RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 25: Michael Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story” (2005)


The Players…

Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Raymond Waring, Dylan Moran and Keeley Hawes.

The Story…

This postmodern mockumentary chronicles a valiant yet hapless attempt to make a film adaptation of the autobiographical The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, a complex 18th-century tale by English writer Laurence Sterne. It’s a movie about a movie that can’t be made into a movie but tries anyway. Art marches forward.

The Rant…

I don’t know where I got my sense of humor. No wait, I do. But first I know it didn’t come from my family (unless you can count that due to them being the endless brunt of my antics), nor did it come from watching many sitcoms, especially those from the last decade (sorry, Family Guy). Or books for that matter, not really. Okay, to fair if you count Dave Barry then, yeah.

But note I said many sitcoms. There was one that really tickled my fancy: Night Court. Perhaps a lot of you Gen Xer’s remember it. It was a program rife with wacky situations, demented characters, zany antics and, of course, witty dialogue. I did and still do quote that show offhandedly in my everyday talk. Not that anyone these days get any of the references. Something about a show that takes place in ostensibly a very serious setting—or be it taking place after hours, when all the rats come out of their sewers—and plays out like series of Marx Brothers movies on blackies really made me laugh. I guess I learned to appreciate absurdity at an early age.

There were also two other TV series that smacked my funny bone around. In middle school I got turned on to Monty Python, much to my parents’ chagrin (they didn’t get it. They didn’t let me hold the remote control when it came on PBS. Or on MTV, oddly enough). But I got it. It was finally in college that I figured out what their schtick was all about: Brits being very serious about being silly. A tough line to toe. That dry British humor paired with how to not be seen, dead parrots, a cheese shop with no cheese and, of course, Vikings singing the praises of Spam I found riotous. And like a lot of other geeks, I endlessly quote that show, too. Sure, it can get annoying at times—especially if you’re trying to watch Holy Grail again and someone won’t stop narrating the lines verbatim along the bloody thing—but funny is funny, and is always the perfect steam valve to release the social tensions of our demanding and demented culture.

Finally, the third TV show I was enraptured with was Fox’s Comic Strip Live. It was that network’s answer to Saturday Night Live. Whereas the competitor’s show dealt in sketch comedy, Strip was all about the comedians. It was an hour of about five comics doing their bits in front of a mike, an audience and nothing else. It turned me on to stand-up (I even tried comedy myself at local open mikes, with mixed returns). Thanks to Strip, by extension, the acts turned me on to what are now my fave comics to this date. George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Henry Rollins (yes, him) and Lenny Bruce I credit to my obnoxious, ever-developing sense of humor. Granted none of those guys were ever on Strip, but the show got my mojo humming about hearing and learning more.

Needless to say the work of those folks were and still are not the hit in Columbus. Still, regardless of what Middle America—which is not a place but a mindset, by the way—deems funny, I understand what a sense of humor is. Humor is the most sophisticated of emotions, where fear being the most basal. Saying that, comedy is at its best when it draws on the fears of the audience. Lenny Bruce calling out his audience as being a bunch of crackers, goys, n*ggers, sp*cs and slants (due to social sensitivities, I’m not sure how’s the best and appropriate way to edit racial slurs. Forgive me, I’m not really a racist; I’m an American) and then asking them to punch him is meant to be funny. But not really. Remember in Mel Brooks’ History of the World when Bea Arthur asks Brooks, “Have you bullsh*tted today?” There you have it. I do it daily. Blame John Larroquette and Hicks and Carlin.

And for this particular film dissection, blame John Cleese too…

When I first heard about Tristram Shandy it was on the old, dependable NPR affiliate. You know, public radio movie reviews that exclusively cover obscure, art-tastic and often self-consciously pretentious flicks that no one has ever heard about and maybe only a handful will actually see, myself included (I’m such a geek). Its premise wedged a couple of questions into my brain. One, who’s Tristram Shandy? Sounds familiar, though I don’t know from where. Isn’t that a cocktail?

And two, what the hell’s a “cock and bull story?”

I actually looked that part up. According to my resources, a “cock and bull story” widely means “a ridiculous tale” or the American counterpart, “a shaggy dog story.” Those are the casual definitions. The source of this term stems from two British taverns in the 18th or 19th Centuries. Both taverns, dubbed the Cock and the Bull respectively, were down the street from each other. Like most bars, they had their regular clientele. Occasionally, with being DUI not a real issue back then since there were no cars, patrons from either tavern would “have a row” in the street. Trouble brewing. In any case, a “cock” and “bull” story related to the notion that neither of those two animals would or should ever associate with one another. Only trouble and/or nonsense would occur. In sum, a “cock and bull story” roughly translates to “bullsh*t.” The current polite definition is “a fanciful tale.” Sounds like trademark British politeness if you’d ask me. If any of you have ever staggered out past closing time from your favorite watering hole and seen the usual folderol that pukes out onto the street, well, you get the idea.

Part two: Who was Tristram Shandy? Nobody. A character cooked up by writer Laurence Sterne more or less reflecting his life and times. Sort of a jovial flipside to Jack Torrence in Stephen King’s The Shining. Meaning, the author was unaware, at least on vestigial level that he was writing about himself. Or perhaps not. In any matter, the book was supposed to be a spoof on the self-aggrandizing bios on other privileged lads whose lives are much more interesting in their minds rather that in reality. In other words, Sterne was bullsh*tting the readers. It was all a grand joke, wrapped up in stuffy British bowdlerized idiom. What possessed Winterbottom and Coogan to make a film adaptation about this lark are beyond me.

I’m gonna forgo the usual synopsis here, because this film is virtually plotless. The premise is simple enough. Director Winterbottom and star Coogan are trying to make a movie adaptation of Tristram Shandy. Steve Coogan stars as Tristram Shandy, and his father Walter Shandy, and as himself. He also acts as the film’s narrator. Coogan kindly takes us under his wing and escorts us around the sets, introduces cast members as well as crew (are those really the crew members? I’d like to think so, but then again Shandy winks and nods a lot) and tries to convey what is going on in both the film and the efforts everyone is making to get Shandy to celluloid. That’s all. Well, there’s a lot of witty banter and Coogan and company fluffing themselves up like peacocks to make damn sure that the audience knows what a big deal it is to make this icon of a novel into a grand cinematic event.

It’s all bullsh*t. And that’s the point.

The movie has a deft intertwining of story, commentary, drama, meta and, well, more meta. Some history too. But it’s all spun together in this throwaway style that if you’re not in the proper mood, you’ll just get frustrated and kill the Blu-Ray player. You need to keep your attention close in this Moebius strip of a movie. I call it that because everything seems to wrap around everything else, and the movie goes nowhere. But is this the point? Is this part of the humor? I mostly found it frustrating.

Shandy however does appeal towards my Monty Python-esque sensibilities. Witty, angular, quite British and painfully self-aware. In fact, self-aware is the very blood that courses throughout the film. Without it, as far as I’m concerned, there would be no film. There barely was to begin with. Again, veers. Like Python, the humor here is very dry. If you’re not into that sort of humor it won’t register. There’s also a lot of that meta-humor I’ve been poking at; a lot of throwaway lines and comments that hint to the audience, “This is all bullsh*t, y’know.” It’s all snicker-worthy and very clever, but clever doesn’t not compensate for Shandy being a film about nothing. Was that the point of the novel? I never read it. I was almost grateful for Coogan’s presence as Coogan, him breaking the fourth wall at random intervals to keep the audience in the know about what the f*ck is going on. By the way, is the commentary by Coogan for the audience’s benefit or the director’s? Everything is so scattershot and winking that’s it’s nigh impossible to tell where the film ends and the joke begins. Maybe that is the joke. This is British humor we’re dealing with here. Like Python, Shandy is only laugh-out-loud in key moments, the rest of the time it’s just snickers.

I found what was curious is that Winterbottom and Coogan collaborated on a similar film structure in 24 Hour Party People, a kind-of sort-of biography of music producer Tony Wilson. He was well known for promoting a lot of now legendary bands from Manchester, England. Coogan portrayed Wilson and acted as narrator, too, often breaking the fourth wall. The gimmick to that film was actual people from the Manchester music scene made cameos and commented on the action around them, having lived it and giving their version of the story. That and the film worked. It was all very entertaining and dare I say educational. The whole breaking the fourth wall and narrating worked very well for Party People, as did the humor and—for lack of a better word—whimsy.

Why did it not work for Shandy? Two things: there was no real story, and this kind of humor is not stand-alone funny. Party People had a more-or-less straight, linear progression. There was nothing of the sort here, and that being part of the humor (the Moebius strip again) just resulted in a lot of banging one’s head against a wall. Granted that Party People was not a comedy, not outright, but it was a sort-of documentary about an aspect of Britian’s pop cultural history, not unlike Shandy. Unlike Shandy, Party People was firmly about something, and humor was used to accent certain scenes within context. In Shandy, the context keeps shifting. That was the nature of the book and its eventual film adaptation. There was next to nothing to hold onto, save Coogan, and he was f*cking with the audience the entire movie, which was supposed to be the style of humor. Despite all the Python I watched since childhood, I couldn’t stop scratching my head.

It’s real hard to critique Shandy. Perhaps “analyze” would be a better term. You end up picking this thing apart like the turkey the day after Thanksgiving, looking for the good parts leftover. Problem is that whole “Moebius strip” thing. If the movie doesn’t go anywhere (and that may very well be on purpose), no manner of scrutiny is gonna satisfy the basic need of storytelling. There’s no conflict, just a bunch of witty one-liners and absurd sight gags. Not much meat left on the bone. That and in the final analysis, all that ribbing, although funny, just gets grating after awhile. “Cloying” would be the operative word here.

Nevertheless, despite the setup appealing to my pleasantly abrasive sense of humor, I found myself the one who ending up chafed. And the hell of it is I can’t figure out whether or not all that circular humor was done on purpose or not. I respect Shandy for it’s gall; for what it attempted (whatever it was), and for Coogan and Winterbottom in trying to make this a film. But it didn’t make a film.

Did it?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? I’m gonna relent it. Again we have a struggle: clever, arty film or a big middle finger to the audience? YOU DECIDE.

Stray Observations…

  • “I’ll show you the cock in a minute…heh heh.”
  • Is the act of scurrying about everywhere an aspect of British light physical comedy? If so, it works.
  • An Asian guy with a British accent. Recalling my earlier difficulties, there’s sumpin ya don’t see ev’ry day!
  • “Meat curtains?”
  • Always, always wind the clock.
  • “That was gonna be a sitcom.”

Next Installment…

“And she turned around and took my by the hand and said, ‘I’ve lost Control again’…” A bouquet to whomever recognizes the lyrics.