Monty Python’s first visit to the USA in 1973 did not go well at all. The groundbreaking British comedic troupe appeared on The Tonight Show being guest hosted by Joey Bishop.
“We looked out and it was like The Producers film where the jaws of the whole audience were open,” Eric Idle recalled at a discussion being moderated by fellow British comedian John Oliver following a Tribeca Film Festival 40th anniversary screening of their cult film Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Beacon Theater on New York’s Upper West Side.
“We did thirty minutes [of material] in fifteen minutes to no laughs whatsoever. We ran out onto the green grass in Burbank and we lay down and laughed for 15 minutes because it was the funniest thing ever. In America they didn’t know what on earth we were talking about.”
To paraphrase the catchphrase from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, that ran from 1969-74, now some things are completely different.
John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, whose combined age is 365, received older statesman rock star treatment during the first day of Tribeca Film Festival’s celebratory Python weekend that included the US premiere of new documentary The Meaning of Live as well screenings of Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.
Each member had been besieged by admirers following a press conference earlier in the day at the SVA Theater in Chelsea.
Following an introduction from Tribeca Film Festival founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, virtually every frame in Holy Grail was greeted with hysterics and the Pythons got a lengthy standing ovation when they appeared on stage.
The last time the Pythons generated significant new material came with the release of The Meaning of Life in 1983 but the Tribeca festivities heralded the latest reunion for the group following numerous performances, appearances and documentaries and performances, most notably last year when they did ten shows at London’s O2 Arena.
Contrary to reports in the British press that the Pythons are tiring of each other’s company, Idle told the Daily Beast on the red carpet that the re-unions are still fresh. “It’s nice to see these guys,” he said. “We were just having a beer around the corner at P.J. Clarke’s. It’s like seeing old pals.”
When I asked Palin about re-uniting, he noted that they are not as obsessive as their fan base.
“We don’t take it all too seriously, really,” he said. “We probably don’t try and be experts on our own work. That’s the fatal no. Everybody knows our material better than we do.” Surveying the mayhem surrounding him, Palin said “It continues to surprise us when people come.”
Their Stateside audience blossomed when their spoof on the Arthurian legend was released in 1975.
Before then Palin told the presser, “Having tried for three years to get Python onto American television with hardly any interest at all from the mass market, we’d almost given up until PBS picked it up.”
When the film was released, Idle recalled, “Two guys, dressed in Arthurian robes, [were] going up and down Fifth Avenue, dragging coconuts behind them and a sign that said 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Free Coconuts for the First 1,000 Guests who show up to the screening at 11 AM at Cinema 2.' [Coconuts substitute horses in the film.] And we were woken at 8… and they said, “There are 2,000 people surrounding Cinema 2 waiting for coconuts.”
At a chaotic Q and A with Oliver during which Cleese kept disappearing from the stage, the Pythons had differing recollections over how enjoyable it was to film Holy Grail.
“It was fun,” Jones recalled.
“No it wasn’t fun, Terry,” countered Cleese. "Don’t be so silly. It was a miserable experience. You got up early in the morning to the hillside. It started to rain immediately because it was April and it was Scotland. The rain came down and we had so little money, there were four umbrellas on the whole set and this nasty chain mail which was knitted spring which started getting damp. By 9 o’clock you were cold and wet.”
John Oliver gamely collaborated with the Pythons' onstage craziness turning his chair back to the stage in response to Cleese and company shuffling their seats around.
The HBO presenter deployed delirious expletives in expressing his stellar appreciation for the Pythons, seeming especially interested in exploring their fondness for upsetting authority and the debt they owed to Spike Milligan and the 1960's UK comedy stage revue Beyond the Fringe.
Oliver was on fine form dismissing the sub-fanboy questions from the audience ("Come on America, you're better than that!").
He playfully asked Terry Jones, following a lengthy Palin anecdote which recounted how Jones had failed to persuade the BBC Head of Comedy to cut out the word 'masturbate' from the troupe's 'Summarize Proust' competition sketch in 1972 by insisting that everybody indulged in the pursuit: "Is it true you have not masturbated since?"
The Pythons’ influence on Saturday Night Live has been well-documented and Idle returned the compliment in back-handed fashion: “'SNL, the University of Comedy,' for 40 years—amazing! It's the best training there can be, to be out there live every Saturday doing rotten material!”
Their surreal humor blossomed under conditions of creative freedom, not as easily replicated in the US. “There were no executives over us,” said Gilliam, “so we got to do what we wanted to do.”
Idle went further. “It’s hard enough to be funny but people giving you notes is just the worst thing in the world,” he said. “That’s why it’s so shit over here at times doing work for the studios. You’ve got people who came out of the William Morris mailroom giving notes on comedy. The only possible response is “Fuck off!”
In an era where the New York Times pays close attention to the editors of comedy films, the Pythons insist the secret to their success lay in not over-analysing.
Palin said, “We knew what worked,” illustrating by way of example that they tended to use the first take when filming Holy Grail. The fish slapping dance is by consensus the team’s favorite sketch of theirs because Palin says, “it is short and can’t be deconstructed”.
Modern humor confuses Cleese. “If you're asking about comedy now, the answer is, I don't begin to understand contemporary society,' he said. “Nobody yet has been able to explain Facebook to me. I just don't know why anybody would do it. And that's quite scary, because you've got to be in some sort of touch with your audience. If you don’t understand why they want you to watch movies where the director and cinematographer spend ages setting up the shot, it’s insanity. If you don’t understand your audience, the best thing to do is to get out.'
Since getting out of Python after four series and five films, the team’s fortunes have fluctuated.
Gilliam was a hot Hollywood director in the 1980s with Time Bandits and Brazil, but has had less commercial success in recent years; Cleese had two hit phenomenons with Fawlty Towers (1975 and 1979) and A Fish Called Wanda (1988).
Palin has enjoyed steady acclaim as a TV travel presenter, playwright and diarist.
In the last decade it has been Idle’s stock which has been highest with Holy Grail stage remake Spamalot going down a storm on Broadway, something that Cleese pointedly acknowledged when he cited Idle’s creative work on last year’s London shows: “He’s the only one—because he’s so rich after Spamalot—who wasn’t rushing around working.”
Cleese told the Daily Beast his answer to Spamalot, a musical version of A Fish Called Wanda, would soon get off the ground.
“Once I’ve paid the last alimony payment [to third wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger] I will be able to have enough time to write the thing,” he said. “My daughter and I have written the first draft of the book which I think is actually very good and it’s very different from the film…we’ve come up with a completely different ending.”
Alimony is still a sore subject for four-times married Cleese. By the time the last payment is due, “I will have given her $20 million. What I love is you go to Scandinavia and they say, ‘Can’t she earn a living?’ They just don’t understand the idea of alimony. They have much greater equality there.”
The ecstatic reception at Tribeca didn’t sway Palin from ruling out a US equivalent of Monty Python’s 2014 London’s extravaganza.
People would go crazy, I told him.
“They probably would," Palin said, "and in Australia and Germany too but I think at a certain point…we’ve all got other things we want to do. I think it’s mainly that the shows are so big to put on you’ve got to plan them a long way ahead.”
Anyhow, there's arguably more interest in Python-past than there is in Terry Jones' upcoming film Absolutely Anything, that stars Cleese, Palin, Idle, and Gilliam along with Simon Pegg and the late Robin Williams.
Expect no new Python performances or films then, but I don’t think it will be long before the gang returns to reminisce on dead parrots and re-tread their silly walks. And unlike the first time Monty Python came to America, everybody will be more than happy to see them.