With a sickening crash and a shower of broken glass, a flatbed truck rips into the rear of a white station wagon waiting at a light outside the Hollywood Bowl. The two mangled vehicles make for a nasty mess in the intersection, and I gingerly drive around them to reach the Bowl’s parking lot. Eric Idle looks over from the passenger seat and flashes a giddy grin: it’s the happiest I’ve seen him all afternoon.
“I saw that coming,” he says with a cheery, unquestionably evil chuckle. “I knew the truck wouldn’t be able to stop as soon as I saw it coming down the hill.” Sure, joking about traffic accidents may be a bit callous and tasteless, but Idle’s used to being rude. As the British humor team Monty Python, he and his five cohorts are fond of poking fun at things like Spam, “Anthrax ripple” candy, dead birds, beer-guzzling philosophers and, especially, all the sacred cows of their homeland.
But now, after four seasons on TV, three full-length films (And Now for Something Completely Different, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian), ten records and several books, the boys in Monty Python are aiming their moves more directly at the American audience. They’ve just released Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, which is made up mostly of songs and was produced by Idle (the tall, brown-haired Python who’s hosted Saturday Night Live a couple of times, masterminded the Rutles and perfected saying “nudge, nudge”). And they’re presenting four shows at the Hollywood Bowl, their first stateside appearances since their 1976 engagement at New York’s City Center.
I don’t know if the others told you the truth,” John Cleese says as he pulls me into an empty booth inside the Bowl and leans forward conspiratorially. “The real reason we’re playing the Hollywood Bowl is that we’re absolutely stuck on our next movie. We spent thirteen weeks writing, but we just don’t have a central theme. We’ve got scenes set in 1980 and 1880, in England and in British India, but nothing ties them together. So I moved that we abandon the project for a good lump of time, and when we get back to it next September, maybe we’ll have come up with a plot.
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“But that left us with our falls free,” he continues, “facing the prospect of having worked for three months without making a penny. It made sense to do these shows: we’re able to come to Los Angeles, have a holiday in the sun and make enough money to tide us over.”
Cleese (the tallest Python, who’s famous for walking silly and yelling at incompetents, such as the shopkeeper who sold him a dead parrot) adds that he wasn’t opposed to simply writing a film of unconnected sketches. The others, though, felt that Life of Brian — unlike, say, the somewhat disjointed Holy Grail — had set a standard they couldn’t ignore. “The stage of making sketch films is past,” says Cleese. “You’ve got to keep the audience on the hop a bit, not let them get ahead of you. You can make a lot of money feeding them what they expect, but you’ve got to be careful. Even now, lots of people are convinced that my humor consists entirely of swearing and knocking small foreigners about the head.”
Later, I get a differing opinion on the movie from Graham Chapman (the blond-haired Python who’s licensed to practice medicine, played the title role in Brian and often breaks up errant sketches by walking on in military costume). “I think we do have something of a linking factor,” he says. “Sex and violence.”
Python’s artful, freewheeling blend of sex, violence and knocking small foreigners about the head has been successful for over a decade now. Originally called Monty Python’s Flying Circus, they were put together in 1969 by a BBC comedy consultant. Cleese, Chapman and Idle were writing for David Frost’s comedy show, The Frost Report. Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones were working on the humor series Do Not Adjust Your Set. All five were products of the “Oxbridge Mafia” — the bumper crop of British comedians who emerged from rival satirical performing societies at Oxford and Cambridge. Terry Gilliam was the sole American member (responsible for Python’s animation, he also performs, playing the sub-Neanderthal jailer in Brian). The group did the Flying Circus show for four years on BBC-TV, the last without Cleese, who says the regimen made him “potty.” Immediately successful in Britain, the show quickly caught on with America’s college crowd, even though the BBC and its New York syndicator were skeptical and initially uncooperative when Dallas programmer Ron Devillier said he wanted to buy the very British, very strange show. Their first film, And Now for Something Completely Different, was a collection of TV sketches; Grail followed in 1975, after the show’s demise.
Since then, Python group projects have slowed down. Life of Brian was released in 1979 and has just been rereleased. The group’s list of solo projects, though, is more impressive. Chapman recently published A Liar’s Autobiography, a partly true, partly fictional Monty Python account of what it’s like to be a homosexual, alcoholic comedian (“The most appalling parts are all true,” he says). He’s now writing the script for Yellowbeard, an adventure-comedy inspired by his late friend Keith Moon. Cleese makes training films for British industry, and he starred in and cowrote Fawlty Towers, a British television series about an incompetently run hotel. In addition, he recently played Petruchio in a BBC production of The Taming of the Shrew. Gilliam cowrote (with Palin) and directed Time Bandits, an upcoming comedy starring Palin and Sean Connery; he published Animations of Mortality two years ago, and his Jabberwocks still playing on the art-film circuit. In addition to hosting Saturday Night Live, Idle was largely responsible for the Rutles’ TV show, All You Need Is Cash. Jones started a brewery in 1976, and has since written two books—one a collection of fairy tales, the other a scholarly, in-depth study of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, in which he disputes a basic tenet of Chaucerian study. Besides Time Bandits, Palin wrote and starred in a BBC documentary on the history of trains in Britain.
As they sit in the restaurant back at their hotel, Palin and Jones agree that Python’s slow pace is healthy. “We live in a strange way, Python,” says Palin (the most respectable-looking member of the troupe, he played the lisping Pompous Pilate in Brian and hosts the TV program Blackmail as part of Python’s stage act). “One of our virtues is that we don’t sign any contracts over how much work we should do. We can’t just churn the stuff out.
“That’s why we delayed the film,” he continues between bites of sautéed salmon. “We could have had a movie out by the end of the year, if we’d been content with a certain standard. But we have to be careful not to parody our own style.”
“On the television show, we found a new form for TV comedy,” adds Jones (the short, dark Welshman who directed Brian, and who likes to dress up in women’s clothes and screech). “Now we’re looking for a new form for film.”
“Like wood,” Palin offers. “Filmed entirely on wood. The projectionists hate it, because it makes no impression on the screen and it ruins their equipment Gone are the shoddy restrictions of celluloid….”
Palin picks up where he left off. “So we can all afford to take a year off and do our own things. We certainly couldn’t organize our lives around Python. We get together when we want to, not out of a sense of duty.”
“Except the Contractual Obligation Album,” laughs Jones.
“Well, yes. We knew there was no way out of that one,” says Palin. “They sent around a man in a black mask with a gun, and he said, ‘Give us an album or the kids get it.'”
That story is somewhat corroborated by Idle, who asks, “Isn’t satisfying a contractual obligation as good a reason as any to make an album? ” Still, he admits that Arista Records chief Clive Davis would have preferred something safer — something like Monty Python Sings.
And they do sing — fifteen times, far more than any previous outing. Chapman drew on his medical background for one lyric, “the absolutely revolting ‘Medical Love Song'”: “My penile warts, your herpes/My syphilitic sores … /At least we both were lying/When we said that we were clear. …” Palin sings a couple of songs, including “Decomposing Composers” (“You can say what you like to Debussy/There’s very little of him left to hear”). Jones wrote “Traffic Lights” while stopped at one, and sings the oppressively, intentionally and offensively monotonous song himself. Cleese, “the most unmusical person in Europe,” left the songwriting to the others.
Already a British television network has refused to let Python advertise the album. But after fighting incensed church leaders over Brian — which still hasn’t been shown in Norway or in seven states here — they’re used to those battles. “It’s funny.” Chapman shrugs. “We don’t deliberately set out to offend. Unless we feel it’s justified. And in the case of certain well-known religions, it was justified.”
All things dull and ugly
All creatures short and squat
All things rude and nasty
The Lord God made the lot
The Python Stage show strips the civilized veneer off normal middle-class lives to uncover the dullness and ugliness lurking beneath. Or maybe it just exposes the ugliness in six particular minds. Whatever it does, it’s a celebratory show, an evening of what Palin calls “golden oldies.” The pope scolds Michaelangelo for painting a Last Supper with twenty-eight disciples and three Christs (“But it works, mate,” Michaelangelo insists). Idle unleashes a blitzkrieg monologue on the miseries of travel, finishing his diatribe in the audience while Chapman tries to begin another sketch onstage (” … and when you finally get to the half-built Algerian ruin called the Hotel de Sol by paying half your holiday money to a licensed bandit in a taxi, you find there’s no water in the pool, there’s no water in the taps, there’s no water in the bog, and there’s only a bleeding lizard in the bidet”). And on videotape, German and ancient Greek philosophers compete on the soccer field; the Greeks win, 1-0, when surprise starter Archimedes sets up a Heraclitus-to-Socrates header goal.
On the fourth and final night in L. A., the audience is rabid and fanatical, some members dressed in Python-esque drag. When Cleese walks through the crowd hawking a frozen albatross, half-a-dozen fans answer his cries of “Albatross!” with “What flavor is it? ” If he had any trouble finding Jones in the crowd, those fans would clearly be willing and able to finish the sketch themselves. And twice Python receives huge ovations — not just for being funny, but for being predictable. The first comes in the “pet shop” sketch, when Cleese returns his dead bird with a litany of euphemisms: “It’s ceased to be. It has expired. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff.” He ends with the capper: “This [pregnant pause] is an ex-parrot.” The second comes at the tail end of the show; as one sketch ends, Idle steps to the front of the stage and shouts, “I didn’t ask to do this, you know. This isn’t what I really want to do. I want to be a … a lumberjack!” Idle whips off his jacket to reveal a Pendleton shirt, and the rest of Python troops onstage in Canadian Mountie suits. They begin singing “The Lumberjack Song,” and the Bowl goes crazy. It’s hysterically funny at times, but it’s also unsettling. The crowd laughs because it’s Python doing their hits, not because they’re adding anything to stock routines. The evening is meticulously planned, with few moments of genuine spontaneity and fewer real surprises. But it’s Python together and Python in the flesh — rare occurrences these days. The group has done an exemplary job of following Palin’s advice: “Give the people less and less, and keep them wanting more.”
It’s all a far cry from Python’s first American appearance, when they came down following a short Canadian tour to perform on The Tonight Show in front of an audience completely unfamiliar with them. “We did an hour’s worth of material in twenty minutes,” says Idle. “All the sketches with high, screechy women’s voices. Dead silence. They did not understand a thing.”
He grins. “It was great. I mean, that’s the reason we all got in the business in the first place: to find something so funny that nobody dares laugh.”