Dear Readers:
There is a lot of confusion about whether Monty Python is really funny …………., or not!
What I mean is that some sketches like “The dead Parrot” are among the funniest things I have ever seen, and some other stuff is just plain stupid.
I have to admit that when they ARE funny, it’s some of the best comedy around!
Forty-six years after the debut of their groundbreaking sketch comedy series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus; 40 years after the premiere of their beloved film Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and one year after their most recent (and probably final) reunion show at London’s O2 arena, the surviving members of Monty Python assembled in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Monty Python Celebration.”
The line-up of the event includes screenings of all three of the troupe’s feature films (Holy Grail, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life) as well as the American premiere of The Meaning of Live, a documentary taking viewers behind the scenes of the 2014 reunion show. Yahoo TV was in the audience as Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam met the press to discuss the halcyon days of Flying Circus, which modern comedians get their seal of approval and their all-time favorite Python sketch.
Flying Circus Got Off to a Less Than Flying Start
According to the Pythons, their groundbreaking sketch comedy show happened more or less by accident. They approached the BBC saying they wanted to collaborate on a series, but when the network asked what they wanted to do, they couldn’t articulate it. Rather than toss them out, though, the Beeb wound up handing the troupe a show, a time-slot and almost total creative freedom. “We were very lucky,” says Gilliam. “There were no executives over us, so we got to do what we wanted to do. And we were a big enough gang, we could beat up any of the executives.” But the suits still made their feelings known. “There were other people who just hated it,” Cleese remembers. “I think 7 out of 9 of the executives didn’t like it.”
Funnily enough, the Pythons themselves occasionally agreed. “There was no perfect episode of the series,” Cleese remarks. “I think episode number 11 or 12 of the first series was the nearest we got. There’s always something in there that’s hilarious, and something that’s awful.” Palin credits Cleese’s then-wife, Connie Booth, with helping encourage audience laughter during that first year. “If she hadn’t been in the studio audience, we wouldn’t have gotten any laughs.” Idle suggests that the lack of laughs had to do with the audience’s expectations. “They thought they were going to see a circus because it was sold as Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” That confusion crossed borders. “The first sale of the series to a foreign country was to Pakistan,” Palin says. “They wrote back saying ‘There are no jugglers, no acrobats.’ They thought they’d bought a circus! The BBC had to refund the money.”
There Was No “I” In Team
During their heyday, Python prided itself on the way they worked separately, and then came together, rather than writing every sketch in a big scrum. “There were groups,” Idle explains. “Michael and Terry Jones, John and Graham, and I wrote alone and Terry Gilliam did his sketches. Then we’d meet at Terry Jones’s house and went through the pile of material we spent two to three weeks writing. If it was funny, we put it in the show. If it wasn’t, we’d sell it to The Two Ronnies!” (For those not up to date on ‘70s British comedy, The Two Ronnies was a comedy show that’s the antithesis of Flying Circus.) Cleese elaborated on the point, saying “Michael and Terry were interested in the flow of the show, while Graham and I were just interested in writing funny sketches. That’s what made the team work. People always forget that a team works best when people do completely different things and have different strengths and weaknesses.”
Their Favorite American Comedians Right Now are (Fake) Newsman
When asked which comedians and comedy series they thought had some of the Python spirit, the group named Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan and Key & Peele amongst others. But Idle lavished his biggest praise upon Comedy Central’s outgoing news team. “What’s interesting about America in the last few decades is that all of your news is funny now. Like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. What are you going to do now that they’re gone? And Just as the Republicans are coming back! That’s not a good idea.”
Contrary to Tabloid Reports, The Pythons Don’t Hate Each Other
The British tabloids — particularly Cleese’s least favorite paper, the Daily Mail — love to portray the comedy veterans as enemies, but all five hastened to say that’s a misreading of the facts. “We hate the Daily Mail slightly more than we hate each other,” Palin joked. Gilliam added, “We take the piss out of each other all the time, and it used to make people laugh. It doesn’t anymore — now people take it seriously.” Cleese remembered that, back in the day, “There was a lot of arguing, but it was always about the material. The British press writes this stuff about everyone. They ran a story about a time that Michael and I went to the same restaurant by accident and we sat at separate tables. As a joke, I sent him half a bottle of sparkling mineral water, and he sent me a salt shaker. And they wrote it as if we were being competitive!”
They Unanimously Pick the Fish Slapping Dance as the Best-Ever Flying Circus Sketch
Everyone has their favorite Python routine — the Lumberjack song, the Cheese Shop skit and, of course, the Dead Parrot sketch. But all five members of the group agree on one thing: the actual best-ever skit is the Fish Slapping Dance, a wordless, 20-second bit where Palin repeatedly slapped Cleese on the face with a pair of small fish. According to Idle, when the individual group members had to pick their own favorite sketches for their personal “Best of Flying Circus” lists, that was the only skit that overlapped across all five lists. Palin summed up the sketch’s appeal succinctly: “It’s short and can’t be deconstructed.”
The Monty Python Celebration at Tribeca Film Festival runs April 24 to 26 in New York City.