If you watch enough Monty Python (or, some might say, too much), you can't hear innocent phrases anymore without an internal stream-of-consciousness leading to a stifled chuckle. For example, if someone says to you, "no sign of land," (or if you mishear them when they say "no sight of land"), you think, first, of a somewhat naughty joke and then about cannibalism.
And if, like me, you studied British comedy as if it was your undergraduate minor, you also think about the BBC censors and clever ways of getting around them. The reason? This sketch, which you must be warned, contains -- well, a naughty joke, cannibalism, and cartoons eating classical nudes. It therefore is probably not safe for some workplaces.
If you can't watch it, you can read the script. I recommend reading all the way to the end, which will give you all the context you need.
At the risk of ruining the humor by analyzing it, the lifeboat sketch, as it's known, starts out with some meta-humor, where the actors have trouble getting the sketch started, with several false starts. By the third take, you can't help but notice the boom mike in the upper left corner, completely destroying the illusion of the cast being on a rickety, swaying lifeboat in the middle of the sea. While they no doubt wrote it this way simply to be silly (after all, many of their sketches lampooned TV conventions), it also helps that the audience is clearly aware that this is, indeed, fake. It takes the "ick" off it, so to speak.
You see, this is a sketch about British naval officers who have been floating in a lifeboat for 33 days. Realizing that their days are numbered without food, they quibble over who should have the honor of making the supreme sacrifice and allowing the others to eat him. At the close of the sketch, they break the fourth wall again, calling over a waiter (who walks onto the stage with a notepad in hand) to place their order. They also brightly suggest pairing the main course with peaches and other canned goods they still have available, thus revealing that the "supreme sacrifice" conversation is not only ridiculous but unnecessary.
Normally, the sketch would end there, but here it is followed by the sort of letters that perhaps the comedy troupe anticipated. A Navy officer objects to cannibalism in the strongest possible terms, saying that the problem is "relatively under control." He signs off with an indication that he, himself, is "in a white wine sauce with shallots, mushrooms and garlic."
Then, the coupe de grace, or dessert, if you will: the undertaker sketch. Here, an unscrupulous undertaker, played by my favorite Monty Python member, Graham Chapman, uses extremely callous ways of describing the different options for handling a dead loved one's body. One option: dumping her in the Thames, presumably reserved for those you don't really like. Cremation is where the grieving man's mother "gets stuffed in the flames, crackle, crackle, crackle, which is a bit of a shock if she's not quite dead, but quick." A third option, to bury her, which is where she "gets eaten up lots of weevils, and nasty maggots." The audience boos.
Since she's relatively young, he suggest eating her, instead, "roasted with a few french fries, broccoli, horseradish sauce." At this point, the audience is riled to a right rage, calling for them to get off the stage. As a final punch line, the undertaker suggests, "We'll eat her; if you feel a bit guilty about it after, we can dig a grave and you can throw up in it." At this the audience rushes the stage, bopping the actors on the head with purses and arguing with them about the sketch. A camera cuts to the ending credits, rolling on a teleprompter, and as the musical strains of the British national anthem, "God Save the Queen," well up, audience members and actors alike come to attention.
What an odd reaction, you might be thinking. Weren't these audience members aware of the sometimes off-color, anarchic humor of the Pythons? Would they really have been so deeply offended they would have rushed the stage? The answers: yes and no, respectively. Instead, the abrupt ending was dictated by the BBC censors, who refused to allow the sketch to run as written unless the audience appeared to object. If you watch carefully, you can see the lack of urgency from those rushing the stage, their faces lit with grins even as they heckle the actors. Of course, they know, as we do, that the humor of this sketch comes from its very inappropriateness. It's simply ridiculous: something that no undertaker would ever actually suggest, and with which no grieving son would acquiesce.
Why did they throw in the national anthem, you might ask? At the beginning of the show, they had introduced the idea that the queen might be watching tonight. The announcer says, "We don't know exactly when Her Majesty will be tuning in. We understand that at the moment she is watching 'The Virginian', but we have been promised that we will be informed the moment that she changes channel. Her majesty would like everyone to behave quite normally but her equerry has asked me to request all of you at home to stand when the great moment arrives, although we here in the studio will be carrying on with our humorous vignettes and spoofs in the ordinary way."
So on top of thumbing their nose at the censors, the Pythons also suggest that right at the nadir of tasteless humor would be the time the royal eyes would find the show, tweaking British ideas of appropriateness and decorum, as well as reverence for the British throne. Absolutely brilliant.
I suppose you can understand now, why I can't hear the phrase "no sign of land" without chuckling. There's something simply delicious about such a tapestry of silliness. I'll be having seconds, please.
My stream-of-consciousness is full of strange flotsam and jetsam.