Josh Wolk
May 15, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Why the current Monty Python tour is wrong

I have long considered Monty Python to be the unassailable high emperors of comedy, and felt that anyone who besmirches their good name will have to go through me. Which puts me in an odd position, because suddenly I want to open not just a can, but a KEG of whupass on original Python Eric Idle.

Idle is currently touring with a stage show he’s calling ”Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python,” which, for the first time in the troupe’s history, links its name to the word ”sell-out.” In the show he sings old Python songs (”Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” ”Every Sperm Is Sacred,” and more) and performs classic Python sketches (”The Argument Clinic,” ”Nudge Nudge”), all with the help of a cast of unknowns. Their actual names are irrelevant, as I have dubbed them Not John Cleese, Not Even Close to Michael Palin, Terry Jones Lite, and Can’t Even Hold a Candle to a Dead Graham Chapman. Seeing this show would be like going to see a Beatles cover band and finding out that Ringo Starr was playing the drums.

Until now, Monty Python always radiated comedic integrity. The guys shut down their show when they felt it was getting derivative of itself (even if the departed John Cleese realized it a season before his cohorts), going out with a nearly flawless streak of hilarity. Regardless of how anemic some of the members’ individual projects might be (just try to sit through a ”Yellowbeard”/”Erik the Viking” double feature), there was a certain sanctity to Python: Its name was reserved for the most comically flawless projects only made possible by the collusion of all six members’ minds.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with rehashing old favorite sketches, as long as all the old faces are doing them. Idle has said that he was moved to go on a solo tour when a proposed string of 30th Anniversary reunion shows were scuttled. Yes, if the whole group had reteamed they likely would have only mustered a Greatest Hits parade with many of the same bits Idle is performing. But watching one Pythoner try to recapture the group’s magic alone is just sad.

A recent ”Canned Ham” promotional special on Comedy Central showed scenes of Idle singing the Lumberjack Song, which seemed very, very wrong not just because he was doing it alone, but because it was in fact a Palin staple. His ”I’m shticking as fast as I can” enthusiasm to cover up the absence of the rest of the group gave me the kind of vicarious embarrassment I used to get watching an Edith-Mike-and-Gloria-less Carroll O’Connor on ”Archie Bunker’s Place.” You just wanted to run to the set and lift him AND his chair to the Smithsonian before he could do any more damage to ”All in the Family”’s reputation.

To be fair, credit is due to Idle for devoting the most time of any Pythoner to keeping an obsessive fan base happy. (Although, frankly, all the average obsessive fan really needs is an open space to Rain Man-ishly recite the Black Knight speech from ”Holy Grail.”) And he’s been the most active participant on the ailing official Python site Pythonline, patiently enduring message-board debates on the level of whether the Knights spell their cry ”Ni” or ”Nih.”

But there’s a difference between keeping the legacy alive and flogging it to death. For the sake of humor, Idle should have left these priceless sketches alone. Because it will be a mirthless day if we have to look at ”Home Improvement” as our prime historic example of comic integrity.

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