Monty Python’s argument clinic: how “funny” demands unexpected shifts in perspective that machines will never master

I admit it: I’m obsessed with why ChatGPT and other AI services can’t be funny. I’m convinced the answer is that true humor demands an unexpected shift in perspective, and AI machines, trained to mimic patterns in what they’ve read, have problems with both “unexpected” and “shift in perspective.”

Monty Python is the master of this method. To show you how this works, I’ll do what you probably never should do if you enjoy humor: dissect a comedy bit to see how it works. Below is a video of “The Argument Clinic” sketch, which is followed by a transcript. At each numbered spot in the transcript, ask yourself, what is the change in perspective?

Man: Ah. I’d like to have an argument, please. [1]

Receptionist: Certainly sir. Have you been here before?

Man: No, I haven’t, this is my first time.

Receptionist: I see. Well, do you want to have just one argument, or were you thinking of taking a course? [2]

Man: Well, what is the cost?

Receptionist: Well, It’s one pound for a five minute argument, but only eight pounds for a course of ten.

Man: Well, I think it would be best if I perhaps started off with just the one and then see how it goes.

Receptionist: Fine. Well, I’ll see who’s free at the moment.


Receptionist: Mr. DeBakey’s free, but he’s a little bit conciliatory. [3] Ahh yes, Try Mr. Barnard; room 12.

Man: Thank you.

(Walks down the hall. Opens door.)

Mr. Barnard: WHAT DO YOU WANT? [4]

Man: Well, I was told outside that…

Mr. Barnard: Don’t give me that, you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings!

Man: What?

Mr. Barnard: Shut your festering gob, you tit! Your type really makes me puke, you vacuous, coffee-nosed, malodorous, pervert!!!

Man: Look, I CAME HERE FOR AN ARGUMENT, I’m not going to just stand…!!

Mr. Barnard: OH, oh I’m sorry, but this is abuse. [5]

Man: Oh, I see, well, that explains it.

Mr. Barnard: Ah yes, you want room 12A, Just along the corridor.

Man: Oh, Thank you very much. Sorry.

Mr. Barnard: Not at all.

Man: Thank You. (Under his breath) Stupid git!! [6]

(Walk down the corridor)

Man: (Knock)

Mr. Vibrating: Come in.

Man: Ah, Is this the right room for an argument?

Mr. Vibrating: I told you once. [7]

Man: No you haven’t.

Mr. Vibrating: Yes I have.

Man: When?

Mr. Vibrating: Just now.

Man: No you didn’t.

Mr. Vibrating: Yes I did.

Man: You didn’t

Mr. Vibrating: I did!

Man: You didn’t!

Mr. Vibrating: I’m telling you I did!

Man: You did not!!

Mr. Vibrating: Oh, I’m sorry, just one moment. Is this a five minute argument or the full half hour? [8]

Man: Oh, just the five minutes.

Mr. Vibrating: Ah, thank you. Anyway, I did.

Man: You most certainly did not.

Mr. Vibrating: Look, let’s get this thing clear; I quite definitely told you.

Man: No you did not.

Mr. Vibrating: Yes I did.

Man: No you didn’t.

Mr. Vibrating: Yes I did.

Man: No you didn’t.

Mr. Vibrating: Yes I did.

Man: No you didn’t.

Mr. Vibrating: Yes I did.

Man: You didn’t.

Mr. Vibrating: Did.

Man: Oh look, this isn’t an argument.

Mr. Vibrating: Yes it is. [9]

Man: No it isn’t. It’s just contradiction.

Mr. Vibrating: No it isn’t.

Man: It is!

Mr. Vibrating: It is not.

Man: Look, you just contradicted me.

Mr. Vibrating: I did not.

Man: Oh you did!!

Mr. Vibrating: No, no, no.

Man: You did just then.

Mr. Vibrating: Nonsense!

Man: Oh, this is futile!

Mr. Vibrating: No it isn’t. [10]

Man: I came here for a good argument.

Mr. Vibrating: No you didn’t; no, you came here for an argument.

Man: An argument isn’t just contradiction.

Mr. Vibrating: It can be.

Man: No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

Mr. Vibrating: No it isn’t.

Man: Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.

Mr. Vibrating: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.

Man: Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’

Mr. Vibrating: Yes it is!

Man: No it isn’t!

Man: Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.

(short pause)

Mr. Vibrating: No it isn’t.

Man: It is.

Mr. Vibrating: Not at all.

Man: Now look.

Mr. Vibrating: (Rings bell) Good Morning. [11]

Man: What?

Mr. Vibrating: That’s it. Good morning.

Man: I was just getting interested.

Mr. Vibrating: Sorry, the five minutes is up.

Man: That was never five minutes!

Mr. Vibrating: I’m afraid it was.

Man: It wasn’t.


Mr. Vibrating: I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to argue anymore.

Man: What?!

Mr. Vibrating: If you want me to go on arguing, you’ll have to pay for another five minutes.

Man: Yes, but that was never five minutes, just now. Oh come on!

Mr. Vibrating: (Hums)

Man: Look, this is ridiculous.

Mr. Vibrating: I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to argue unless you’ve paid!

Man: Oh, all right.

(pays money)

Mr. Vibrating: Thank you. (short pause)

Man: Well?

Mr. Vibrating: Well what?

Man: That wasn’t really five minutes, just now.

Mr. Vibrating: I told you, I’m not allowed to argue unless you’ve paid. [12]

Man: I just paid!

Mr. Vibrating: No you didn’t.

Man: I DID!

Mr. Vibrating: No you didn’t.

Man: Look, I don’t want to argue about that.

Mr. Vibrating: Well, you didn’t pay.

Man: Aha. If I didn’t pay, why are you arguing? I Got you!

Mr. Vibrating: No you haven’t.

Man: Yes I have. If you’re arguing, I must have paid.

Mr. Vibrating: Not necessarily. I could be arguing in my spare time. [13]

Man: Oh I’ve had enough of this.

Mr. Vibrating: No you haven’t.

Man: Oh Shut up.

(Walks down the stairs. Opens door.)

Man: I want to complain.

Complainer: You want to complain! Look at these shoes. I’ve only had them three weeks and the heels are worn right through. [14]

Man: No, I want to complain about…

Complainer: If you complain nothing happens, you might as well not bother.

Man: Oh!

Complainer: Oh my back hurts, it’s not a very fine day and I’m sick and tired of this office.

(Slams door. walks down corridor, opens next door.)

Man: Hello, I want to… Ooooh! [15]

Spreaders: No, no, no. Hold your head like this, then go Waaah. Try it again.

Man: uuuwwhh!!

Spreaders: Better, Better, but Waah, Waah! Put your hand there.

Man: No.

Spreaders: Now..

Man: Waaaaah!!!

Spreaders: Good, Good! That’s it.

Man: Stop hitting me!!

Spreaders: What?

Man: Stop hitting me!!

Spreaders: Stop hitting you?

Man: Yes!

Spreaders: Why did you come in here then?

Man: I wanted to complain.

Spreaders: Oh no, that’s next door. It’s being-hit-on-the-head lessons in here. [16]

Man: What a stupid concept.

(Detective Inspector Fox enters.)

Inspector Fox: Right. Hold it there.

Man and Spreaders: What?

Inspector Fox: Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Inspector Fox of the Light Entertainment Police, Comedy Division, Special Flying Squad. [17]

Man and Spreaders: Flying Fox of the Yard.

Inspector Fox: Shut up! (he hits the man with a truncheon)

Man: Ooooh?

Spreaders: No, no, no – Waagh!

Inspector Fox: And you. (he hits Spreaders)

Spreaders: Waagh!

Inspector Fox: He’s good! You could learn a thing or two from him. [18] Right now you two me old beauties, you are nicked.

Man: What for?

Inspector Fox: I’m charging you two under Section 21 of the Strange Sketch Act. [19]

Man: The what?

Inspector Fox: You are hereby charged that you did willfully take part in a strange sketch, that is, a skit, spoof or humorous vignette of an unconventional nature with intent to cause grievous mental confusion to the Great British Public. (to camera) Evening all.

Spreaders: It’s a fair cop.

Inspector Fox: And you tosh. (.hits the man)


Inspector Fox: That’s excellent! Right, come on down the Yard.

The constantly shifting frame

The comic brilliance of this bit, and of Monty Python in general, is that at any instant you may be whisked into a completely different view of reality. But even so, what came before still has to make sense in the context of that new reality. If you were in an office and suddenly were transported to outer space, that would be a shift in perspective, but wouldn’t be funny if it was just a jump-cut to a different reality. By contrast, in this sketch, the personalities of the characters remain constant and there is continuity, but at each of the numbered moments, your perspective on that reality is yanked away and twisted in an unexpected direction. In order:

  1. People approaching reception desks don’t normally ask to have an argument.
  2. “Having an argument,” unexpectedly, is a paid service.
  3. We don’t expect to hear “conciliatory” cited as a weakness for a professional delivering a service.
  4. When entering an office for a service, you don’t expect to get immediately shouted at.
  5. Everything having been peaceful so far, it’s completely unexpected that “abuse” is service.
  6. After kindly directing the client to the next room, Mr. Barnard surprisingly turns out to be sincerely nasty.
  7. We don’t expect Mr. Vibrating to instantly start lying (“I told you once.”)
  8. Mr. Vibrating asks about payment, revealing that the previous bits of argument were just a paid service.
  9. We don’t expect the argument to devolve into a philosophical meta-discussion of what constitutes an argument. (The Pythons studied philosophy at university and it has clearly influenced their work.)
  10. The client expresses the sentiment “This is futile,” attempting to take the discussion to a new level, but Mr. Vibrating unexpectedly fails to argue at this new level and continues to just contradict him as before.
  11. Having been drawn intensely into the argument, we don’t expect Mr. Vibrating to stop — because we have forgotten that it is a paid service.
  12. After the client pays for more time, Mr. Vibrating unexpectedly fails to continue, violating the norm that after payment you receive what you paid for.
  13. The comment “I could be arguing in my spare time” is such a transparent lie that it’s unexpected, given the earnest philosophical argument that preceded it.
  14. When you enter the “complaints” department, you expect to give a complaint, not receive one. The idea that hearing complaints is an unexpected twist.
  15. We’re completely surprised to experience the shift to the physical comedy of being hit on the head, since everything up to this point was just dialogue.
  16. No one expects that there is such a thing as “Being hit on the head lessons.”
  17. You don’t expect a police inspector to suddenly arrive, turning the services office into a crime investigation.
  18. Surprisingly, Inspector Fox reinforces Spreaders’ concept that there is a correct way to respond verbally to being hit on the head.
  19. We’re catapulted complete out of the office setting, breaking the fourth wall, by the revelation that there is a “Strange Sketch Act” and that the Pythons are violating it.

Why a machine can never do this

What’s fascinating to me about all these shifts is that every one goes in a completely unexpected direction (and at breakneck pace, with 19 conceptual shifts in four minutes). At various times the Pythons subvert the idea of what a professional service is, how professionals delivering services behave, what an argument is, what happens in a complaints office, whether the sketch is about dialogue or physical comedy, or whether we are breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging that it is, indeed, a sketch.

Every turn is surprising. And yet, there is a thread that carries things through. After you learn that arguments are a service, you understand what happened with the receptionist. After you learn that abuse and complaints are services, it makes a strange sort of sense what kind of office this is. And after Inspector Fox arrives, you’re jolted out of the suspension of disbelief and recognize everything that has preceded was just acting.

The series of twists — of what to allow the viewer to hold on to, and what to yank out from under them — is endlessly inventive. There are not two, or three, or six, or eleven possible ways to shift perspective. There are a potentially infinite number. A machine could master two, or three, or six, or eleven. But since it understands only patterns, it cannot break completely free of those patterns. It cannot know what to hold onto and in what way to let everything else go.

I predict we’ll never see sophisticated or even basic comedy from an AI. There is a serious argument about whether an AI language model “understands” anything, but it certainly doesn’t understand humor. And that’s one thing that will always make us different from machines.

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One Comment

  1. This was a constantly-recurring theme in Star Trek The Next Generation, as Data (the android) struggled mightily to “get” and use humor. He so wanted to become more human, but humor was one of those litmus tests.