwright Andrew Moodie. ( TVO at 8 p.m.) Open Mike with Mike Bullard. Sue Johanson, Ian Brown, Blue Rodeo. ( Comedy Network at 10 p.m., CTV at 12:05 a.m.) David Letterman. Edward Norton, Faith Hill. ( CBS at 11:35 p.m.) Jay Leno. Claudia Schiffer, Terry Bradshaw. ( NBC at 11:35 p.m.) Bill Maher. David Arquette, Rose McGowan, Scott Caan, Diamond Dallas Page. ( ABC at 12:05 a.m.) Craig Kilborn. Leah Remini, Stanley Tucci.( Global, CBS at 12:35 a.m.) Conan O'Brien. Bonnie Hunt, No Doubt. ( NBC at 12:35 a.m.)

Dates and times may vary across the country. Please check local listings.

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