or, inevitably, WHAT HAVE THE PYTHONS EVER DONE FOR US?
We are all products of our environment. Some wear their influences on their sleeves; others may not even be aware of tapping into their formative influences. I grew up in the 80s with Monty Python, a child of Python-loving parents who mercifully spared me the sketches that didn’t work (there are many), but instead exposed me to the films, the highlights reels, the comedy albums (on vinyl, no less), the Live at the Hollywood Bowl fan-fest. And here I am now trying to write rhyming picture books and other entertainments…
Here are ten lessons that rhymers (perhaps storytellers of any stripe) can take from the songs of Monty Python. Some of the links are NSFW…
1) CHALLENGE EXPECTATIONS
Have your main character do something unusual, that goes against type and challenges expectations. You’ve got a knight called Brave Sir Robin?
“When danger reared its ugly head
He bravely turned his tail and fled
Yes Brave Sir Robin turned about
And gallantly he chickened out…”
Or take a rugged, “manly” lumberjack, and then tell us that he likes to “put on women’s clothing, and hang around in bars.”
Or take the less-travelled perspective:
2) PLAY WITH WORDS
Have fun with the language, whether that’s homophones, (“sail the wide accountancy”)
or non-sequitors for comic effect
“We dine well here in Camelot, we eat ham and jam and spam a-lot
I have to push the pram-a-lot!”
3) GET THE TONE RIGHT
The gentle, plinky start of “Finland” sets the tone perfectly for an homage to a country “where I quite want to be”…
4) ENJOY YOUR RHYMES
Repeating the same end rhyme throughout, and even using it as an internal rhyme, can be fun…
“Half a bee, philosophically,
Must, ipso facto, half not be”
5) DON’T TALK DOWN TO YOUR AUDIENCE
The Galaxy Song, and the Medical Love Song, are examples of introducing a range of language and ideas that go far beyond what might be expected of the “everyman”. If the narrative, and the rhyme, is strong enough, you can introduce unfamiliar names and ideas very quickly.
Don’t talk down to your audience. Raise them up.
“Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
And revolving at 900 miles an hour.
It’s orbiting at 19 miles a second, so it’s reckoned,
The sun that is the source of all our power”
(I love the punchline at the end of this song)
6) MAKE YOUR RHYMES UNEXPECTED, OR UNUSUAL
All I know about philosophers, I know from this:
“Heideggar, Heideggar was a boozy beggar…
John Stewart Mill, of his own free will
On half a pint of shanty was particularly ill.”
And what about one of the greatest thinkers in history?
“Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle”
7) REPETITION, repetition….
A good example of repetition, and letting your characters grow, is the theme song from Life of Brian, with “a boy/ teenager/ not a girl/ a man called Brian”
“… his voice dropped down low
And things started to grow…”
8) DIVERSITY IS IMPORTANT
Monty Python made an effort to address diversity, in their own particular fashion, with “I Like Chinese” and “Never Be Rude To An Arab”…
“I like Chinese, I like Chinese,
They only come up to your knees”
It’s vital to reflect the diversity of the world we live in, to keep your characters relevant, and grounded in the reality of the time.
9) BE PREPARED TO MAKE MISTAKES
Viewed through modern eyes, neither of these songs have aged well… but how do you future-proof your material from the differing standards that will inevitably follow? You can’t. Write what’s in your heart, rather than chasing the trends of the day (or anticipated trends of tomorrow). If you never make mistakes, it just means you’re never trying.
Which leads us to our final point.
10) KEEP TRYING
There is only one way to finish this list. A song that has a ridiculously catchy chorus, a perfect balance of repetition/ variation/ progression, fun rhymes, a playful, changing rhyme structure… it’s even got whistling.
So, when the rejection emails start to pile up around you, put the kettle on, grab a slice of cake, and listen to this:
“Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say…”