The Monty Python circus keeps rolling on after 40 years (USA Today newspaper)
The Monty Python circus keeps rolling on after 40 years (USA Today newspaper)
By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY (18-10-2009)
A 40th anniversary celebration is a bit conventional for Monty Python.
"We should have had the 37⅓ anniversary or the 41½ anniversary; 40 seems too predictable for Python," says Michael Palin, one of six members of the comedy troupe that launched Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969. "On the other hand, we're grateful for people who love the show still and get very excited.
But 40 it is, commemorated by a six-part documentary, Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut) (IFC, Sunday-Friday, 9 ET/PT); a book, Monty Python Live!, which chronicles the touring days and sketches in the 1970s; and, starting Friday, a 10-day channel dedicated to Python on Sirius XM Radio. And tonight, the five surviving members — Palin, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones (Graham Chapman died in 1989) — will be honored in New York City by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Idle, in the spirit of Python irreverence, isn't much for honors. "I used to say, 'I'm sorry. I'm only accepting posthumous awards.' Otherwise, you're stuck with these extremely tedious things where people tell you about yourself," says Idle, who isn't necessarily keen about reminiscing. "It's like talking about sex. It's more fun to do than to talk about."
Others would think awards are fitting for a group that hasn't performed together in more than 25 years yet remains popular across cultures and generations. "I keep bumping into people with children and they all keep saying, 'Oh, my kid, he just discovered Python.' And I say, 'How old is he?' And, invariably, 11 is the number," Gilliam says.
In addition to the original show and films including The Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and And Now for Something Completely Different, Python fans have seen comic bits reassembled in the Tony-winning Spamalot and a limited run of An Evening Without Monty Python, testament to the timeless stew of absurdity, whimsy and farce with sides of edge and erudition.
Idle, with composer John Du Prez, was behind both shows. Of the original works in Evening, he says: "We decided to put them out there and see if they were still funny. The answer is yes." Gilliam's fatalistic take: "If we're going to be ripped off, it might as well be one of us doing it."
Hank Azaria became a Python fan at 11; later, he starred in Spamalot. "I think it's fair to call their stuff timeless and classic," says the actor, noting that Holy Grail bits in the musical drew a great audience response. "Good writing really holds up."
Interviews, films, sketches
The six-hour Almost the Truth tracks the six from their youth — five hail from the U.K., Gilliam from Minnesota — to the four-season TV series, Monty Python's Flying Circus, to the films. The IFC "Python-a-thon" also will feature Holy Grail, Brian and Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl.
The documentary contains extensive interviews with surviving members, archival footage of Chapman and comments by Jimmy Fallon, Eddie Izzard, Stephen Merchant, Lorne Michaels and others. It shows the collaboration — and the conflicts and troubles, such as Gilliam's and Jones' directorial struggles on Holy Grail and Chapman's alcohol problem.
DVD and Blu-ray versions, out Oct. 27, include some legendary sketches, including The Parrot Sketch, The Cheese Shop, Spanish Inquisition, The Fish Slapping Dance, The Lumberjack Song and the Ministry of Silly Walks.
What made them classics? "The dead parrot became a classic because of the brilliance of my writing, and the Silly Walk sketch became a classic because of the brilliance of my performance, in spite of Michael Palin's performances," Cleese harrumphs in an e-mail interview.
Four Pythons will continue to celebrate the Ruby Jubilee (as Idle calls it) when Gilliam, Jones and Palin join Idle for the oratorio Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy), rooted in Brian, on Oct. 23 at London's Royal Albert Hall. They will be missing Cleese. "Well, maybe not," Idle says. "He can be a bit grumpy on those occasions."
Any get-together is a rare event. Jones, Palin and Gilliam, now a British citizen, live in England, Idle and Cleese in California. "There's a balance in nature, clearly," Gilliam says. "One American equals two Englishmen."
Says Cleese, "I still contact my Python friends, whenever I remember their names — some are more difficult than others, but none of them is easy."
Jones is surprised at Python's durability. "I don't think any of us thought when we made the TV shows that we would still be doing interviews about the show and films 40 years later. It's a bit of luck it's happened."
No current events, 'just antics'
Specifically, he says, Python-mania almost ended before it started. Flying Circus premiered just after BBC1 switched to color, Jones says. A black-and-white series could have quickly become dated and lost appeal to later generations, he says. More significantly, the videotapes containing the shows were scheduled to be erased and reused.
"So we smuggled the tapes out of the BBC and made VCR tapes of them," Jones says. "For six months, I thought the only record of the shows was going to be in my cellar." But after the British run ended in 1974, Python found a huge new audience on U.S. public television.
Cleese attributes Python's longevity to a combination of original work and comic stereotypes recognizable in other cultures.
Python tweaked a still-stuffy British society but avoided topical humor, which lets today's fans enjoy it without having a knowledge of, say, English politics in the 1970s. "We followed a satire boom in England, and therefore, we couldn't do satire," Idle says. "Our humor had to be generalized, so it was satire about generalized comedy figures rather than particular names" future generations might not recognize.
Says Palin: "There was a lot of pure farce, just antics. You didn't have to know anything about the Spanish Inquisition. You'd just see guys coming in at the wrong time and getting the words wrong."
Save for some precincts of cable (along with Fox's Family Guy), Gilliam says performers today don't have as much creative room. "Here were six guys doing what they wanted," he says. "No managers, no agents, no studio executives, no marketing people saying, 'Go for this demographic, go for that audience.' Six guys making each other laugh and having the freedom to do so, and the BBC's willingness to put it on the air."
As far as Pythonic signs in today's performers, Gilliam sees kinship with Family Guy and South Park. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone "say they're my children in animation. They continue to be far more outrageous than Python."
Conversely, Jones says there is much comic talent today but no Python descendants. "I don't really see it. I think we kind of stultified other people. They'd say, 'Oh well, they've done that.' "
Cleese doesn't, either, "but that's because I don't watch much comedy these days, as I get better laughs from Sean Hannity's show."
For all the silliness, the Oxford- and Cambridge-heavy troupe has eclectic skills and interests, too. Palin, the host of numerous travel documentaries, is president of the Royal Geographical Society. Gilliam's latest directorial effort, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus with Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, opens at Christmas.
Jones, a writer and lecturer who feels "a burning need" to restore the reputation of King Richard II, says his interest in the Middle Ages dovetailed with Holy Grail. "In the original screenplay, half took place in medieval times and half took place in the present day. I think they found the Holy Grail in Harrods because that's the store that has everything," Jones says. "I suggested to the others, 'Why don't we set it all in the Middle Ages?' And to my surprise, everybody agreed."
They didn't always; Cleese and Jones could agitate each other. "I think John knew he could wind me up because I tended to explode, and he liked playing games with people," Jones says. But "because we all thought a lot of what each other did, everybody had a respect for the other writers. So if they said it's not funny, well, you thought, 'Oh, it's not funny.' "
But one endeavor they could all agree on: "We all enjoyed getting into drag," Palin says. "Whatever they might say, we enjoyed slipping a dress on and wrestling in the mud."