Monty Python, conversation and turn-taking

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was originally broadcast at a time when a small number academics in Britain (e.g. me) were becoming very excited by the methodology and findings of conversation analysis, a new approach to analysing interaction that was becoming established at various campuses of the University of California in the early 1970s.

Some of the Python humour played around with some fundamental aspects of the way conversation works, like turn-taking – even though it’s very unlikely that any of those who wrote and performed the sketches had ever come across the defining paper on the subject by Sacks, Shegloff and Jefferson*, which wasn’t published until the final year of the Monty Python series in 1974.

When talking about turn-taking in my courses, I sometimes use the following example. The first version of the sketch isn’t particularly funny and sounds like a fairly ‘normal’, if excessively polite and hearty, conversation. But this is because some crucial turns from Idle and Palin have been edited out of the sequence:

Put the missing turns back in, as in the original version, and the fun begins:

(* Harvey Sacks, Emanuel A Schegloff, Gail Jefferson, 'A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation', Language, Vol. 50, No. 4. 1974, pp. 696-735).

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