Feeling irritable, feisty, hostile, even? Feel like getting into an argument? No problem at all! Just hop on the social media platform or comments section of your choice, and within seconds you can be caught in a raging dustup with a total stranger—or several total strangers at once! Isn’t the internet fun?!
But how did the argumentative ever get by before Twitter wars and other contentious online interactions? Needling people in casinos, roadhouses, and cocktail lounges? Ruining holidays with screaming matches over the centerpiece?
Many a barfight and family feud might have been averted had Monty Python’s brilliant idea for an argument clinic existed in real life. In principle, it seems so civilized.
But in the sketch itself, as you can see above, visiting the argument clinic turns out to be a lot like visiting the comments section—only without the racist and sexist slurs and occasional spam. Mild-mannered Michael Palin stops in to have an argument. He first stumbles into the room reserved for “abuse,” where Graham Chapman yells nasty things at him. How familiar. When he reaches the argument room, 12A, he meets John Cleese, who proceeds to flatly contradict everything he says.
Perhaps you've had the same experience: Palin patiently explains what an argument is supposed to be, “a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.” To which Cleese replies, “no it isn’t!” It's like arguing with a child, an especially childish adult, or an internet bot with a very limited set of responses. Or—as you can see at the top in the recreation of the sketch by two vintage voice synthesizers—like an argument between two rudimentary machines.
One of these machines will sound very familiar—the small, black DECTalk Express has provided the voice of Stephen Hawking for many years. The other—the older Intex Talker—is a cruder instrument, and much less intelligible. So it’s rightly cast in the John Cleese role. Can machines think? We’ve yet to satisfactorily answer that question. But we know they can argue—if argument means spitting out abusive phrases and contradictions. However, if we define an argument as Palin/DECTalk Express does—as “an intellectual process”---the machines have likely got ways to go. As do most humans.
Sharpen your own skills with some Intro to Critical Thinking videos, or with another humorous example of how not to argue.
Read An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments: A Fun Primer on How to Strengthen, Not Weaken, Your Arguments
Daniel Dennett Presents Seven Tools For Critical Thinking
32 Animated Videos by Wireless Philosophy Teach You the Essentials of Critical Thinking
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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2. The Killer Joke
A joke so funny, the man who wrote it laughs himself to death; it then kills his mother. After military tests confirm its ‘devastating effectiveness at a range of up to 50 yards’, the Allies eventually use the gag to win the war. Of course, we’re never told the actual joke apart from in a German translation – which turns out to be gibberish.
Inspector: I shall enter the house and attempt to remove the joke ... I shall be aided by the sound of sombre music, played on gramophone records, and also by the chanting of laments by the men of Q Division ... The atmosphere thus created should protect me in the eventuality of me reading the joke.
3. The Lumberjack Song
Reportedly dashed off in 15 minutes because nobody could think of an ending for the barbershop sketch, this catchy confessional by a cross-dressing woodcutter has since made life hell for lumberjacks everywhere. Connie Booth’s reaction shots, as the protagonist's horrified ‘girlie’, are priceless.
Barber: ‘I cut down trees, I skip and jump/ I like to press wild flowers/I put on women’s clothing/ And hang around in bars’
4. Hell's Grannies
A town is terrorised by gangs of marauding old ladies – ‘layabouts in lace' – who harass defenceless young men, run riot in matinee performances of The Sound of Music and paint the walls with graffiti reading ‘Make Tea Not Love’.
Policeman: We have a lot of trouble with these oldies. Pension day's the worst – they go mad. As soon as they get their hands on their money they blow it all on milk, bread, tea, tin of meat for the cat.
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5. The Piranha Brothers
Current affairs programme ‘Ethel the Frog’ presents the story of ‘the notorious Piranha Brothers, Doug and Dinsdale’ – East End criminals and sons of ‘scrap-metal dealer and TV quizmaster’ Arthur Piranha – and their eventual capture by Superintendent Harry ‘Snapper’ Organs. Clearly based on the Kray Twins, the Piranhas ruled with intimidation and violence – but their manners were impeccable.
Interviewer: I've been told Dinsdale Piranha nailed your head to the floor.
Stig: No. Never. He was a smashing bloke. He used to buy his mother flowers and that. He was like a brother to me.
Interviewer: But the police have film of Dinsdale actually nailing your head to the floor.
Stig:(pause) Oh yeah, he did that.
Stig: Well he had to, didn't he? I mean there was nothing else he could do, to be fair. I had transgressed the unwritten law.
6. The restaurant sketch
A couple dining in a ‘three star’ restaurant complain about a dirty fork, leading to soul-searching and violent recriminations among the staff. The punchline, announced with a title card, is one of Python’s best.
Cook: You bastards! You vicious, heartless bastards! Look what you've done to him! He's worked his fingers to the bone to make this place what it is, and you come in with your petty feeble quibbling and you grind him into the dirt, this fine, honourable man, whose boots you are not worthy to kiss. Oh ... it makes me mad ... mad!
7. The 127th Upperclass Twit of the Year Show
Five posh nincompoops (including ‘Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris, married to a very attractive table lamp’) gather at Hurlingham Park to compete in events such as ‘Kicking the beggar’, ‘Insulting the waiter’, and ‘Taking the bra off the Debs’.
Commentator: And there's, there's Simon now in the sports car, he's reversed into the old woman, he's caught her absolutely beautifully. Now he's going to accelerate forward there to wake up the neighbour.
8. Argument Clinic
Michael Palin plays a man who pays to have an argument with a very contrary John Cleese, and what follows has since been adopted by pop-psychologists as a textbook example of how not to argue.
Cleese: I'm very sorry, but I'm not allowed to argue unless you've paid.
Palin: Aha! If I didn't pay, then why are you arguing? Got you!
Cleese: No you haven't.
Palin: Yes I have. If you're still arguing, I must have paid.
Cleese: Not necessarily. I could be arguing in my spare time.
Palin: Oh, I've had enough of this!
Cleese: No, you haven't.
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9. Four Yorkshiremen
In this sketch originally written for 1967’s At Last the 1948 Show, a quartet of seemingly well-heeled gentlemen sit around trying to one-up each other with horrifying tales of childhood poverty. Terry Gilliam, an American, even manages a credible Yorkshire accent.
Gilliam: You were lucky to have a ROOM! *We* used to have to live in a corridor!
Palin: Ohhhh we used to DREAM of livin' in a corridor! Woulda' been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House!? Hmph.
Idle: Well when I say "house" it was only a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarpaulin, but it was a house to US.
10. Nudge Nudge
A spivvy-looking Eric Idle strikes up a conversation with the man next to him in the pub (Terry Jones), and proceeds to ask him, in about 15 different ways, whether or not his wife is a ‘goer’. Despite the filthy subject matter, Idle would later reprise his role in an ad for Breakaway chocolate bars.
Norman: Well, you're a man of the world, squire.
Man: Yes ...
Norman: I mean, you've been around a bit, you know, like, you've, uh ... You've ‘done it’
Man: What do you mean?
Norman: Well, I mean like, ... you've SLEPT, with a lady ...
Man: Yes ...
Norman: What's it like?
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