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The Holy Bee Recommends, #19: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

“It took God six days to create the Heavens and the Earth, and Monty Python ninety minutes to screw it up.” — Original film poster tagline.

SPOILER ALERT: The meaning of life, according to Monty Python, will be revealed in this blog entry.

monty-python-the-meaning-of-life-posterHere at Holy Bee World Headquarters (i.e., the second-hand desk in my converted garage), I generally try to use my “Recommends” feature to champion something that may be existing in relative obscurity, but just as often I will use it to highlight something in popular culture that is definitely on the radar, but doesn’t get the respect it may deserve.

Britain’s Monty Python comedy team (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, the late Graham Chapman, and American animator Terry Gilliam) certainly isn’t obscure. But while every nerd over 35 in America can quote 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail at length, and the Brits have taken 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian to their collective bosom, The Meaning of Life, a collection of sketches (sort of) exploring the purpose of existence, is treated as something of an also-ran…even though a mention of any of its scenes will elicit a chuckle and a quote from any Python fan (“wah-fer thin mint” is a common favorite), just like all the other of the team’s productions. 

A few of the Pythons themselves are somewhat dismissive of the 1983 film that would prove the swan-song for the full six-member group. “We started work on it before any of us deep-down wanted to,” said John Cleese, who ended up the most frustrated with the project. “It wasn’t all bad, just aimless.” Even Terry Jones, the film’s champion, admitted the writing process was labored. “It was getting increasingly hard to get [the six of us] together, and it showed.”

So, what prompted the Holy Bee to take up the cause of everyone’s least favorite Python monty-python-dvdfilm?

While cleaning and organizing a musty bookcase in the aforementioned World Headquarters, I came across a forgotten DVD still in the shrink-wrap — Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five To Go, which documented their July 2014 reunion stage show at London’s O2 arena. (The title is a reference to Graham Chapman’s 1989 death.) Reunion rumors had swirled around the group for three decades, but the reason that finally forced the five remaining members on to the stage one final time was pretty prosaic — they needed the money. (Holy Grail producer Mark Forstater successfully sued the group for almost a million pounds in royalties on Spamalot, Idle’s Broadway musical based on the film.) I cracked open the DVD and found myself enjoying the reunion show quite a bit — several “greatest hits” sketches that everyone knows, and a few deep cuts for hardcore fanatics, performed with all the energy a group of men in their seventies could muster (at least one of them with an artificial hip). The whole thing was presented as a gala stage extrvaganza, with massive production numbers backed by a full team of dancers and an orchestra. The team swapped some roles around and divided up Chapman’s parts among themselves (all six very rarely appeared in sketches at the same time anyway), and pulled off an overlong and slightly overbaked semi-reunion that was still a lot of fun.

Then…it struck me that it was now, for all intents and purposes, two down, four to go. The O2 shows were Terry Jones’ final performances. All throughout the rehearsals and the series of ten performances, Jones struggled with remembering his lines, even in material he had performed hundreds of times. (The others, with their usual sensitivity, referred to anyone forgetting their lines as “pulling a Terry.”) The following year, he was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia. Unlike Alzheimer’s, PPA does not affect orientation or cognition, but it has a devastating effect on the ability to communicate. As of this writing, Jones, 76, is still living comfortably, but cannot write and cannot speak beyond a few garbled words.

Watching their reunion show, and thinking sadly of Terry Jones’ illness and retirement, I decided to binge watch the three original Python films — all of them directed by Jones. (Holy Grail was co-directed with Gilliam.) 

(Their “official” filmography consists of five movies but their first, 1971’s And Now For Something Completely Different, consists of re-filmed sketches from their late 60s – early 70s BBC-TV series and shouldn’t really count. And Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, a videotaped record of their 1980 live show, was intended to be shown on HBO or Showtime. It was instead transferred to film and placed in very limited theatrical release — against the team’s wishes — in 1982.)

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Grail and Brian came off as the unimpeachable classics they are, but I was struck this time by how well-done The Meaning of Life was. It looks great. Jones’ directorial eye has a good sense of color, the overall production design really pops, and he stages the musical sequences as well as any traditional musical director. The humor of Life has a reputation for being patchy, but here’s the claim on which I’m basing this entire blog entry — I’d put the first half (45 minutes or so) of The Meaning of Life up against anything they ever produced and it would come out equal — in terms of wicked satire, plain belly laughs, and the aforementioned visual sophistication, which Python realized was important for a feature film, even if it was just a collection of rather silly sketches. 

In the group’s eyes, the film’s nagging flaw was that it never found an organizing theme until the very end of the scripting process, denying it the opportunity for a final polish. They had just been writing random sketches, hoping to eventually concoct a framework on which to hang them. Grail and Brian had been narrative films, with a story that consistently followed the main character(s) from beginning to end. After those experiences, Jones in particular wanted to try a sketch film, mostly for the challenge. “[Cleese] had this theory that you can’t make a sketch film over fifty minutes,” Jones stated. “I always said ‘I’m sure we can do a sketch film and make it work,’ just to show we can.” By the time they came up with the “meaning of life” concept, they were up against deadlines. “I think it would have been perfect if had we given it one extra draft,” said Eric Idle. “We just sort of stuck in references to the meaning of life wherever we could.”  Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 5: Michael Palin

2011-02-11-MichaelPalinserious3Out of all the comedy legends the up-and-coming John Cleese rubbed shoulders with in the late 1960s, there was none he found funnier than the far less well-known MICHAEL PALIN. In fact, Cleese’s desire to work with Palin was the core of what became Monty Python.

The youngest Python has remained eternally-youthful looking. He played most of the meek and mild characters on the Flying Cirucs — the shopkeepers, the accountants, the milkmen. Ones that were particularly hilarious when playing against Cleese’s towering monstrosities and other more grotesque characters, though he could also do a bit of grotesque himself (see Ken Shabby). He excelled at smarmy game-show hosts and sunny young optimists, like Reg Pither, the cheerful bicyclist of the only Python episode that told a single story all the way through, season three’s “Cycling Tour.” His overall aura of amiability has earned him, out of all six Pythons, the title of “The Nice One.”

And therein lies a problem. How am I going to rip one of the “nicest men in Britain” a new one over his crappy projects? I’m not, of course. Like his Python writing partner Terry Jones, Palin is not responsible for anything that can be considered truly wretched. He has maintained a high standard, so even his “Worst Project” below will merely receive a gentle “it wasn’t for me.”

He’s done a lot of stuff for British TV (documentaries on railroads and art history, and the teleplay for an autobiographical TV movie called East of Ipswich) that has received glowing reviews across the pond, but didn’t get much play stateside. In fact, one of his early projects with Jones, a six-episode mini-series called The Complete and Utter History of Britain (London Weekend Television, 1969), is almost entirely lost, as it was common practice among British TV networks to erase shows already broadcast in order to re-use the videotape. Very thrifty, but tons of classic stuff exists only in the memories of those who saw them the first time. Re-runs did not exist. By a stroke of cosmic luck, this policy ended at the BBC just a few weeks before Monty Python’s Flying Circus went into production. I shudder to imagine what almost happened.

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None of the Pythons came to Flying Circus in mid-1969 as a TV rookie. Even at the tender age of 26, Palin had already hosted a pop music show (Now!, only broadcast in Wales — his first post-college gig), written for the esteemed Daily Show of his era (The Frost Report) and several other comedy/variety shows, co-created, co-wrote, and starred in a cutting-edge children’s show (Do Not Adjust Your Set) that adults loved as well (especially Cleese and Chapman), and was given free reign with kindred spirit and Chaucer expert T. Jones to write The Complete and Utter History…

The Complete and Utter History of Britain put Palin’s Oxford history degree and already-solid TV resume to good use by wondering what it would look like if television were around to cover all of British history. (Just reading about it in one of my Python books as a high-schooler inspired me to create a similar video project for history class — what if CNN covered World War One? The result shamelessly ripped off Python but also, I’m proud to say, had some original bits of anarchic comedy and also lots of factual info about WWI. Like The Complete and Utter History…its current status is “mostly lost.”) The Complete and Utter History… was a watershed moment for Jones and Palin, who chafed in small supporting parts and were dismayed to see their writing botched by actors and a director who just didn’t “get it.” Maintaining creative control by writing and performing became one of the underlying philosophies of Monty Python. The less-than-stellar result also led directly to the formation of the Python team. When the credits of last episode rolled, John Cleese, who had an open offer from the BBC to do a series, called up Palin and said bluntly, “I just saw Complete and Utter History. Since you obviously won’t be doing any more of those…let’s do something together.” The rest is history… Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 3: Terry Jones

Terry_JonesI had originally intended to move through the solo Pythons in strict alphabetical order, just as they are listed in the credits of their TV episodes and movies (always reading “Monty Python’s [Insert Project Title] was conceived, written, and performed by…”), but I was bursting with so many things to say about TERRY JONES, I leap-frogged right to him.

A great ensemble means that no one member is more or less important than any other, but I really do feel that it’s Jones who makes Python Python. He was an early champion of the idea of moving the TV episodes along through a “stream of consciousness,” not allowing conventional sketch-show structure to dictate how the thirty minutes of TV comedy unfolded. This concept was greatly aided by the animations of Terry Gilliam (we’ll be getting to him next), and Jones and Gilliam can be credited with contributing the most to Monty Python’s Flying Circus’s unique look.

The look…that’s actually what first hooked me when I saw my first episode as a middle-schooler on “late night” PBS. Like absolutely nothing on American TV at the time…A surreal visual appeal that augmented and fed into all the absurdity. Much of it was due to how BBC programs shot things in those days — everything in the studio was done on videotape, and everything outside the studio was done on film.

And “outside the studio” could be anywhere. It was sometimes simply the residential west London streets just outside BBC Television Centre, but they frequently trotted off to the coolest-looking spots in the British Isles — windswept highlands and rugged coasts — to get 5313917369_600full_terry_jones_answer_5_xlargetheir filmed segments. Jones more than anyone favored and pushed for this policy. (It became a running inside joke among the Pythons that all of the sketches Jones wrote opened with “Slow pan across Yorkshire moor…mist swirls, music plays…a lone figure emerges…”) Filming these parts of each episode outside the confines of the studio was where Jones first began making his mark. He admitted to constantly pestering the credited director, Ian MacNaughton. “I was always saying, ‘Shouldn’t we put the camera over there, Ian?’” He also cops to backseat driver-ing the editing process, succeeding in getting the editors to put in a full workday on an episode, rather than the couple of hours they were used to. Getting a clock-watching BBC technical crew to listen to his dictates proves his reputation for being willful and tenacious (he credits it to his Welsh blood) was well-earned, and it’s why Python’s TV show looked far better than anyone else’s at the time.

Jones wrote most of his Python material in collaboration with Michael Palin, and their stuff tended to be longer, more conceptual, and more visual than the Cleese/Chapman sketches, which were more traditional and verbal. (It was the blend, of course, that made Python great.) In many ways, the raw, earthy Jones existed at the opposite end of the comedy spectrum from the coolly cerebral Cleese, which led to many spirited “discussions” at Python writing meetings. “I only threw a chair at John once,” Jones has said.

From a performance standpoint, Jones was the utility player. He was a great straight man when the situation called for it (“Nudge, Nudge”), and was often the put-upon Everyman, the straight-laced “city gent,” or his true specialty — the screeching, middle-aged ratbag housewife the Pythons called a “Pepperpot.” All of the Pythons played Pepperpots at one point or another, but Jones perfected them.

When the Pythons branched into film, it was only natural that the two “visual” Pythons, Jones and Gilliam, co-direct Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Gilliam found that trying to direct five mouthy, prickly, opinionated teammates full of their own ideas was more than his patience could bear, and the two subsequent Python films, The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life were directed — quite happily — by Jones solo. And either through his own inclinations, or because the rest of the Pythons just thought it was funny, Jones managed to be nude on-camera a lot more than the others (including his iconic Nude Organist, which opened every third-season episode).

In all areas, Jones was absolutely essential to Monty Python as we know it. He was the glue, the heart. Yet he remains less well-known than all of the others, especially here in the U.S. (Sharing a name with a batshit-crazy fundamentalist preacher who made the news a few years back probably doesn’t help.) It all seemed so unfair that it caused me to create the very first Terry Jones fan website in 1996, on good ol’ GeoCities.

Film director. Historian. Children’s author. Opera librettist. Political journalist, even. Terry Jones, left to his own devices, covers a lot of ground. Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 2: John Cleese

john_cleese-761027JOHN CLEESE was actually famous before Python, as a cast member for the very well-regarded series of comedy/satire programs starring David Frost in the mid-’60s. (5/6ths of the future Pythons wrote for Frost, but Cleese was the only on-camera personality among them.) His popularity was what caused the BBC to offer him his own show, which ultimately became Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Cleese desiring to simply be part of the ensemble, refusing star billing, to the BBC’s confusion and disappointment.)

Then he was the first person to grow tired of Python, at least in its television incarnation, and did not participate in the final season of the show in 1974. Some members of the group were a little resentful, feeling that due to his fame and recognizability, he had the best chance of a solo career. They weren’t wrong.

Even the average non-Python fan in 2013 has a pretty good idea who John Cleese is.

Perhaps it’s his height. In Python sketches, the six-foot-four Cleese often played upper-class authority figures. Unlike Graham Chapman’s authority figures, though, Cleese’s were infused with a kind of cruel, maniacal glee that made them riveting and unsettling. Sometimes he played a very odd creation the Pythons referred to as “Mr. Praline,” always wearing a green plastic raincoat and complaining to a shopkeeper or civil servant (usually played by Michael Palin) in a clipped, nasal voice about his dead parrot or inability to purchase a fish license, always with an undercurrent of menace and suppressed rage. In both actual fact and in the audience’s mind, Cleese towered over the rest of the cast.

More likely, he’s known far and wide simply for his ubiquitousness. He’s everywhere. He has appeared in more films than the rest of the team combined (and deserves a special award for most supporting roles in terrible movies), has done hundreds of commercials for every conceivable product for the past four decades, has guest-starred in dozens of shows on British and American television (and had long-running recurring roles in several more), performed tons of voice work, and in general has been one of major faces of British comedy, streets ahead of his slightly less-recognizable Python teammates.

So let’s break down the fabulously successful solo career, shall we? Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Pythons, Part 1: Graham Chapman

My website stats have proven conclusively that the most popular segment of this little blog has been “The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles.” In the true spirit of sequels, I will now take the same basic premise and turn it into something that will likely prove somewhat less popular. Why not take on the solo careers of “The Beatles of Comedy”?

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Many collectives of funny folk have been referred to as “The Beatles of Comedy” — from the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players of Saturday Night Live to the cast of Seinfeld. But the group that has truly earned the title is the one that earned it from the Beatles themselves — Monty Python. They were shooting their very first episodes for the BBC in August of 1969, just as the last notes of Abbey Road were being committed to tape and the hassled, harried Apple board meetings were growing particularly hostile. George Harrison has said many times that he believes the impish Spirit of Genius vacated the dying rock band at this moment, and infused itself into the comedy troupe just being born.

As a group, Monty Python produced 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus for the BBC, three original feature films, two “compilation” films, two extended original episodes produced for German television, and several books and record albums crammed full of material unavailable in any other format. No other comedy team can top that output. They hung up their Gumby boots in 1983, but well before that, the six members had begun concurrent solo careers which continue to this day (well, except for one — see below.) Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin have produced some very creative and funny works of art — and some dreck.

Here’s the format for our little examinations: Only projects that the individual Pythons had a direct hand in creating will be considered. This means writing or co-writing, directing, producing, or any combination thereof. If we expanded our project to include instances where they simply took an acting job for a paycheck, the “worst” portion would be impossible to sort through, especially concerning John Cleese and Eric Idle. (Every non-superstar actor has to take roles to pay the bills from time to time, but it pains me to say that Idle and Cleese have been particularly non-discriminating and mercenary in this regard, popping up in some of the most notorious turkeys of the last twenty years.)

And unlike the solo Beatles, we are not limiting ourselves to one medium. The solo Pythons have written and/or directed feature films, created TV series, written children’s books, self-help books, novels, and scholarly history books, and produced Broadway musicals, to name just a few endeavors.

There will be Best Project and Worst Project, followed by Should Probably Avoid, and to end on a positive note, a Worth Checking Out. This format will be adhered to strictly, except for the times when it’s not. Continue reading

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