By Jeb D.
When it was announced earlier this year that there would be a live theatrical broadcast of the final performance of the Monty Python “farewell” shows from London’s O2 arena, people that know me assumed I’d be first in line for tickets. My siblings and I were what you might call “first generation” American Python fans, already wearing out vinyl copies of their LP’s before the TV show even appeared Stateside, and Python quotes are very much lingua franca among my friends and family (I’ve been known to greet failure with a growled “Pencil droppers, eh?”, while my wife’s go-to reaction whenever anyone on TV or in a movie receives a particularly sharp blow is “Zing! Right in ze toast!”). It wasn’t just the cost of the ticket that was putting me off, though (something around $25 US dollars): I’ve never been partial to “Greatest Hits” tours of any kind; it always depresses me when a band is no longer sufficiently interested in what they’re doing to keep exploring new material. It’s particularly a concern for fans of comedians, since even good jokes aren’t always worth repeating, particularly 40-year old ones.
Comparing the Pythons to musicians is apt, though: again, if, like me, you first experienced the Pythons in an exclusively aural environment, you listened over and over not for the jokes, but for the rhythm and music of their delivery (I’m not the only Python fan who often finds the timing and performances more satisfactory in their LP versions than on TV or film). To us, they were like the British Firesign Theater, and repeated listenings could heighten, rather than dull, our appreciation. So I couldn’t really dismiss the idea of yet another go-round with these routines out of hand.
That said, I know I can’t do the same things today that I could when I was a young’un, and 45 years after the TV series ended, and more than two decades on from their last large-scale public performance, it was worth asking if even a well-intentioned Python reunion would do anything more than remind us all of the creaking passage of time… and who wanted to spend big bucks just to get even more depressed about that? But late last month, some movie theaters began showing the recording of that final show at “normal” prices; I’d have been hesitant even then, but I’ve got a connection that gets me into movies for free (legitimately, honest), so I figured that checking it out at that price was more or less obligatory.
The version of the show making its way to theaters is, evidently, uncut from the live broadcast: it begins with a static graphic laid over sounds of the audience being seated (and, later, the fifteen-minute intermission counts down in real time). After maybe half a minute of audience sounds, we hear Michael Palin voicing a bored weather forecast over the title card, then announcing that he never really wanted to be a weather forecaster, naturally leading into a performance of the “Lumberjack Song” (still with just the title card for a visual), the first of two we’ll have during the evening. It’s not brilliant, but the spoken introduction is one of the very few bits of new material we’re offered.
When the camera finally goes live at O2, conductor John DuPrez (the former Modern Romance trumpeter who’s worked extensively with the Pythons over the years) leads his small orchestra in an overture consisting of familiar themes from the TV series (“The Money Programme,” “Eric the Half A Bee,” etc.). Even before the curtain goes up, it’s a little startling to see just how big a production this is clearly going to be. Makes sense, of course—O2’s a big place—but it would be hard to imagine anything less attuned to the cheesy low-rent ethic of the TV series. And before the Pythons themselves appear, we’re treated to the first of many lavishly costumed and choreographed production numbers, with a dozen or more dancers, that will tend to dominate the show; clever as they are, the idea of using Python songs like “Sit On My Face” and “I Like Chinese” to “subvert” musical theatre conventions is pretty old-hat by now.
Instead, they tend to reinforce the idea that, for better or worse, it’s principally Eric Idle we have to thank for Python’s continued prominence in popular culture, long after its members stopped creating new material together. He’s always been the most musically-inclined of the group (and given that this was filmed at the end of a 2-week run, his singing voice is in amazing shape), and that musical hook (along with Terry Gilliam’s distinctive visuals) has made Python, as a concept, easily recognizable, and broadened their merchandising reach, allowing them to be endlessly repackaged, recontextualized, and Spamalotized. But it feels downright weird to watch a kick-line of dancers do the “Silly Walk,” particularly when we know that John Cleese no longer can; after a while, all the dance numbers just run together in stultifying irrelevance.
The choice of “Four Yorkshiremen” to open the show “proper” is a bit awkward. This is a piece that Cleese and the late Graham Chapman originally created (with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman) prior to the formation of Python, and it’s been a curtain-raiser in their occasional live shows. It’s a great bit, with four comfortable self-made men trying to top each other with tales of their hardscrabble youths, but it’s also one of the few better-known Python sketches with a prominent acting role for Chapman (while he co-wrote many of Python’s best routines, it’s usually Palin, Cleese, and Idle who are the featured performers), and Cleese’s inability/lack of interest at mustering even a passable Yorkshire accent in his place (not that I’m an expert, but there’s no comparison between his and those of Idle, Palin, and Terry Jones) underscores right up front the impossibility of recapturing the original Python spirit. Now, it can be argued, they’re not really trying to do that, they’re just taking a victory lap, sharing a last call with their fans. But take that to its logical extreme, and the entire enterprise is beyond criticism of any kind: it’s Woody Allen’s “ninety percent of success is just showing up,” and it’s not pleasant to think of that being sufficient for this group of (once) iconoclastic comic geniuses.
It’s also disquieting to see the aging Pythons in the brutally clear hi-def close-up we’re treated to here. That’s not to say that the chaps aren’t in fine shape for their respective ages (Cleese was born scarcely a month after Britain entered World War II), but Henry V’s on to something when he says “How ill white hairs become a fool and jester”; in our culture at any rate, the gray hair, the deeply lined face and sagging jowls connote the worries and infirmities of age, and it dampens much of the fun to see Palin attempt to recreate the fresh-faced innocent who walked into an “Argument Clinic” forty years ago, while looking like a harried grandfather.
Now, it may just be that they were finally at the end of the run of shows, but it’s nice to see that, at least in their individual performances, there’s little sense of the (understandable) resistance that many of the Pythons evidently had to Idle’s suggestion of doing these shows in the first place. Jones was supposedly the last to finally agree, which is easy to believe when you watch him reading his lines off a card during the “Crunchy Frog” sketch. But despite being pretty up-front about doing this for the money (he gets a mild ribbing from his mates about his alimony woes), Cleese brings energy to most of his appearances (in particular, when opposite Palin).
Gilliam has always seemed to find the continued interest in the troupe something of an annoyance, but despite being probably the busiest of any of them outside the group, he’s willing to throw himself into the old silliness with real gusto (his bearded drag outfit while playing the piano is a highlight), and he essays the sole “Gumby” appearance with enthusiasm. Palin is often perceived/parodied as the “nicest man in England” (see: BBC 4’s Holy Flying Circus), and he does nothing to dispel that, his perpetual good cheer almost trumping the lines in his face. In fact, if half of the show’s near three-hour runtime consists of Eric Idle’s Greatest Musical Hits, the actual selection of sketches seems heavily weighted toward those with Palin as a key player (though, sadly, never in the persona of Luigi Vercotti).
There’s also a fair number of film clips interspersed with the production numbers to help cover costume/scene changes, and give the gents a rest. Apart from the “fish-slapping dance” (often cited as the various Pythons’ favorite bit ever), and a brief drop-in clip of Chapman’s stuffy general officer, they’re mostly the familiar Olympic sports-themed filmed routines originally done for a 1969 German TV broadcast, and trotted out regularly since (as a side note, maybe it’s a generational thing, but continuing to use the “Munich: 1972” title card in reference to the Olympics has much the same effect as would one reading “New York: 9/11/01” in a film about air travel). The one completely new piece of material is a short film, which while it features none of the Pythons, is completely in the spirit of the TV series, and a high point of the show.
Carol Cleveland remains a wonderful straight woman for the Pythons, and though her makeup seems alarmingly overdone, both her timing, and her legs, remain marvels of British entertainment. There are also “guest appearances” from Eddie Izzard and Mike Meyers, but they’re barely cameos.
Up above, I compared the Pythons to an aging band trotting out its greatest hits, but even if I’m not always partial to that concept, it’s something that can be done well or badly. A few years back, my wife and I received the gift of tickets to the Police reunion show. We’d seen them before, and so our expectations for this belated cash-grab were modest, but you couldn’t deny that, for three guys who evidently hated each other, and had nothing new to bring to the experience, they were more than capable of reproducing the sound, and the energy, of their glory days. Sadly, that’s not the case with this film: even allowing for the occasional blown line here and there to throw off the timing, there’s just no comparison, in terms of pacing, inspiration, or execution, with what they were capable of once. Idle and Palin come off the best, and Cleese is mostly game when he’s playing off Palin, but hanging over everything is the question that the various members of the troupe have asked themselves over the years: Why do people want to see us do the same shit over and over again?
It’s not that they retroactively dismiss the craft that went into making the TV series or the movies, but they came from a generation where you didn’t (couldn’t) preserve comedy (or any form of TV entertainment) for repeated viewing. Though they took inspiration from a wide range of comic predecessors, their structural model was not the six-shows-a-week theatricals like Beyond the Fringe (though many of their sketches would fit right in there), but the quick-hitting anarchy of the Goons, translated to TV with added visuals. And, of course, now that we do have all the original series available for endless rewatching, it makes the idea of reviving these routines yet again feel even more redundant.
I took a look at the pre-order info for the DVD/Blu-ray release of this performance, and I don’t see any indication of “bonus features,” but unless there’s something pretty substantial in the way of additional material, I think I’ll be passing anyway… and come to think of it, I’m not sure that any kind of “behind the scenes” feature wouldn’t just underscore the melancholy tone of watching Idle, Cleese, Palin, Jones, and Gilliam pretend to still be Monty Python. It’s tempting to say that at least I’m glad I saw Monty Python Live (Mostly), since it was free, but I’m not sure that’s what I mean. It might be more accurate to say that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the chance that it turned out great—I knew there was almost no prospect of that, and it didn’t. But at least I won’t have to trust anyone else’s judgment on that.
Jeb D. is a boring old married guy whose comics background includes attending the very first San Diego Comic-Con, being lectured on Doc Savage by Jim Steranko, and fetching an ashtray for Jack Kirby. After a quarter-century in the music biz, he pursues more sedate activities these days, and will certainly have a blog or Facebook account or some such thing one day.