This morning I was thinking, for some reason, about old Not the Nine O'Clock News records. Specifically, about the song 'All-Out Superpower Confrontation', and the sketch where Griff Rhys Jones is a lawyer who pronounces common legal terms incorrectly, such as 'gwilt' and 'aleebee'. Great stuff. Half a lifetime ago, my brother and I used to borrow their albums from the State Library of Tasmania and devour them whole.
There were a few albums, including the beautifully-titled double LP 'Hedgehog Sandwich'—all now long-forgotten, along with the early 1980s from whence they came. There may be some CD re-releases or compilations around, but I doubt they sell many copies. Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones are no longer the big comedy names they once were, nor is Pamela Stephenson; only Rowan Atkinson remains in the public eye, as Bean and Blackadder (and even those are now yesterday's news, the Millennium Dome Blackadder Back and Forth special notwithstanding).
This got me thinking about the longevity of comedy, and led to a startling realisation: Monty Python is going to rapidly diminish in popularity from here on because of the demise of the comedy LP.
To explain: I'm from a generation that discovered Python through their records, not through their television shows. Too young to have seen them on TV, yet a few years away from the release of their shows on video (which didn't happen until the late 1980s), my friends and I discovered Another Monty Python Record, Matching Tie and Handkerchief and the rest at the impressionable age of 16, and were soon amusing ourselves (and boring everyone else in earshot) by reciting our favourite sketches at every opportunity. As you do.
Years later, the shows came out on video, and even though I was past the tedious (dead-) parroting phase I watched them all, of course. There were certainly plenty of good new sketches to devour: if Scott of the Sahara's encounter with the electric killer penguin had been even one nanogram funnier I would have died on the spot. But I was also struck by how dated the show looked. (Well of course it did. It was 15-20 years old even then.)
Not really a problem for an established fan, of course. But I now wonder what a 16-year-old of today would think of Python if their first encounter was a viewing of those thirty-year-old TV shows. Would they be as taken with them as I and other 30-somethings once were? I'm not so sure.
There's something about sound recordings that strips away time in a way that video can't. It's probably because we're a visual species: eighty or ninety percent of our information about the world comes through our eyes. We notice that someone in an old 1970s TV show is wearing huge flares or sporting an afro before we hear what they're saying, and it's hard to take their words seriously as a result. Most 1970s TV shows can only be enjoyed as camp nowadays for that very reason. How long before the same is true of 1990s TV shows? (It's already happening with the 1980s. Watched any John Hughes teen flicks lately?)
But accents don't change as quickly as clothes, and a few dated words don't jar as much as the sight of an afro. An old Python record won't seem as comically old-fashioned, therefore, as a video of the TV show. If you're not English, then even the references to 1970s prices (less three decades of inflation) and public figures (since long-forgotten) won't matter, because they would have seemed strange and foreign to you all along.
The more I think about this, the more it seems true. A good test case is old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore records. I challenge anyone to find anything as funny and fresh as their 'Frog and Peach' sketch; in audio, it hasn't dated one bit. But watch a tape of the TV show and you'll be brought up cold by the early 1960s attire and, more to the point, the fact that they're in black and white. You can't help interpreting them as something from then, whereas listening to the records it's easy to forget that they aren't from now.
Comedy albums are, sadly, out of fashion nowadays. VHS and DVD capture more of the performance than a plain old record could, so it seems only sensible to release a TV show straight to video rather than editing and possibly re-recording it for audio-only. But as far as longevity of humour goes, this is a case where less is more. The parrot sketch will sound fresh for decades, but watching it you won't be able to stop noticing John Cleese's sideburns.