Starring John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam & Carol Cleveland.
Special Guest Appearances by Eddie Izzard, Mike Myers, Brian Cox, Stephen Hawking & Graham Chapman.
Monty Python is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is an ex-comedy troupe. This was confirmed at the conclusion of the July 20th, 2014 performance of Monty Python Live (Mostly): a caption reading “Monty Python, 1969-2014” told the worldwide audience everything it needed to know, that the world’s most famous comedy troupe had shuffled off it mortal coil and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. So the Sunday night performance was not just a live show but a public memorial service and, like the surviving Pythons did at the memorial service of Graham Chapman, they made it a real mother of a blow-out.
There would be no other reason to have that performance if it wasn’t a celebration of the team: let’s face it, Monty Python hasn’t been a viable performing unit since 1983 and during their active period (1969-1983) they worked together only sporadically once their television series ended. And that period of time provided an incredible amount of hilarious material that has entered the collective consciousness of the planet. The Pythons realized that, with all of its members residing in their 70s, it would be wrong to let themselves slip one by one to join Dr. Chapman without having one last bash. Sunday’s night performance was not so much a show as it was a party, a last chance to celebrate all those wonderful moments in front of the biggest audience ever. It was better than the boys appearing on This Is Your Life. Monty Python Live (Mostly) is what the Beatles should have done before John Lennon’s death, end it all with a vengeance and a smile.
I won’t lie and say that I wasn’t apprehensive when I first learned that the Pythons would be reuniting one more time to grub for a little more of their fans’ money. These guys are old and all the classic jokes in the world can’t hide that: the voices are croaky (easily noticeable during the singing bits and when they attempt to play Pepperpots), Cleese is surprisingly paunchy and the bags under Jones’s eyes make him look like he is two steps away from complete exhaustion. Did we really want to see our old friends do these sketches, many written nearly half a century ago, one more tired time? As anyone who’s ever attended a Beach Boys concert in the last decade can tell you, you gotta stay fresh or you’ll stagnate. As it turns out, the Pythons know this to be true and while Live (Mostly) is a greatest hits show, there are enough new segues and additions to keep the show feeling fresh all the way through. The show opens with a new animated sequence showing Chapman’s head being kicked like a football around the galaxy and the five surviving members charging on stage and posing while a caption appears reading “Photo Opportunity.” They then dive into what must be one of the strangest sketches in the Python canon: the Mexican Llama sketch. The sketch is nothing if not energetic and it starts the show off with a bang. These guys may be old, but they’re not dead yet and they are obviously having a lot of fun proving it.
“Who would’ve thought, forty year ago, we’d all be sitting here doing Monty Python,” asks Idle at the beginning of the “Four Yorkshire Men” sketch (for which Tim Brooke-Taylor, one of that sketch’s co-writers, is finally given credit during the final roll) and we realize that one of the tricks of the evening will be giving their old material little tweaks to catch the audience off-guard. For example, in “Crunchy Frog,” Ram’s Bladder Cup is no longer garnished with lark’s vomit but with mouse poo, prompting a laugh from an audience who were expecting the traditional garnish. If you ask me, lark’s vomit is funnier, but the change gives the sketch the kick-in-the-arse it needs to freshen it up (and it certainly needs some freshening after what must be the longest fart in the history of comedy). Throughout the show, there are little bits here and there to make the audience perk up; digs at Palin’s boring travelogue shows and Cleese’s divorces, references to Dr. Chapman and even the Daily Mail (which gave the show a bad review) abound. And then there are the big changes, like when Idle wrote two extra verses to “The Penis Song” so that the chorus could have a full-fledged musical number with it (the vagina verse is actually written to the tune of the “Accountancy Shanty,” but the two tunes go well together). If anyone wandering into the theater was expecting a tasteful show, that number would’ve cleared them from their seats in a snap, which is good because then they wouldn’t have subjected to the penis-shaped cannons that ejaculate white confetti during “Every Sperm Is Sacred.” As Cleese said at Dr. Chapman’s memorial service, “anything except mindless good taste.”
And then there’s the music. Is there any comedy troupe in the history of laughter that has more songs attributed to them than Monty Python? A quick listen to the overture and entr’acte reveals a marvelous medley of songs you never thought would ever appear in a stage show (including the mindless repetition of “I like traffic lights”). And this is handy because the talented dancing chorus can wow the audience with renditions of “Sit On My Face” (the climax of the ballet – “Spam Lake” – that opens Act 2) and “I Like Chinese” (which also features Idle, the show’s only singing Python), while the boys are changing their costumes. Other pauses are covered by the more standard use of film inserts from the TV series, mostly Gilliam’s animated links and occasional sketches like the Fish-Slapping Dance and the Women’s Guild Reenactment of the Battle of Pearl Harbor. It’s good to see these bits, but we have seen them before and they do sometimes go on a bit long.
The show has a few other speed bumps along its otherwise massively entertaining path. Even without his baggy eyes, Jones looks tired throughout and his lifeless segue from “Albatross” to “Nudge Nudge” is awkward; Dr. Chapman’s humorless colonel is badly missed at that moment. Two of the musical numbers, the one that leads into “Blackmail” and the “Silly Walks” number, are simply there to stall for time and take too long to get through. A celebrity cameo by Mike Myers falls flat on its face due to Myers’ inability to improvise; he simply gushes for a moment about how honored he is to be on the same stage with the Pythons (photos of a previous performance reveal that Stephen Fry was also a celebrity guest on “Blackmail”; one can only hope he might have taken the opportunity to say something amusing). And some of the sketches need a quicker pace that the Pythons simply can’t provide anymore: Idle’s careful pronunciation of his anagram dialog in “Blood, Devastation, Death, War & Horror” is at odds with the memory of him tossing it off like it was second nature for him many years before, which is what made the sketch so funny in its television version. And although Jones, Idle and even Cleveland can play his parts, Dr. Chapman is thoroughly missed; he was the zany glue that held the show together (unlike the substandard glue that fails to hold Idle’s moustache on in “Nudge Nudge”).
And so it went, our favorite comedians performing our favorite sketches. They corpsed from time to time (Cleese is great at going off script but not so good at getting back to it) and did a few things that made us sit up and take notice (did you ever think you would see Stephen Hawking in a Monty Python sketch? Me neither.). But as the show went on, there was a feeling that the end was coming; the waltz that Idle and Cleveland share during the bridge of “The Galaxy Song” was almost sweet. The “Dead Parrot” sketch going straight into “The Cheese Shop” (defying all logic) was brilliant but also had the feeling that these two legendary comedians were pressed for time and wanted to get one more of their famous sketches performed while they were still sharing the same stage. And then came Dr. Chapman, in archival footage, doing his impersonation of Andy Williams singing “Christmas in Heaven”, not a funny song, but a good number to end on. But it wasn’t the end; the finale was given to what can only now be thought of as the Pythons’ signature tune, “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.” When Idle encouraged his worldwide audience to sing along with him, I got a lump in my throat that prevented me from giving my best performance: this is the mantra by which these six men have lived their lives. Even in death, Graham Chapman always looked on the bright side of life and, at this sad moment when Monty Python is finally done and there is the probability of their reunion with the good doctor sooner rather than later, they look on the bright of life. Monty Python Live (Mostly), which was subtitled One Down, Five More To Go, isn’t just a celebration of some very good work by a few fellows decades ago, it’s a celebration of laughter and the strength of the human spirit, even in the face of death. The first time we heard the sweet tones of “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life,” it was being sung by a bunch of people being crucified. Monty Python has always challenged the structure of the form that was supposed to contain it: the structure of television (running credits halfway through the show), the structure of film (Holy Grail‘s non-ending) and even the structure of life. “Keep ’em laughing as you go, just remember that the last laugh is on you.” Good advice.
Goodbye John, Eric, Mike, Terry, Terry G and Carol. You changed the world. Well done. Now fuck off and die, can’t you? You’re all getting scary-looking and I’ve got other things to write about.
P.S. – What the fuck was Warwick Davis doing there?