The Limits of Language in Monty Python
Originally aired in November of 1972, the Monty Python sketch “Argument Clinic” continues to intrigue and entertain viewers with its wordplay and witty social commentary. The sketch involves several of the comedy group’s actors, most notably Michael Palin and John Cleese. They play unfortunate individuals in an establishment that offers unpleasant facets of everyday life, such as arguing, verbal abuse, or sudden violence, at a price. The sketch is widely analyzed in regards to its satirizing of consumer culture in that it portrays the monetization of otherwise-free life experiences; however, its bizarrely wonderful use of the English language and depiction of an ineffective argumentative method pave the way for other interpretations. Palin’s character faces a variety of circumstances which present language as a means of showcasing both human intelligence and human fallacy. Here is a species which developed civilization as well as verbal and written communication, and yet such intellectual abilities are not always used for intellectual ends. Throughout the sketch, the complexity of the English language is reduced to snarky quips and baffled exclamations, and consequently the following question may arise in the viewer’s mind: does “Argument Clinic” convey a link between the compression of language and a lack of critical thinking? If so, what can viewers infer about the consequences of social advancement from a linguistic standpoint?
“I’d like to have an argument, please,” Palin requests. He stands in formal attire, his thick-rimmed glasses and fitted suit suggesting that this is a serious occasion. This opening line, one that elicits laughter from the audience a mere five seconds into the sketch, has become exceptionally well-known. Of course, partaking in an argument by appointment is ridiculous in itself; however, when the receptionist asks whether Palin would prefer a five-minute argument or a course of ten, it becomes clear that the mundane act of verbal disagreement is now as organized as a massage appointment or medical check-up. Palin politely declares that he will begin with one argument (at the cost of one pound) to test the waters. “Mr. DeBakey’s free,” the receptionist explains, checking the schedule, “but he’s a little bit conciliatory. Ah, yes—try Mr. Barnard, Room 12.” The receptionist’s dismissal of Mr. DeBakey for his peacemaking tendencies is a humorous nod at the oddness of the establishment; one can select an argumentative opponent based on his or her reputation just as one would select a masseur or doctor. Palin wanders down the hallway but inadvertently enters Room 18, where he encounters Graham Chapman’s character. “What do you want?” comes Chapman’s immediate and aggressive reply, and Palin’s head darts around in anxious and amusing confusion. The first-time viewer is just as shocked as Palin is, but cannot help but laugh at the sheer unpredictability of the situation.
The opening of the sketch introduces the peculiarity of the setting as well as the comical but unusual organization of dialogue. An argument is no longer dependent on circumstance; Palin can choose the time and place of his dispute, as well as with whom it occurs, for a mere pound. When one considers the intellectual process which produces argument—in essence, the extraordinary cognitive abilities which allow humans to interpret a view, consider its truths and pinpoint its flaws, and develop a counterpoint based on personal experience—it becomes difficult to imagine a price tag. The reduction of such a routine aspect of human life to appointment-based sessions presents an exaggerated case of the social uses of language just before the sketch’s commentary truly begins.
Palin stammers, striving to explain the directions the receptionist gave him, but Chapman has none of it: “Don’t give me that, you snotty-nosed heap of parrot droppings!” Palin is baffled as Chapman’s outlandish verbal abuse continues, revealing quite a colorful vocabulary of insults (the terms “tit” and “vacuous toffee-nosed malodorous pervert” resonate well with the studio audience). A first-time viewer may believe that Palin has successfully entered the disagreement he paid for, albeit one with ad hominem attacks. However, Palin finally interrupts and states that he came into the room for an argument, upon which Chapman ceases his shouting and calmly explains that Palin has entered the room meant for abuse. He directs Palin to the room next door, and Palin bids him farewell with an apologetic smile; as the door closes, Chapman’s expression returns to one of disgust, and he mutters “stupid git” under his breath.
The dialogue between Palin and Chapman builds upon the uncanny system established in the beginning of the sketch. The act of insulting, while harmful in a variety of instances, presents another example of a cognitive process—that is, observing a situation or individual, reflecting on sentiments towards that subject, and responding in a derogatory manner. Yet this aspect of human communication is limited to a room which may be entered only with an appointment. Even after the dialogue reveals that Palin is in an entirely different room and is not in the midst of an argument, one may wonder why Chapman’s abuse consists of base insults rather than complex but biting statements. This is the first example of compressed language; what could have been a detailed (though offensive) exchange instead becomes one-sided, wacky name-calling.
Upon entering the correct room, Palin finds Mr. Barnard (John Cleese) sitting at a desk with an eager smile and crossed hands. Their conversation is the highlight of the sketch, and begins with an exchange which befuddles Palin:
PALIN: Is this the right room for an argument?
CLEESE: (after a brief pause) I’ve told you once.
PALIN: No you haven’t.
CLEESE: Yes, I have.
CLEESE: Just now.
PALIN: No you didn’t.
CLEESE: Yes, I did.
CLEESE: I did!
CLEESE: I’m telling you I did!
Cleese finally interrupts their banter to inquire about the length of Palin’s appointment, and the latter suddenly comprehends the nature of their conversation. “Anyway, I did,” Cleese explains once Palin is seated, and the childlike repartee begins again. It eventually becomes a continuous exchange of “Didn’t!” and “Yes, I did” until Palin declares in exasperation, “Look, this isn’t an argument!” Of course, Cleese opposes him, leading Palin to clarify that their so-called argument is merely contradiction. “No it isn’t,” Cleese replies, hilarious in his persistence. Palin, growing more frustrated by the second, tries to convince his opponent but ultimately fails as Cleese plainly denies each of his claims.
PALIN: An argument is a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition!
CLEESE: No it isn’t.
PALIN: Yes, it is! It isn’t just contradiction!
CLEESE: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
PALIN: Well, it isn’t just saying ‘No, it isn’t’!
CLEESE: Yes, it is.
PALIN: No it isn’t!
Palin’s final line in the dialogue above reveals that despite his efforts to produce a sane, rational argument, he ends up refuting his own logic. This self-contradiction as well as the increasing pitch of Palin’s voice add to the growing nonsensicality of the scene. Just as he prepares to make another point, Cleese rings his desk bell and informs Palin that their session has ended. “But I was just getting interested,” Palin admits dejectedly.
The first half of Palin’s experience in the argument room reinforces the sketch’s intention to reduce the intricacy of the English language. While certainly successful in its comedy, this watered-down disagreement between two grown men also encourages viewers to think about the boundaries of argument. The first thing Cleese says to Palin upon his entrance is the line which begins their conversation: “I’ve told you once.” Much like Palin’s encounter with Chapman, this discussion had the potential to be mentally stimulating; essentially, Cleese’s first line could have been an intricate and inquisitive one. Even the five-minute limit of Palin’s session would not have prevented a thorough (though brief) debate. The intellectual capacities of both men are undermined when Cleese instead spurs a constant stream of contradictory retorts. Still, the most interesting quality of this conversation is that despite its simplicity, each reply is a sentence in the English language (though merely a subject-verb pair), and the structure is certainly that of an argument. Yet this simplification produces a tone of immaturity, and as a result neither man successfully proves his “point” (as each man’s perspective is merely a direct contradiction of the other’s) or agrees to disagree, as viewers would expect in a rational argument.
Eager to restart their quarrel, Palin contradicts Cleese when the latter declares that time is up, but to no avail. “I’m not allowed to argue unless you pay,” Cleese clarifies. Palin grudgingly surrenders and tosses the bill down. His opponent slides the cash into his suit pocket but does not respond.
PALIN: (eagerly) Well?
CLEESE: Well what?
PALIN: That was never five minutes just now.
CLEESE: I told you, I’m not allowed to argue unless you pay.
PALIN: I just paid!
CLEESE: No you didn’t.
PALIN: I did!
After a few seconds of back-and-forth contradiction, Palin comes to a realization and asks Cleese why he is arguing if the fee has not been paid. “I could be arguing in my spare time,” he casually responds. Palin, finally overwhelmed, stands up and leaves the room, not caring for Cleese’s lingering opposition.
While Palin initially views their conversation as ridiculous (and doubts its credibility many times), he is eager to resume the quarrel as soon as his five-minute session ends. His time in Cleese’s office—a place where the intellectual potential of language is reduced to amusing but meaningless retorts—produces an argumentative style which Palin temporarily finds intriguing. Their discussion is far from intelligent and does not utilize critical thinking; in fact, the closest it comes to observational reasoning is when Palin notices that Cleese is contradicting him again, and therefore concludes that the fee must have been paid. When Cleese responds with another witty contradiction, dismantling any logic that Palin’s statement could have established, Palin gives up. Thus, while undoubtedly an argument, the lack of linguistic complexity within this exchange weakens its foundation and makes it impossible to arrive at any sort of conclusion, another quality the viewers anticipate in a typical, logical dispute.
Irritated with the quality of his experience, Palin absentmindedly rushes into the adjacent room and declares that he wants to complain. “You want to complain? Look at these shoes. I’ve only had ’em three weeks and the heels are worn right through,” Eric Idle’s character grumbles in his cartoonish, nasal voice, beginning a strain of grievances. Palin rolls his eyes and slams the door shut before Idle can finish. Unfortunately, in the next room, he barely finishes his complaint before being smacked on the head with a hammer. Upon hearing him yelp, the assailant (Terry Jones) criticizes Palin’s cry of pain: “No, no. Hold your head like this and then go ‘waaaaah’!” Palin eventually yells for him to stop with the attacks, clarifying that he came into the room to complain. “That’s next door. It’s being-hit-on-the-head lessons in here,” Jones explains. Things become increasingly bizarre as the door swings open and a policeman (Graham Chapman) enters, identifying himself as Inspector Fox “of the Light Entertainment Police, Comedy Division, Special Flying Squad.” He condemns the duo for partaking in a sketch “with intent to cause grievous mental confusion to the Great British public.” Soon after, Inspector Thompson’s Gazelle of the Programming Planning Police (Eric Idle) tumbles in and threatens to arrest the show on multiple counts, one of which is “ending every bleedin’ sketch by just having a policeman come in, and . . . wait a minute.” As a third policeman places a hand on Idle’s shoulder, the hilarious irony of the situation makes itself known. “It’s a fair cop,” Idle mutters, quoting a British idiom used when one acknowledges that one has been caught doing wrong. The sketch ends with a mysterious fourth hand clapping down on the third policeman’s shoulder.
The characters in both the complaining and being-hit-on-the-head rooms further enforce the sketch’s compression of everyday expression—whether it be disagreement, discontentment, or simply pain—to confined spaces. In each room, Palin meets a person with whom he engages in comically choppy and ridiculous dialogue. In the abuse room, he shouts at Chapman, who retorts with nonsensical insults. In the argument room, he quarrels with Cleese, though the majority of their conversation involves one curtly gainsaying the other. In the complaining room, Palin’s request to complain is definitively cut off by Idle’s ongoing grumbles. In the being-hit-on-the-head room, the dialogue becomes a hectic mix of Jones’ critiques, Palin’s “waaaaah”s, and the policemen’s ludicrous declarations. The entire sketch functions by reducing the English language to humorous noises and interjections, and the absurdity of each of its parts conveys the chaos that ensues when the complexity of the language—and accordingly, the intellectual process required to consider and communicate it in a logical way—disappear.
One can apply this conclusion beyond the realm of Monty Python. The inevitable compression of the English language as society advances (the development of texting slang, the relaxation of grammar rules in conversation and writing, etc.) affects argumentative methods, and online arguments are a prime example. While social media pages such as Facebook and Instagram tend to display more personal photos than opinions, certain online forums thrive on dispute. 4chan and Reddit, for instance, experience countless users who post controversial opinions simply for the fun of it; the thrill of the argument is greater than the satisfaction of winning it. Few users respond with coherent counterarguments; the majority of a post’s responses consist of online abbreviations and modern-day “memes” for the sake of humor. In such cases, much like in “Argument Clinic,” the intellectual process of argument is reduced to senseless (or inappropriate) jokes. The serious qualities of disagreement are tossed aside for the enjoyment of online comedy—comedy which exists because extensive thoughts and emotions can now be expressed in single images or words. While this gradual compression of English has yet to lead to the ridiculous chaos the sketch presents, it certainly impacts how members of society approach and interact with one another. If spoken and written English continues to change significantly over the next century, the English used in arguments (particularly on the Internet) will change with it. The sketch incites many similar conclusions, particularly in terms of linguistics and social philosophy. Yet while viewers may deduce several ideas from its dialogue, “Argument Clinic” continues to charm primarily with its witty wordplay and its entertaining depiction of various aspects of life.
“Argument Clinic – Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” YouTube Video, posted by “Monty Python,” November 14, 2008.