The Monty Python team got into hot water over their 1979 life of Jesus spoof, Life of Brian. Now, though, the team might reflect ruefully on Christ’s words that “a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country.”
None of the five surviving Pythons would describe themselves as prophets. But they can’t have failed to notice a distinct lack of honor in their own country’s press comments on their much-publicized reunion show.
The Guardian blasted, “Rock bands, such as the Rolling Stones, may feel they can get away with touring songs about pulling teenaged chicks when they are well into their 60s and 70s, but the Pythons should be sharp enough to know better.”
Nonetheless, “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” opens in the London Arena on July 1 and runs for 10 more nights. The very final performance will be screened live in movie theaters around the world, including 500 in the U.S.
Tickets for the first performance sold out in a record 43.5 seconds, but the enthusiasm of fans has not prevented a distinctly negative narrative from emerging. According to this reading, the reunion is a cynical exercise.
As soon as the show was announced, British newspapers reported that the gang was doing it only for the money, in particular to recoup legal bills after losing a court case last year over royalties for Eric Idle’s Python stage musical, Spamalot.
One British paper reported last month that their long-standing musical collaborator, Neil Innes, was also considering suing the Pythons for unpaid royalties (though this story was neither followed up nor corroborated).
A lackluster press conference to announce the event, in which the five Pythons seemed to radiate mild boredom, didn’t help. A chat show appearance to promote the show, in which John Cleese poured his drink over the host and ended up slowly flicking cocktail nibbles at him, added a bizarre twist to the pre-publicity.
Even odder, Michael Palin confessed that “a lot of Python was crap,” adding, “We put stuff in there that was not really that good, but fortunately there were a couple of things that everyone remembers while they’ve forgotten the dross.”
The sole American Python, the artist, film and now opera director Terry Gilliam, may have added to this dismal mood music. In London’s Evening Standard, he called the thought of the reunion “depressing” and questioned the Pythons’ sharpness and the relevance of their humor now that they themselves have become “establishment” figures.
Others have been asking if the Pythons were ever that funny. This dismissive spirit is summed up in a sideswipe by the Mail on Sunday’s conservative, contrarian columnist, Peter Hitchens, brother of the late U.S.-based British controversialist Christopher Hitchens. “I never wanted to have any human rights,” he wrote when the show was announced, “but surely the planned revival of Monty Python violates every single one of them.”
Hitchens insists this was just a joke, but his attitude raises uncomfortable questions even for those of us who became avid teenage fans in 1969 when the team forced its way into British popular consciousness with bizarre sketches about flying sheep and a superhero who turns into a bicycle repairman “whenever bicycles are threatened by international Communism.”
Hitchens has picked up on a more general Python-skeptic strand. “The attraction of much of it, like Beatles music, is a mystery to many, not just me,” he tells Newsweek. Python-unbelief dates back to the show’s heyday. Richard Ingrams, founder of the satirical magazine Private Eye, needled Cleese with his scathing criticism, leading to Cleese using Ingrams’s name for a guest caught inflating a plastic sex doll in his sitcom Fawlty Towers.
So is this just a money-spinning stunt by a bunch of cash-strapped, superannuated has-beens who don’t really want to do it? Has their wacky form of humor, like Cleese’s dead parrot, expired and gone to meet its maker? Has the team rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible? Should this be an ex-sketch show?
Cleese, Gilliam, Palin, Idle and Terry Jones are all in their 70s now. Are they capable of recapturing the old magic? Was the humor really as magical as all that?
The received wisdom is that their humor was “subversive” and “irreverent.” But how subversive was it in the social revolution taking place in the late ’60s, and what did it actually subvert? What did all their irreverence amount to? What, in short, was the meaning of Python?
First broadcast in Britain in 1969, Monty Python’s Flying Circus ran for three seasons under its original title, clocking up 39 episodes, each packed with zany sketches loosely linked by Gilliam’s surreal animations. A fourth series of six episodes, called simply Monty Python and sans Cleese (often regarded as the dominant presence), aired in 1974. The team’s first feature film, sketches collated under their catchphrase And Now for Something Completely Different, was released in 1971.
After the TV show had finished its run, the team reassembled in 1975 to make a low-budget Arthurian spoof, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Monty Python’s Life of Brian came next, in 1979, and stirred up great controversy. In Britain, 39 local authorities banned it as blasphemous. In New York, movie theaters were picketed by protesting rabbis and nuns.
The Pythons have always rejected claims the film mocks Christianity, arguing that it parodies Hollywood religious epics while poking fun at religious hysteria in general. Their last film, Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life, a collection of new sketches and songs, was released in 1983 and included such gross moments as Mr. Creosote, a monstrous glutton played by Jones, eating so much he explodes, spraying his internal organs around a tony restaurant.
Between 1976 and 1981, members of the troupe appeared in shows on behalf of Amnesty International, known collectively as The Secret Policeman’s Ball. But their last stage performance as an ensemble came in 1980, recorded in the 1982 movie Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, and the last time the whole team appeared together in public (minus Graham Chapman who died of throat cancer in 1989) was 25 years ago in an interview-with-sketches hosted by Robert Klein at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado.
The team’s post-Python careers have enjoyed mixed success. Cleese’s Fawlty Towers, based on a dreadful small hotel the team once stayed in, was voted No. 1 of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes by the British Film Institute, and he has appeared in over 60 movies, including the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, as gizmo specialist “R,” successor to “Q.”
Palin and Jones co-wrote a series of spoof Edwardian boys’ adventure stories, Ripping Yarns, with Palin taking the lead in each. After a successful movie career, acting, writing and directing, Palin reinvented himself as a presenter of TV travel shows. His unassuming, genial good humor has made him something of a “national treasure” in Britain.
Jones has had fewer post-Python successes, although he has acted in, written and directed a variety of film and TV projects, including historical documentaries, and he writes children’s fiction.
Idle also created his own TV comedies, Rutland Weekend Television (Rutland is the smallest and most obscure county in England), which led to All You Need Is Cash, a mockumentary about a Beatles-like band called the Rutles. It was his idea—and his energy and persuasiveness—that turned The Holy Grail into Spamalot, a huge success on Broadway, in London and around the world.
Python proved to be a launchpad for Gilliam’s career as a film director. There have been one or two financial disasters along the way, but he astonished audiences with fantasies such as Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. His outlandish production of Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini opened in London on June 5.
The job of coordinating and constructing the latest—and perhaps final—Python show has fallen to Idle, famous among Python devotees as the insinuating, sex-obsessed stranger in the pub. His “Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more!” quickly became a national catchphrase in Britain.
Idle also created the drunken philosophers’ song (the witty ditty in which the great thinkers of world history are all characterized as drunks: “There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya ’bout the raising of the wrist / Socrates himself was permanently pissed”) and the insanely chirpy “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” sung by the massed chorus of crucifixion victims at the end of Life of Brian.
Idle is defiant. “I never read the British press,” he tells Newsweek from his office in Los Angeles. “They’re bonkers.”
No one, in fact, disputes that the motive for the reunion is financial, although accounts of the nature of the Pythons’ problems have varied. Veteran comedy writer Barry Cryer, known to the Pythons as “Uncle Baz,” was the warm-up man for their very first show, and he has remained friends with the team ever since. “You hear conflicting stories from them,” he tells Newsweek. “Dear Mike Palin says, ‘We need the money,’ and Terry Jones says, ’I’m paying off my mortgage.’ John Cleese has his alimony to pay.”
Cryer is referring to Cleese’s acrimonious 2009 divorce from his third blonde American wife, Alyce Faye Eichelberger. The settlement reportedly cost him $13 million—over half his fortune—with a further alimony payment of $1 million a year for seven years. Wheeled from the court (he’d undergone a knee operation), a bitter Cleese remarked that the deal was “worth every penny” and claimed he had got off lightly. “Think what I’d have had to pay Alyce if she’d contributed anything to the relationship,” he told a friend, film director Michael Winner. Cleese has since remarried.
Jones’s financial difficulties also arise indirectly from the breakup of a marriage, as he took on a heavy mortgage after divorcing his wife of 39 years to marry Anna Soderstrom, a Swedish dancer 40 years his junior.
Idle is unambiguous and forthright. “Of course it’s for the fucking money!” he says. “It’s to clear off a legal debt [the legal costs incurred by the Spamalot case], so of course that’s true. But only in England would they pretend you should be doing a show for nothing. Nobody in show business works for nothing.”
The idea for a final Python show came up when Idle consulted his friend Jim Beach, manager of the rock band Queen. “He told us if we did a night at O2 we could clear all this [debt],” says Idle.
“Suddenly a boring business discussion became a creative meeting, and everybody got very excited,” he continues. “It was that simple. When we decided to do it, everybody got very happy. It is a wonderful thing. To be able to get together with old friends from 50 years ago and do Python for a last time, to come out, perform it, send it ’round the world and say, ‘That’s it. That’s the final night,’ I think that’s tremendously fortunate. Nobody ever has the opportunity to do that in show business. You never know it’s your last night.”
Another old friend of the Pythons and former collaborator is St. James’s, London, art dealer Chris Beetles. “I sold a lot of pictures to John until he had all his alimony problems,” he tells Newsweek. “Get any of the Pythons on their own and they’re all really happy about the show. They’re thrilled. I saw Michael Palin the other day, and he was like a spring lamb.”
When aging musicians give concerts, they usually have to balance their fans’ desire to hear their greatest hits with their own wish to play new material. This has not been a problem for Idle, who tells me he has spent nine months writing the script.
“There’s no new material,” he says, “but there are new ways of doing things, and there are sketches we’ve never done live before. You can’t write better Python sketches than the best of Python. Nobody could, because they get better in memory. It’s the cream of the material, and the others are saying how happy they are with it.”
The innovations, it seems, have all come in new forms of presentation. Idle says the set design, by Gilliam, will be “like a necklace with the sketches as the pearls. The main secret is [choreographer] Arlene Phillips. We’ve got beautiful young singers and dancers, including lots of hot girls. There’ll be a lot of energy onstage. Musical revue is a classic old form. I’ve called it ‘Déjà Revue.’ It’s got a lot of surprises.”
Some critics have claimed that, apart from Gilliam’s extraordinary graphic links, little of their material was ever particularly original, though the Pythons have never made that claim. Two shows in particular are regularly cited as influences, along with their spin-offs. The Goon Show, a radio comedy starring Peter Sellers that ran for nearly 10 years through the 1950s, included material as anarchic, surreal and just plain daft as anything dreamed up by the Pythons. Goon Show regular Spike Milligan brought this dadaist type of humor to British television long before the Python team formed.
According to Barry Cryer, Milligan, who was bipolar, oscillated in his feelings toward his young disciples. “One day he’d say, ‘Those boys are flying the flag.’ And then the next day he’d say, 'Those bastards ripped me off!’ But they always took their hats off to Spike Milligan, especially the way their sketches didn’t finish but wandered into another one.”
The other great influence on the Pythons was the 1960 stage revue Beyond the Fringe, starring Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller from Cambridge University alongside Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore from Oxford. During one performance, Cook mocked Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to his face as the premier sat laughing in his seat. But it was not just the political satire in Beyond the Fringe that cut deep. The show ruthlessly satirized a range of British types, usually from the professional middle classes: politicians, military officers and clergymen.
“Beyond the Fringe changed my life,” says Idle. “When I saw it in 1962, I laughed and laughed. I didn’t realize you were allowed to laugh at all this.” Python arrived on the crest of a wave of disrespect for such risible authority figures but widened the range of targets with pokes at pompous lawyers, civil servants, schoolmasters and chartered accountants (a trade Cleese’s father had encouraged him to pursue).
Hitchens sees this lack of deference to respectable members of the community as part of the problem with the Pythons. “Irreverence has been supposed, since about 1963, to be a virtue,” he tells me. “Is it? What about conformist irreverence, directed against manners, customs and institutions that are actually valuable?”
Attitudes toward this seem to vary with the individual Pythons. According to Cryer, “Michael Palin always said about Python, ‘We weren’t trying to change anything.’ There was no arrogance there. They just said, ’We’ll do what we think is funny and hope other people like it.’”
Idle is more combative. “I was at a foul boarding school for 12 years,” he tells Newsweek, referring to the Royal School Wolverhampton in England’s industrial Midlands, where his mother sent him at age 7. “We called it Colditz. It teaches you to be an optimist,” he jokes, “because life has been better ever since.”
Overbearing schoolmasters became favorite Python targets. In Life of Brian, Cleese, as a Roman centurion, catches Chapman, as Brian, writing anti-Roman graffiti. He grabs him by the ear and makes him correct his inaccurate Latin before ordering him to write out the sentence “Romans go home” 100 times.
Railing against authority was just part of the Pythons’ shtick. The new freedoms of the ’60s and ’70s “all had to be fought for,” says Idle, “and the ground was reluctantly given up. We used to really upset the middle classes—épater le bourgeoisie. Women would scream at us, ‘I hate you lot!’ People see us as cuddly and soft now, but I miss really upsetting the middle classes. I hope we can still be a bit disgusting.”
Over the years, most Pythons have agreed with Cryer that, unlike Beyond the Fringe, their satire was never overtly political. Their Oxbridge backgrounds and predilection for jokes about philosophers have attracted claims of intellectual and class snobbery, yet their humor does not require any specialist knowledge to be funny, and their targets range from idiots with handkerchiefs on their heads to squawking housewives to bishops, judges and government ministers.
Over the years, the Pythons have repeatedly acknowledged their debt to the diverse comedians and comic traditions that fed into their humor. They have also confirmed that their willingness to show naked women’s breasts helped attract cohorts of adolescent boys in a pre-Internet porn era. Certainly they were the first show to bring newer comic styles to a prime-time audience on the second most popular of Britain’s then three channels.
“There are certain shows that seem like watersheds,” says Cryer, and it may have had a lot to do with the sheer variety of comic styles incorporated and given a surreal edge in a completely unpredictable manner. Perhaps the ultimate meaning of Python lay in their willingness to trash any boundary of cultural convention that stood in their way—in the form of a grotesquely violent animation in the case of Gilliam’s graphics.
Whatever the limitations of the Pythons’ humor identified by dissidents, it has resonated down the generations, attracting legions of younger fans, and, despite its unmitigated Englishness, it has spread abroad. According to Idle, the show snuck into America through the backdoor of local PBS stations, where it built up a cult following, especially on college campuses. If you want to grasp the show’s global impact, consider the fact that Elvis Presley, no less, liked to quote favorite lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
“That’s very common!” says Idle when I mention that I used to be able to sing every verse of his drunken philosophers’ song. “In America, people used it to get through their exams. The other day I went to the opening of a Roy Orbison documentary, and Roy Orbison fucking did that song. That is so cool.”
Other American fans include comedy actor, writer and director Seth Green, creator of Robot Chicken, who believes the show got away with a lot with American audiences because nobody took it seriously. “I don’t think anybody took Flying Circus to be as filthy and subversive as it is, because it’s so silly you don’t view it as politically incendiary,” he said in a 2009 documentary about the troupe. “But it is. It’s all those things.”
“When I saw the show, it was a huge moment, to see the freedom with which they were doing their comedy,” says Saturday Night Live creater Lorne Michaels. “They presupposed a level of intelligence in their audience. You couldn’t do that in America.”
Playboy’s London chief, Victor Lownes, was so taken with the dadaist humor, he persuaded Hugh Hefner to back the first Python film. Actor Dan Aykroyd recalled seeing it with a friend. “Maybe we smoked something; maybe we didn’t. It didn’t matter,” he said. “It was just solid, absurdist, out-there humor.”
The Pythons have collected new fans across the generations. When I interviewed him about the troupe’s 25th anniversary in 1994, actor Steve Coogan recited the entire “Cheese Shop” sketch word for word and unprompted. “My mum would get me to replicate the previous night’s show,” said Coogan in 2009. “There were no video recorders then, so I became like a VCR. I would get angry if I heard other people doing it and getting it wrong.”
Another generation on, comedian Russell Brand has recalled being exposed to Python when young. “The virus of it grew in me as a child,” he says. “In a way, it’s quite sophisticated. But as a kid you can appreciate the silliness of it.”
Despite intermittent reports of tensions, rifts and minor feuds over the years, all members of the team claim to spend their time giggling whenever they get together. They certainly seem to enjoy winding each other up. Iain Johnstone, who made a documentary about the Pythons and co-wrote the screenplay, with Cleese, of Cleese’s movie Fierce Creatures, recalls an incident on the set of Life of Brian when Idle “arrived with a glorious American girlfriend, Tania [who became his wife], so he got a bit of baiting. Eric had turned vegetarian, so Terry Gilliam dressed his market stall [in the sketch] with rotting carcasses.”
Idle acknowledges that today, with a short rehearsal period in an arena far larger than any they have ever played before, “we’re going to have to hit the ground running,” but he rejects the idea that their age will impede them. “I used to see the Crazy Gang [an anarchic British stage troupe] when they were old,” he recalls, “and they were still terrific. This is that experience. People will be able to say, ‘Before they died, I saw them all do it.’ You don’t stop being funny just because you’re old.”
So what is Idle’s final comment on all the negative pre-publicity back home? “I like to rise beneath it,” he says, laughing.