Have recently been re-watching old Monty Python Flying Circus episodes. Just about everything seems to be available online through YouTube.
I still find them funny. I love absurdist humour, and that is what they mostly were. You can’t beat the fish slapping dance.
Each of the six Pythons seemed to bring something special to the show:
John Cleese was the comic genius. He could write brilliantly and perform brilliantly. He could do complex verbal humour, and striking physical humour, both at the highest level.
Graham Chapman was the acting talent. He was always completely the person he was acting. This made him fantastic as a deadpan comic or straight man: no matter how absurd the situation, he seemed real and believable and vaguely troubled by it all.
Michael Palin had what can be a comic’s greatest gift: he was intrinsically likable. This is the complete package for some great comics: Jimmy Durante, for example, was not really funny, just consistently lovable. Charlie Chaplin was mostly lovable, not funny. Palin was like that—always an eager puppy. Great comic persona.
Eric Idle’s talent was as a lyricist. His songs are some of the most memorable things from the series. He wrote in the tradition of W.S. Gilbert or Flanders and Swan. He was also probably, next to Cleese, the best comic writer.
Terry Gilliam had the visual imagination. Idle provided the sound track, Gilliam provided the scenery. Without it, Python would not be Python. It was the most distinctive element.
Gilliam has made a name for himself as a major director since the series ended. Yet the best director in the group was Terry Jones. That suggests how good Jones is. When the group did their own movies, they always chose Jones, not Gilliam, to direct. They knew both best; they knew what they were doing. If you re-watch Life of Brian, as I just did, with an eye for the cinematic element, it is astounding how good Jones is. He simply chose not to pursue this path after the series ended. He’s been spending his time on Medieval history—doing what he likes, not needing to worry about money.
I also recently re-watched the famous debate between Palin and Cleese, on one side, and Malcolm Muggeridge and the Anglican bishop of Southwark, on the other, on Life of Brian—supposedly the late Douglas Adams’s favorite bit of television. Muggeridge and the bishop hated the movie.
Who won? I think it was a split decision. Palin was crushed by the archbishop, and pretty much knocked out of the debate. But Cleese got in the best line, against Muggeridge. Muggeridge and the bishop lost sympathy by being openly insulting towards the film, not acknowledging its value as humour. And, worse, by not discussing the theology, but dismissing it out of hand. They came across as grumpy old men. I suspect they were at a disadvantage from only having seen the movie for the first time a few hours before. These were only first impressions, they had not had time to compose any substantial arguments, and no doubt they were shocked.
On the other hand, Cleese loses sympathy today by characterising the bishop’s and Muggeridge’s position as simply unintelligent. Which comes across as disrespectful and even as a backhanded admission that they were right.
Cleese justified the film in debate, and gave its central message as, “Don’t just believe what you are told. Decide for yourself.” Good advice, but not illustrated by the film. In reality, in Britain or throughout the developed world, either when the film came out, or now, sincerely believing in the Christian message is a minority position. It is the subversive and independent position. Going along with the herd in these days or those meant mocking Christianity, chasing worldly success instead, and enjoying Monty Python.
If you want something that makes the point Cleese claims to have been making, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People might have qualified. But, tellingly, it is not funny. Another piece that makes the point, even more dramatically, is the New Testament. Which, as Cleese admitted, they could not find a way to make funny. You probably cannot really make this point and still be funny.
The more fundamental problem or issue, to my mind, is that Python was straying here from what was best about them: absurdism. Like too many other celebrities once they find an audience, they began exploiting their platform to promote their personal opinions on this, that, and the other thing: on religion, on Christianity, on politics, on The Meaning of Life. Meaning. Note that word. Being funny was no longer enough for them.
I can’t really fault them for this—it is exactly what I do here, albeit without the audience. But in the case of Python, it goes uniquely against the essence of what made them great. This explains, I suspect, why they themselves found their comic muses drying up, and found they could no longer do the series. And they turned out, I think, as is most likely to be the case for celebrities who speak outside their own expertise, not to have any particular great or interesting insights on things like the Meaning of Life.
Why would they, any more than the next guy?