And Now For Something Completely Familiar

Monty Python is no more. It has ceased to be. The comedy team’s final show ever was last night at the O2 in front of thousands in house, and many thousands more via live broadcast to cinemas around the world. It has been 45 years since the six members first came together as a group to create the BBC show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Although, for all practical purposes, they haven’t functioned together as a team in over 30 years. Calls for a reunion were stemmed by the death of Graham Chapman in 1989, but some fans never gave up hope.

My experience with the brand of comedy pioneered by Python – a blend or silly, satirical and literate – started when I was only a toddler. One of my earliest televised memories is watching the bloodbath of “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days” and thinking all the dismemberment and gushing blood was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.

By the time I was old enough to truly appreciate what the boys had to offer, The Meaning of Life was in theatres. It was an entry point for me, but it was the last hurrah for Monty Python. Their final comedy record (the Contractual Obligation Album) had already been released, and their Hollywood Bowl performance had marked their final live show.

Of course, I didn’t know I’d already missed the boat. They were all still working on their own projects and there seemed to be hope for another movie. Maybe another album. Maybe another tour.

I spent much of the 1980s fiddling with a television antenna in the attic, trying to tune in the least snowy image possible from the nearest PBS station so I could record rewatchable episodes of Flying Circus on VHS. I convinced my parents to pledge 60 dollars during one of the funding campaigns so I could get a free copy of the ultra-rare first Python album. I special ordered any and all books by and about Python for special import from England through the book store in the basement of Ogilvy’s department store.

Side Note: Fucking hell does the internet eliminate all this legwork I used to do to collect rare books, films, records and shit.

I must have memorized everything they ever did. There were certainly no surprises for me when a forward-thinking high school English teacher (from actual England) played Python sketches for us in class to illustrate certain concepts of the language – “Dead Parrot” for euphemisms, “Four Yorkshiremen” for exaggeration. I already knew them all by heart, but I appreciated the effort.

I watched the movies until I was sick of them, then bought the DVDs and watched them again anyway. I followed their individual careers through thick and thin, and sat through a few film appearances even their own mothers would have skipped.

That Monty Python reunion never did happen as I’d hoped, and in time I moved on to other things, other brands of comedy that used Python as a foundation and built on it from there. I wrote one or two comedy pieces of my own that were accused of being Pythonesque, and willingly copped to it in interviews.

When the Monty Python Live (Mostly) show was announced for this year, I was strangely ambivalent. I strongly considered an overseas pilgrimage to go see the spectacle, but the time and expense involved dampened my enthusiasm. When the show was sold out in under a minute, that made my decision easier. Even when more nights were added to the run, I didn’t exactly move heaven and earth to get myself a ticket.

A live broadcast was promised, but I didn’t like the local venue and didn’t bother to reserve a seat. Other, better cinemas were added to the roster. The night before the show I had a page open in my browser, ready to buy my ticket. But then I decided to go to bed instead, sure there would still be some available come morning.

Over brunch with friends, I contemplated whether or not I would head downtown, ticketless, and see if I could grab one at the theatre. I was on the fence about attending pretty much up until I stepping into the queue and handed the box-office monkey a twenty dollar bill. In the end, I had to see it for myself, live as it happened.

It was mostly what I expected – a Python tribute show starring The Pythons themselves. And, of course, the inevitable and still lovely Carol Cleveland.

There was some new material added here and there. “Not the Noel Coward Song,” a tribute tune to penises, was expanded to include salutes to vaginas and bottoms as well. “I Like Chinese,” was completely rewritten and was no longer the dismissive ditty it once was, but more of a homage to a newly minted superpower that has risen to the forefront of geopolitics since the song was first sung. A surprising amount of material from The Meaning of Life was coopted and performed in front of an audience for the first time. Even a couple of unusual choices of very old sketches that had never been dragged onto the stage before got their first and last moment in the sun.

But other than a few surprises in the nearly three-hour (with intermission) show, it was mostly the expected staples. Staples interspersed with old television clips and a full chorus line of singers and dancers to kill time between costume changes. And plenty of celebrity cameos from famous people who wanted the bragging rights of having performed with Python once, at the last possible opportunity.

The five remaining members were up for the show to varying degrees. Gilliam and Palin remain fairly energetic performers, with the former game for physical comedy and stunt work (dangling by wires high above the stage isn’t something I’d attempt at my age, let alone his) and the latter quick on his feet with an improvised line or two to address the unexpected moments that inevitably crop up in live theatre. Cleese and Jones had a rougher time of it but had fun with their failings, even as they sometimes struggled to remember the next line in sketches they’d performed a thousand times before. Idle stood, as he always has, in the middle of the pack, game to cash in and squeeze every red penny out of past glories.

The material, old and familiar, fit like a well-worn pair of slippers. It was comfortable, but unchallenging, and too well known to be funny anymore. My only laughs came from off-the-cuff reactions to cock-ups and a couple of personal shots worked into sketches at the expense of Palin for his many travel shows, and Cleese for his many marriages.

Shortly before he died, I got to see Graham Chapman in person during his lecture tour. Since then, I’ve been able to see John Cleese, Terry Jones and Eric Idle in the flesh. That leaves Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam (my two favourites) yet to catch. Judging from their appearance on the O2 stage, they seem to be the most spry, so my opportunity may yet come. Time marches on, but I’ll never stop being a fanboy.

pythonfinalbowAfter the Pythons left the stage, after the impromptu-encore warning, after the obvious “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” not-so-impromptu encore, after the very final bows, but before the words “Piss Off” appeared in large flowing typeface on the jumbo screen, there was an epitaph.

It read: Graham Chapman 1941 – 1989, Monty Python 1969 – 2014

And over-the-hill, self-indulgent, overproduced, alimony-paying, legal-fees-settling, dinosaur-reunion rehash though it may have all been, I cried.


One thought on “And Now For Something Completely Familiar

  1. I’m a big Python fan, too. Life of Brian is my favorite movie ever. I also felt ambivalent about the reunion and it sounds like it was what I feared. I’d rather remember them the way they were. I am now watching all the shows again with my 17-year-old son. We both cracked up.

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