How the Norwegian Blue became a comedy icon.
Perhaps we're braving bad luck by mentioning this, but it was 13 years ago next month that one of the great scientific/comedic discoveries was announced, in a major palaeontology journal. It turns out that the once-mythical Norwegian Blue really did exist - or at least there was a parrot knocking about near Norway 55 million years ago, so the nickname works.
The Norwegian Blue is arguably the most famous bird in comedy, given that the Dead Parrot Sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus is always a big contender for the best one, ever. The best sketch, that is, not bird. If you had a bet on how the national vote would go for 'best bird in British comedy', Keith Harris and Orville would surely be up there too, and Bernie Clifton's ostrich. And Emu. Plus also Monty Python's albatross, particularly John Cleese hollering about it during Live At The Hollywood Bowl. It was him selling the ex-bird that time.
But what if you tried that poll in Norway? They'd no doubt respond with: 'we've got more interesting things to do, to be honest.' Right now the Nordic folk might well be having a punt on which superclub their excellent striker Erling Haaland will sign for next season, or taking a spin on Norway's online casino, or just bingeing the latest Scandi crime drama and guessing who did it. But if you paused that show and did a quick multiple choice, they'd probably go for the Norwegian Blue, and its beautiful plumage.
What makes that sketch so enduringly popular? A lot of it is down to Cleese's exasperated performance. Although interestingly - like the aforementioned albatross sketch - it's probably remembered as much for the subsequent live interpretations as the original studio version.
Several Python live shows were captured on film and album during their heyday, then Cleese and Michael Palin performed the sketch at a number of televised benefit shows, notably The Secret Policeman's Ball. To keep it interesting Cleese would ramp up the hysteria of his bewildered pet-shop customer, Mr Praline, chiefly to try to make Palin lose his cool, and it's those extraordinary performances that tend to stick in the mind. Every high-pitched 'PINING FOR THE FJORDS?' helped build the legend.
So why 'Norwegian Blue'? Being academic types, you can imagine that Cleese and co-writer Graham Chapman purposefully chose Norway as a suitably surreal origin for their exotic bird, as the Scandinavian Peninsula hardly boasts the most tropical of climates. A Norwegian parrot sounds about as likely as a Paraguayan polar bear, and might well go a bit blue, in the circumstances. But things were different 55 million years ago, apparently: Norway was much warmer then, so this parrot probably evolved there before moving south.
The Flying Circus link certainly wasn't lost on the researcher who discovered that well-preserved ex-bird. Fossil expert Dr David Waterhouse described his find in pure Python-speak: "Obviously, we were dealing with a bird that is bereft of life, but the tricky bit was establishing it was a parrot."
55 million years on, its mythical status is no more. It has ceased to be.