Concert/Movie review: “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” (2014)

sillywalk

O2 Arena, London, England – July 20, 2014

The pioneering British comedy troupe Monty Python effectively ceased operations as a creative entity in 1983 with the release of their provocative and underappreciated cinematic swan song, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Through the years of radio silence that followed, fans clamored for any sort of reconstitution they could get, and the lack of a grand retirement announcement, plus the fact that members kept popping up in one another’s projects*, continued to stoke faint hope that the Pythons might reunite. Graham Chapman’s death in 1989 should have closed that book definitively, but the thirty+ years since 1983 have been thick with retrospectives and articles, documentaries and oral histories, all of which painted the original partnership as rewarding but fraught, occasionally extremely difficult, and their salad days as something certainly worth remembering but not really worth revisiting.** Through it all, the Pythons presented a cheeky but unvarnished and, for once, wholly unified front, seeking to summarily shoot down rumors rather than inflate them. The 1998 US Comedy Festival at Aspen featured a panel reunion of the five surviving Pythons (with Chapman represented by a funeral urn), a seismic event for fans everywhere, at which all the old questions were dusted off. Future projects weren’t out of the question, they insisted, equivocatingly, but to perform, to exist, as Monty Python again, now so far past its presumed expiration date, seemed a proposition doubtful at best. Aspen seemed to be as good as we’d ever get.

*Among them Graham Chapman’s “Yellowbeard”, Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits”, and John Cleese’s magnificent “A Fish Called Wanda” (for which Michael Palin received a BAFTA best supporting actor nomination)…keep watching the skies for the appearance of Terry Jones’ ”Absolutely Anything”, an animated sci-fi film in which the surviving Pythons (sans Eric Idle) voice a quartet of brash aliens who bestow godlike powers on an everyman.

**This, of course, discounts the reality of the Pythons’ massive influence, which touched almost every corner of comedy in the last three decades of the twentieth century, helping spawn – by the creators’ ready admission – “The Simpsons”, “South Park”, the music of “Weird Al” Yankovic, and many more, not to mention every sketch comedy show launched in that time period, including and especially “Saturday Night Live”.

Fast forward yet another fifteen or so years, to the stage of London’s massive O2 Arena Sunday night. There they all were, somehow, laughing and smiling and waving farewell to an excessively adoring crowd. There was something uneasy and incongruous about the sight of this group of former anarchist bomb throwers, now all septuagenarians, surrounded by confetti and background dancers, taking bow after bow like a Broadway cast at curtain call. The image of pigs flying across a frozen hell-scape might hardly be worthy of an honorable mention in the pantheon of Terry Gilliam’s Python animations, which broke ground, bended minds and erased lines in equal measure. Still, as an explanation of this – this strange, delightful and in so many ways unprecedented concert, the culmination of a triumphant two week live residency – it’ll do. Monty Python Live (Mostly) is in many ways the antithesis of the Python’s late 1960s heyday, when their seminal BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus almost singlehandedly rewrote the comedy rule book in the process of burning it. It’s undeniably a large, bloated and glitzy affair, somewhat slow moving in a way that I suppose suits the 2014 edition but would have been lethal to the Circus, which subverted conventions (both television and societal) with such conviction and heedless zeal that its audiences were left reeling. By the same token, the O2 performance is also a fascinating coda to and final comment on a career and abiding influence that refused to ever fade away, in spite of time’s steady encroachment or the supposedly earnest hopes of its authors.

For many, thinking of Monty Python makes an image immediately spring to mind. It may be of a dead parrot, or a chorus of Vikings singing an ode to Spam lunch meat. It may be footage of England’s annual “Upper Class Twit of the Year” competition, or of Terry Jones playing a lower class housewife. It may be Conrad Poohs and his famous dancing teeth, or the monosyllabic Gumby clan adapting Anton Chekhov’s weighty stage play “The Cherry Orchard”. Monty Python Live (Mostly) is, first and foremost, a celebration, and although it can’t possibly cast its net wide enough to bring in everything, it makes room for as many memorable sketches, and images, as possible. The process of curating this 150-minute show – which plays as equal parts performance piece, museum retrospective, and Vegas revue – must have been exhausting. The O2 stage was fitted with a giant projection screen for film accompaniment, a full length catwalk, and a wall with hidden openings through which specific sketch locales (a pet shop, a shabby living room, a drab delicatessen, an office suite) could be deployed smoothly. John Du Prez (who scored A Fish Called Wanda, among other credits) leads his “genetically modified orchestra” (a kit drummer, a percussionist, two keyboardists, a clarinetist and a trumpeter) from an honest to goodness orchestra pit. A coed troupe of theater dancers is repeatedly used as an interstitial to bridge the gap between live sketches, interspersed with choice moments from the Flying Circus***, which provide valuable history and reliable belly laughs.

***Witness, among others, the Batley Townswoman’s Guild reenactment of the Battle of Pearl Harbor (in which six proper ladies solemnly talk to a news reporter about the importance of history then beat each other with purses in a muddy field), or the Munich City Olympiad, which features such events as the 100-yard dash for people with no sense of direction, the marathon for incontinents, and the 200-meter freestyle for non-swimmers.

Live (Mostly) is clearly a massive undertaking, not to mention one of the only live events I’ve ever seen where the real time element actually presented something of a high wire feel instead of just advertising one. Knowing intrinsically this is its last hurrah, the cast throws itself into performance with noticeable gusto. Watching half of Eric Idle’s stage mustache come immediately untethered during “Nudge Nudge” (he ripped it off cleanly after an exquisite 30 seconds in the figurative dark) or witnessing Cleese and Palin riff off one another during “Parrot Sketch”, with Cleese first almost willfully losing his place in the text as the two of them try to maintain straight faces, then recovering and pressing ahead into, one imagines, an impromptu and wholly improvised version of “The Cheese Shop”, was a giddy rush. Carol Cleveland, the longstanding guest star the Pythons would call on whenever a sketch required an “attractive woman” (otherwise the six men just donned drag), returns to the stage here and is prominent in several sketches. Live (Mostly) also features an especially garish edition of “Celebrity Blackmail” with appearances by uber-fans Eddie Izzard and Mike Myers (Myers in particular can barely contain himself over meeting his idols), and a rare performance of the famous “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. As a Monty Python “Greatest Hits” set, Live (Mostly) delivers in both quantity and in quality, especially in the second half.

Still, some realities are unavoidable. Chapman’s absence is palpable, though not fatal. As one might imagine, the sense of unpredictability the troupe wielded at its zenith is largely absent here, and is compensated for by the mammoth production and, interestingly enough, by placing some of the more ribald Python sketches prominently, or otherwise augmenting them with distracting “naughty” trimmings. This harkens back to the prevailing thinking applied to Meaning of Life – which, though I love it, is easily the least of the Pythons’ three original movies – that there was no joke that couldn’t be improved upon by piling on an extra surprise element (breasts, blood, bodily fluids, appeals to prudery, mild sacrilege, or, failing that, bizarre production design). To see Monty Python, even at its advanced age, pushing this hard for both approval and edginess in front of a mass audience is to witness something inherently unnatural, and the feeling takes some getting used to. Moreover, the cynical viewer knows he is being pandered to by the sheer enormity of the overall presentation, which at an early point stops being any sort of ironic comment on stage spectaculars and proudly becomes its own parody subject. That viewer, however, is also very likely a lifelong Python fan. He or she wouldn’t be sitting in the O2, or watching the live simulcast in a movie theater, if not for the opportunity to be a very small part of history. I paid my money. I expected it to be Python in their seventies. Just entertain me.

There is a real joy in performance that shines through in Live (Mostly). Python did select tour dates for much of 1970s, of course, and this film already has a cinematic precedent in 1982’s Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, with which it shares a number of highlights. Live performance is a high that simply cannot be extinguished or replaced for one who has ever stalked a stage. All the Pythons are fairly natural performers, even Terry Gilliam, who made his name first as a visionary animator and later as an equally epic filmmaker, and here shows total commitment to his niche as the troupe’s resident oddity. Eric Idle is, as ever, the ham of the group (and, as the creator of the Holy Grail goes Broadway hit Spamalot, its richest member) and could be found center stage during the show’s many musical numbers. Indeed, almost every piece of Python-adjacent music (Holy Grail’s “Camelot” and Life of Brian’s title theme were the only two omissions I noted) in the catalogue (“Lumberjack Song”, “Sit on my Face”, “I Like Chinese”, “Finland Song” and numerous others) got either a workout or a name check onstage. At 74, resident Python authoritarian John Cleese is no longer limber enough to perform the “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch, so here a coed chorus line approximates it for him. The group also packs in some subtle digs at Michael Palin’s successful post-Python BBC travelogue series, and, as he’s rattling off his exhaustive list of ways in which the infamous parrot is not “pining for the fjords” but is, rather, definitively dead, Cleese classily mentions the bird having gone to visit “Dr. Chapman”.

Some sketches envisioned as crowd pleasers, such as the gaggle of Australian professors (all named “Bruce”, natch.) leading a sing along of “The Philosopher’s Song”, fall flat, but some newer conceits prove clever enough to coexist with the classics, such as The English National Ballet for Radio’s performance of “Spam Lake” at the beginning of Act II. At the end of the day, no matter how the giant scale and glitzy production values of Live (Mostly) squash the sketches’ original sense of lean intimacy like the giant foot from Gilliam’s most famous animation, these are still self-assured and deeply funny men performing some of the most wondrously, sublimely silly concepts ever invented. Peel away the layers of time and bloat and, for the properly bent mind, Monty Python just works. The Whizzo Chocolate Company is still clueless as to why it’s being persecuted for selling confections such as “Ram’s Bladder Cup” and “Crunchy Frog”. Michaelangelo still wants to take outrageous creative license with his painting of “The Last Supper”. And the male judges in Britain’s high court still gossip during recess like teenage girls and wear lingerie under their robes (in this case, Idle and Palin being in their early seventies helps the reveal score even more laughs than it did in Live at the Hollywood Bowl).

It’s a far cry from Hollywood Bowl’s ruthless economy (<90 minutes) and tangible momentum, but because I saw a live simulcast of this final Python show, I was able to understand and forgive a lot of the more untoward flourishes. Everyone on stage during Live (Mostly) is working his or her butt off, particularly the five Pythons, with entertainment their first priority. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s merely a new wrinkle the group never before thought to reveal. My hope is that Live (Mostly) is widely released (it plays in select American theaters throughout the end of July and early August) and eventually finds its way into their cinematic canon. The Python in Winter, so to speak, older and wiser but saucy and irreverent as ever. As the five men who did as much as anybody to influence my own comic sensibilities stood singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as their encore, the O2 Arena, me, and a large number of my fellow theater patrons sang along (I can’t vouch for anyone else). I found myself grateful that we’d been afforded this chance to say goodbye, and that everyone took this rank silliness with a level of seriousness befitting the occasion. We all clapped lustily at the end, now the definitive end, messily mounted but gracefully landed, one none of us ever envisioned turning out quite this way.

“Monty Python Live (Mostly)” (2014) 3/4 stars

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