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“The Fish-Slapping Dance” is Genius

In 1972, the Fish-Slapping Dance was shown in the Mr & Mrs Brian Norris' Ford Popular episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. This sketch does nothing less than describe the entire human condition and it does so in less than 20 seconds.

Two men meet at the side of a river, or in this case, a lock. They are both dressed in a specific way, like explorers from some old Saturday matinee. The first man (Michael Palin) does a dainty, choreographed dance which involves multiple steps and gently slapping the other man (John Cleese) with some tiny fish. When this concludes, he returns to a neutral position. The second man then grotesquely smashes the first into the river with an enormous fish.

Why is this funny? Well, the sketch evokes a laugh because it subverts the viewer's expectation. This is a common foundation of comedy; take two things that are unlike and jam them together. An example is the sophisticated, urbane, modern-sounding character of Edmund Blackadder who in fact lives in the dark ages. In the Fish-Slapping Dance, the first part of the sketch is dainty, pleasant and twee. The second part is pointlessly violent.

Why is this genius? The Monty Python team did not plan to be satirical, or “clever”, and their humour was not constructed to make a point. They were just “naughty schoolboys” who giggled at things and put them in their show (possibly paraphrasing Michael Palin). But is a testament to the genius of the individual members and the sum of the parts that so much of Monty Python is genuinely clever and resonates today, 50 years later.

The laugh in the Fish-Slapping Dance comes from the juxtaposition of nice/violent. But the underlying point is that we, the audience, are looking at these two men who are obviously doing something pointless. We think all the choreography the first man performs, then rewarded by violence, has no point and we are laughing at the way they have wasted their time. It is somewhat “punching down”, because the audience considers themselves too smart to participate in something so foolish.

But there's the rub. These two men take it seriously. To them, the Fish-Slapping Dance is important. To us, it is ridiculous. That is basically descriptive of all human behaviour: “My rituals are meaningful and important, your rituals are pointless and stupid.” We shouldn't be laughing at Fish-Slapping Dance proponents, we should respect their rituals and beliefs and leave them alone. What they do is nothing to do with us. Are they doing anything that is more pointless than what anybody else does? And yet we are judging them — with zero self-awareness.

Genius.


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