On July 20th, the five remaining members (Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and John Cleese) of the British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus performed their final live performance of “Monty Python Live (mostly)” at the O2 arena in London. It was simulcast around the world to arenas and theatres, and has since been re-broadcast to theaters courtesy of Fathom Events.
I attended one of those screening last night (July 24th) at a local theatre. It was, as one might expect from the legendary comedians, an interesting experience.
First, if you don’t like Monty Python, have never liked Monty Python, then you won’t enjoy this event when it eventually makes it way to home video. The Pythons have always been an acquired taste, and, frankly, some people just can’t acquire it. Nothing wrong with that. Just be aware of that if you think that this show will change your mind about them.
I grew up watching re-runs of Python in the mid-seventies with my brothers. My mom and grandmother weren’t really excited about it, of course, but at least we weren’t fighting during that half-hour. I loved it, even if I didn’t understand it all at the time. It was part of our 3-show late-night PBS rotation: Python, Benny Hill, and later The Paul Hogan Show (and even occasionally the fourth Doctor). Good times.
But, back to the show at hand.
Let’s begin with the basics. This is a 2.5 hour show, plus a 30 minute intermission – which, in the spirit of realism, Fathom Event’s broadcast, including the counter that the crowd in the O2 saw – so the boys packed a lot of material in. I would guess that around 20% of the show was showing tapes from the the “Flying Circus” program, which was nice, since it allowed Graham Chapman to be there in spirit, if not in the flesh.
Not wanting to simply regurgitate their classic sketches, several were updated or, as was the case with “I’m a Lumberjack,” paired with a different lead-in bit. Some of it worked, and some of it was simply meh. In one specific instance, “The Parrot Sketch” led directly into the “The Cheese Shop,” which allowed the audience to have a good 7-8 minutes of uninterrupted interaction between John Cleese and Michael Palin. Overall, though, it didn’t really come off. While these two play well off of one another, in this case I was reminded of the tit-for-tat between Tim Conway and Harvey Korman on the Carol Burnett Show. But, where Conway and Korman would crack each other up while trying to keep the audience involved, Palin and Cleese seemed more interested in entertaining one another, and the audience wound up the unwitting accomplices to 2 old friends reliving the good old days. It was especially touching when Cleese commented that the Norwegian Blue had gone to see “Doctor Chapman,” at which point both he and Palin gave a smiling “thumbs-up” to the heavens, perhaps, in their own way, acknowledging that Python without all 6 members cannot be, really, Python.
Perhaps that is why I got the sense that most of the boys seemed not to be taking the show seriously. By that I mean that, while they had always before taken the presentation of the material seriously–and not necessarily the content– here it felt that the performance was taking a backseat to the fact that they were all together again, making each other laugh.
Like some victory lap they had somehow felt themselves pressured into, they took it as graciously as they could, but their heart didn’t seem to be in it. In fact, only Eric Idle seemed to really relish his time on stage.
Terry Jones, always an understated powerhouse, seemed a bit lost at times.
Terry Gilliam, who even at the peak of Python’s powers, never seemed at ease in front, seemed equally uncomfortable here. I felt like he would rather have been directing the whole bit instead of being on stage.
Perhaps, again, it was the absence of Chapman, which felt most palpable during the “Four Yorkshiremen” skit. With Cleese sitting in, the gags were still good, but the heart of it seemed to be gone. It felt flat, and nearly lifeless.
The whole production was amped up with some chorus-line dancers to fill in the gaps between sketches, but again, the loss of Chapman was keenly felt during the closing number, “It’s Christmas In Heaven,” which began with a clip of Chapman singing, only to be concluded with one of the chorus-boys emerging in costume and finishing the song as the bare-breasted angels danced through the Python’s curtain call.
I can see Eric Idle turning this show into another Broadway musical, filled with fresh-faced young comedians presenting the Python’s material with unerring timing and nary a “where were we?” to be found.
But I hope not. It just wouldn’t be the same. (But you try telling the kids today that.)
Overall, I think this was a wonderful send-off for arguably the greatest comedy team of the 20th (and so far 21st) century. They are endless quoted, cited, copied, honored, and respected for their keen wit and dead-eye accuracy for the funny bone.
And rightfully so.
But remember them as they were, not as Monty Python Live (mostly) would have you see them.