THE announcement everyone had been waiting for began in typically anarchic style as five old men took the stage and began talking loudly over one another. Then the comedy legends swapped identities, sitting down behind each other’s place cards, as Warwick Davis, star of West End musical Spamalot, announced a one-off live reunion of the surviving members of Monty Python.
In the past they had insisted there would be no more shows so long as late Python Graham Chapman remained dead (although Eric Idle said they were talking to his agent about terms).
Now, however, the famously feud-prone group – Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones – said the lure of filthy lucre had prompted them to set aside old enmities, and they would be performing next July at the O2 Arena in London, a venue more commonly associated with rock gods such as the Rolling Stones. To prove they still have what it takes, they joshed and japed their way through a 30-minute press conference, taking nothing seriously and even managing to work in one of their catchphrases – “We weren’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition” – in response to a question from a Spanish journalist.
If their madcap antics weren’t quite as funny as they used to be, if they appeared to be working a little too hard to shed the gravitas their successful solo careers have bestowed upon them, that meant nothing to the legions of obsessed fans who can still recite the Dead Parrot sketch four decades on. Those devotees will be sitting, credit cards in their hands, waiting for the tickets to go on sale tomorrow morning, even as a slight shudder runs down the spines of those who have spent the years avoiding pub bores who launch into the Nudge Nudge Wink Wink routine at the slightest hint of a double entendre.
That’s the thing about Monty Python; they always divided the nation. To their fans they are the Beatles of comedy, geniuses who revolutionised the form with their surreal animation and stream-of-consciousness style, and whose influence could be seen in every satirical show for the next four decades, from The Young Ones through The Simpsons and Father Ted to The Mighty Boosh. With classic sketches such as The Four Yorkshiremen, Spam and Dirty Fork they touched on the absurdities of life and brought the avant-garde into provincial living rooms. To their detractors, however, they were not comedic Messiahs, just a bunch of very naughty public school boys, who spawned a seemingly endless list of irritating catchphrases. The strange combination of intellectualism and slapstick nonsense was a turn-off for those who preferred their humour rough and ready.
Even amongst those who treasure the legacy of Monty Python, opinion is split on a reunion. Can they breathe fresh life into jokes which, however cutting edge in the 1970s, are now old hat? “They’re comedy gods. They will always be one step ahead, they will always pull something out the bag that’s going to amaze us,” says John Wood, who was awarded the title of the World’s Greatest Monty Python fan in 2012 after detailing his lifelong obsession with their work, an obsession that has seen him travel to Teddington Lock, scene of the fish-slapping dance, and see Spamalot, Idle’s musical “rip-off of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, 11 times. “This could be their finest hour.”
But others fear the performers’ growing frailty – they have a combined age of 357 – will make the more physical elements of their act impossible (Cleese has already conceded a hip replacement operation rules out any repeat of the Ministry for Silly Walks) and that the humour – once so risqué – will seem outdated in an era where anything goes. There are also doubts that a bunch of egotists who found it difficult to get on even at the height of their success will be able to work harmoniously together after all these years, even with pound signs in their eyes.
In their glory days, the Monty Python team were the undisputed kings of comedy. Crashing on to our screens in the late 1960s, they were like nothing TV viewers had seen before. Though other sketch shows, such as Do Not Adjust Your Set – which Jones, Palin and Idle had been involved in – and Beyond The Fringe had been quite zany, and Spike Milligan had experimented with subverting the sketch show, the Monty Python team threw away the rulebook. They often ended a sketch halfway through by having a prop drop out of the sky, or with Cleese saying: “And now for something completely different”, which would become the title of their first film. Like the Beatles, whose Yellow Submarine film came out shortly before the first series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was aired, they also experimented with animation, using Terry Gilliam’s stop-motion sequences – most famously Cupid’s foot crashing down from the sky – to segue from one sketch to another.
Even after Cleese, who was finding it increasingly difficult to work with Chapman, opted out and the TV series came to an end, the success of the Pythons continued with three more movies: The Holy Grail, Life Of Brian (both of which regularly feature on lists of the top 50 comedies of all time), and The Meaning Of Life.
Their enduring appeal seems to lie in their ability to pose philosophical questions while being silly. “I love the fact Monty Python makes you take life less seriously,” says Wood. “‘Always look on the bright side of life’ is their message. They are like revolutionaries without guns, intellectual revolutionaries. They make you look afresh at things you thought were really important, until you think ‘Hang on a minute. Is that really so important after all?’
“Take the Spam, Spam and Spam sketch where you can’t order anything without spam. It’s as if there’s some invisible force that’s making them put spam in their meals. But that makes you think about life. There are other situations where you ask: ‘Why is this here?’ And you are told, ‘Well, just because’, but this makes you think, ‘Well, why can’t we just get rid of those things?’ Monty Python is mind-expanding. It is presented in an absurd style, but it’s actually making really important comments about life.”
Wood believes the appeal of their comedy, which is loved across the globe, transcends social and national boundaries because it deals with what it means to be human. He reckons it doesn’t matter that the prurience of the 1960s and 1970s has now vanished, because the humour lies in the stuff that doesn’t change, such as the sexual ingenue’s fumbling awkwardness. “If you think about the Nudge Nudge Wink Wink sketch [where a man in a pub makes constant sexual references about another drinker’s wife], at the very end he says: ‘You’ve slept with a lady, haven’t you? What’s it like?’ It turns out it’s all been bravado, he’s probably a virgin. That’s still the same today.”
Convincing though Wood is when talking about Monty Python’s greatness, he is also the embodiment of the kind of fanaticism which puts others off it. Wood owns all the TV shows, movies and albums and runs the Pythonesque blog and Twitter account. Having split up from his wife, who was not a fan, he says he hopes to find a new partner who shares his passion because his love for Monty Python is an intrinsic part of his personality.
One of the ironies is that, while many devotees seem stuck in the past, most of the surviving members of Monty Python long ago moved on. Gilliam went on to be a film director (Brazil, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen); John Cleese to make Fawlty Towers and star in movies such as A Fish Called Wanda; Palin to act and be a presenter of travel programmes; and Jones to write books and present documentaries on medieval history.
Although they have collaborated in twos and threes, the last time they performed together was for Monty Python Live At Aspen in 1998, nine years after Chapman’s death, when they turned up with an urn supposedly containing his ashes in tow. Other reunions have been mooted and then abandoned after disagreements. They argued over a sequel to The Holy Grail, a tour of the United States and most recently over Spamalot royalties, a dispute which led Idle to cut Cleese’s Voice of God from the show. As resentments and jealousies over varying fortunes grew, the insults came thick and fast, with Cleese referring to “Yoko Idle”, Gilliam mocking Cleese for constantly marrying a younger version of the same woman and Terry Jones describing Spamalot as “utterly pointless, full of air and not much to it”.
Monty Python’s legacy is indisputable, its influence ubiquitous. In an attempt to defy labels, its members created a new one. Jones perfectly articulated the paradox of their success: “We tried to do something that was so unpredictable that it had no shape and you could never say what the kind of humour was,” he said. “And I think the fact that Pythonesque is now a word in the Oxford English Dictionary shows the extent to which we failed.”
But what form should their show take? Should they rehash old classics or try to create something entirely new? At the press conference, they dropped a few hints about the show, which will be directed by Idle. Telling fans to expect “comedy, pathos, music and a tiny piece of ancient sex”, they said they would revisit their favourite hits, but in an unpredictable way.
In the past they have taken old sketches and subverted them. For example, during The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball, one of a series of benefit shows for Amnesty, they began the Parrot Sketch only for the pet shop owner [Palin] to agree with Cleese and offer him his money back.
“I don’t think we will see the old sketches again, but there’ll be a nod to the original stuff,” says Wood. “I’d like to see what’s been festering in their minds since the last time they performed. The nuggets of ideas they must have had are, hopefully, now about to bloom.”
With a DVD of the show anticipated, it seems likely new characters will enter the national consciousness and fresh catchphrases will be born. But only when the five of them take to the stage again next year will we find out if the old magic can be resuscitated. Or if it has expired, ceased to be and joined the choir invisible. «