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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 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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