I’ve mentioned this sublime Beatles parody band many times before on this blog, but if you love the Fabs there’s never a good time not to celebrate the Pre-Fabs: Ron, Dirk, Stig and Barry. This afternoon I quite randomly happened to listen to “Let’s Be Natural” and was struck, for the millionth time, what a wonderful bunch of work this all is.
The Rutles began as a segment on Eric Idle’s post-Python project “Rutland Weekend Television” (which also boasted an appearance by George Harrison). Thanks to the songwriting genius of Neil Innes, and an assist from Lorne Michaels, this bit was expanded into a full-length documentary, All You Need Is Cash. (I think I read that George pulled the shelved The Long and Winding Road film out of the Apple vaults for Idle to screen as he wrote, and it shows.) In addition to being very funny to Beatles fans everywhere, this 1978 film was the fullest collaboration between the two great strands of 1970s Anglophone comedy—Britain’s Pythons and the US’ axis of SNL and The National Lampoon.
That’s something to pause on. In the West, comedy and music had been intertwined since The Beatles landed at Shea and did their version of The Goons for an American audience. But the interchange only really went one way: from the UK to the US. In the early 60s, Beyond the Fringe conquered Broadway, but Lenny Bruce kinda bombed at the Palladium. Even so, after 1964 The Beatles were so loved by American audiences, they had become ours by adoption. When Peter Sellers or Pete and Dud cut a Beatles comedy record with a US audience in mind, was that English or American? Where did the comedy end and the music begin?
Comedy was to the Seventies what rock had been to the Sixties—with one important difference: while in rock there was a lot of interplay between UK and US groups—think The Beatles’ mutual admiration society with Bob Dylan, which culminated in #1 Fanboy George’s playing with him— there really wasn’t much overlap in the comedy world before the late 70s. I forget which National Lampoon editor told me this, but as a lifelong Python-phile I was surprised to hear him say, “In the early 70s, we all dismissed the Pythons. Bunch of guys in dresses with silly voices.”
This is strange until you figure out the key: in music, both the US and UK groups were drawing upon a common (American) form of the blues. But comedy, the US was drawing on a college humor tradition, and the UK was based on music hall and vaudeville. Having started from different places, it required practitioners of genius to meet in the middle; by 1978-79, with The Rutles and SNL, Animal House and Life of Brian, you were approaching a common Anglophone comedy. Suddenly, the English brand didn’t always dissipate into class distinctions and whimsy, and the American brand was no longer afraid to talk about things other than showbiz. It was a good time.
Unfortunately, once those geniuses had moved on, the traditions diverged again—to the detriment of both. It’s a little embarrassing to watch British standup and realize—pace many great talents like Eddie Izzard—that they’re still waiting for Richard Pryor. And on this side of the world, the US is still importing things like The Office or What We Do In the Shadows, all those Ivy League brains strangled by Hollywood’s aiming for a middle-of-a-middle that doesn’t exist.
But I come to praise, not to blame. The Rutles couldn’t bring the two streams together unless it was something much more than mimickry. It had to be about something genuinely loved throughout the West; and it had to be just not parody, but original creative work of the very highest order. Great parody transcends its imitative roots to deliver something artistically worthwhile. And if the topic is sufficiently special, it will deliver a thrill something like the original. It occurs to me that Barry Trotter—my parody of the Harry Potter books released in 2002—worked somewhat like The Rutles did; certainly the fan reaction suggested that there was a knitting together of the US and UK comedic traditions for a moment, before they parted again. That’s not for me to say, but it would be high praise indeed to be mentioned in the same breath as The Rutles.
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By the way, in preparing for this post I happened across this collection of Beatles source material for Rutles’ parody songs, collected by Reddit user IAmTheWalrus1967 for r/beatles. I paste it below:
With A Girl Like You parodies If I Fell
Doubleback Alley parodies Penny Lane
Good Times Roll parodies Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Piggy In The Middle parodies I Am The Walrus
Ouch! parodies Help!
Get Up And Go parodies Get Back
Love Life parodies All You Need Is Love
Major Happy’s Up And Coming Once Upon A Good Time Band parodies Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Hold My Hand parodies I Want To Hold Your Hand and All My Loving
Joe Public parodies Tomorrow Never Knows
Rendezvous parodies With A Little Help From My Friends
Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Musik parodies Come Together
Another Day parodies Martha My Dear
*We’ve Arrived! (And To Prove It We’re Here) parodies Back In The U.S.S.R
Number One parodies Twist and Shout
Cheese and Onions parodies A Day In The Life
Let’s Be Natural parodies Dear Prudence
Questionnaire parodies The Fool On The Hill
Unfinished Words parodies Yesterday
Back In ’64 parodies When I’m 64
Easy Listening parodies Octopus’s Garden
Now She’s Left You parodies I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party
I Love You parodies It’s Only Love
Shangri-La parodies Hey Jude, but has elements of many other songs of that era including A Day In The Life and Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite
Don’t Know Why parodies Free As A Bird
Goose Step Mama parodies Some Other Guy
Baby Let Me Be parodies Slow Down
Between Us parodies Baby It’s You
Living In Hope parodies Don’t Pass Me By
It’s Looking Good parodies I’m Down
Nevertheless parodies Love You To
Lonely-Phobia parodies Things We Said Today
Hey Mister! parodies I Me Mine
The Knicker Elastic King parodies Getting Better