Movie Article

Odd Men Bow Out

Recalling 20 years of sublime silliness, and swearing no more reunions, Monty Python takes a curtain call on cable.

Monty Python's Flying Circus is being celebrated on Showtime this week with a two-hour, two-part retrospective. The tribute's timing is odd, which is strangely appropriate. When the British TV comedy series actually turned 20 last fall, most of the world was completely indifferent — or, if not indifferent, in mourning over the death of original trouper Graham Chapman. Until that sad event, the quirky Britwits' cult-like following had hoped, nay, prayed, that one fine funny day the loony lads would reunite — for another movie, a new TV show, a benefit performance, anything. Now, as with the Beatles (whom Python Eric Idle so brutally lampooned in The Rutles), this is no longer even a tantalizing improbability. From the start, much of Python's pointedly derisive satire (''Ministry of Silly Walks,'' ''Upper-Class Twit of the Year Contest'') came with an intellectual skin. This was understandable. The five British Pythons had performed in college comedy reviews: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle at Cambridge; Terry Jones and Michael Palin at Oxford. After graduation, they gravitated to the BBC, where, in April 1969, a producer suggested they collaborate. Jones and Palin invited Idle along, and Idle brought in Terry Gilliam, an expatriate Ameran animator.

The group's special alchemy created fun from internal friction. It took days just to pick a name for the fledgling show. Owl Stretching Time was a leading candidate, as were Arthur Megapode's Flying Circus, Cynthia Fellatio's Flying Circus, and Bob Python's Flying Circus. The original shows were created in a competitive pressure cooker. Everyone but Gilliam, who worked by himself, would come together to read scripts. If a sketch didn't produce laughs, it was cut. There were constant disagreements, particularly between Cleese and Jones. ''It was rewriting and arguing for 3 1/2 hours,'' Palin says in one Showtime interview.

In 1974, just before the fourth season went into production, Cleese dropped out. That same year, the show began airing on public TV in the States. With the release of the feature Monty Python and The Holy Grail in movie theaters, also in 1974, the Python boom began here just as the troupe started to dissolve. Monty Python's humor was always an aggressive rebellion against everything stodgy, prim, and proper about postwar, bourgeois Britain. And, as it turned out, their madcap and fearlessly irreverent skitishness and often sophomoric silliness made the world safe for later ensemble comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live.

No, the Pythons never will-nor would- reunite. ''We've done all that,'' says Terry Gilliam. ''It's done.'' So, Python fans and fanatics, and the merely curious, must now satisfy themselves with these new Showtime compilations, as well as the various projects in the pipeline from individual Pythons. Idle's Nuns on the Run opens in theaters this week, and Jones' and Cleese's Eric the Viking hits video next month. And most of the prodigious output of England's merriest band (in their various post-Python permutations) is available on video and in print. Some is genius, much is not. Read on.

PYTHON'S PROGENY
Pythonologists see Monty Python's Flying Circus — the TV show that made the comedy group famous — as the primal soup whence sprang all subsequent Python humor. All the elements are there — the inspired silliness, the schoolboy gags, the quirky Britishisms — albeit often in their rawest forms. For better or worse, the later Python projects gave those peculiar obsessions more room to romp.

The Pythonesque archetypes, those core gag categories, are identified by the following icons. (For clarity, we are substituting letters for the icons which appeared in the following chart. After each Python project listed below our reviewers assigned a letter grade and icons. Icons — now letters — are placed in parentheses to distinguish them from grades)

A- naughty habits
B- highbrow wit
C- loo-brow humor
D- cross-dressing bits
E- religious gags
F- animal jokes
G- bloody mess humor
H- exploding stuff
I- military humor
J- food humor
K- royalty humor
L- nearly all of the above

Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)
The bit that started it all: 17 volumes available with two episodes each, including "Full Frontal Nudity" and ''Spam.'' A (K)

And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)
Different, but only because it's the Pythons' first movie. Actually, it's skits from Flying Circus, including the ''Nudge, Nudge'' sketch. A (K)

Romance With a Double Bass (1974)
Written by and starring Connie Booth and John Cleese as the princess and the musician, who spend much of this uneven movie in the altogether. C (A, K, B)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)
A jolly good medieval send-up directed by Gilliam and Jones, written by and starring the entire troupe. A (K)

Fawlty Towers (1975-79)
Farcical British TV sitcom (four volumes) starring Connie Booth and Cleese, who's at his best as a perpetually apoplectic hotel proprietor. B (I, E, A, B)

Jabberwocky (1977)
More messy medieval mayhem, this time with a monster. Directed and cowritten by Gilliam and starring Palin. No inspiration this time. D- (K)

The Rutles (1978)
Python meets Spinal Tap: Lorne Michaels — produced parody of a Beatles documentary, written, starring, and codirected by Idle, who gets by with a little help from Palin, George Harrison, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Paul Simon. B+ (F, J, A, K)

Monty Python's Life of Brian(1979)
''Poor little schnook'' mistaken for Jesus in a religious parody directed by Jones; includes the whole troupe. More blasphemous than The Last Temptation of Christ — and funnier. B+ (K)

Ripping Yarns (1979)
Scattered laughs from the British TV series written by Palin and Jones and starring Palin. D (F, C, B, A, G)

Time Bandits (1981)
Occasionally cute time-travel adventure with a boy and a pack of dwarfs bumping into Palin, Cleese, Sean Connery, and others; directed by Gilliam. A- (K)

The Secret Policeman's Other Ball (1982)
The Pythons still squeezing life out of Flying Circus sketches in a live performance for Amnesty International. Phil Collins and Pete Townshend play along. B+ (K)

Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
Python's greatest skits, live in concert. No slow spots. A (K)

The Missionary (1982)
Perhaps the only missionary that ever went to hell, starring Palin, who also cowrote and coproduced, as a man of God who embraces the work of saving fallen women. D+ (E, A, I, B)

Privates on Parade (1982)
One long cross-dressing joke with Cleese as a stern military officer saddled with a less-than-macho vaudeville drag group. The key word is drag. D (I, D, E, A)

Monty Python's the Meaning of Life (1983)
The last feature done with the entire troupe, in which they take on life's eternal questions — with meat hooks. A (K)

Yellowbeard (1983)
Idle as the titular pirate, with Chapman (also a cowriter), Cleese, Cheech and Chong, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and James Mason. Misses the boat. C- (D, K, H, I, F)

A Private Function (1985)
A sometimes-too-subtle comedy set in England after World War II when pork was scarce. Michael Palin brings home some very raw bacon to please his wife (Maggie Smith). B (F, A, C, G, J)

Brazil (1985)
George Orwell with a twist: deliciously dark, black-humor vision of the future, cowritten and directed by Gilliam with Palin in a supporting role. A- (G, B, H)

Clockwise (1986)
Cleese, as a punctual schoolmaster who's late for an appointment. Slow moving. D+ (A, F, E)

Personal Services (1987)
Director Jones provides lots of naughty bits but few laughs. With Julie Walters as England's own Mayflower Madam. D (A, F, D)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen(1988)
Less than hilarious magical fantasy, starring Idle; directed and cowritten by Gilliam. C- (A, B, G)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Criminally clever script by Cleese, who stars as a straitlaced barrister dewigged by Jamie Lee Curtis. Palin costars. A (A, J, F, G, B)

Pythons In print
The Pythons have penned or inspired at least 56 books. The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: All the Words (Pantheon, 1989) fills two volumes. Palin's Around the World in 80 Days? TV series is out in book form (BBC Books). Jones has written five children's books, including Terry Jones' Fairy Tales (Penguin, 1986).

Originally posted Mar 16, 1990 Published in issue #5 Mar 16, 1990 Order article reprints