Monty Python's New Life ; Two Decades after Monty Python Put Its Unique and Zany Spin on Modern Comedy, All the Group's Major TV and Film Works - along with New Footage - Have Been Released on DVD and VHS

By David Sterritt New York | The Christian Science Monitor, January 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

Monty Python's New Life ; Two Decades after Monty Python Put Its Unique and Zany Spin on Modern Comedy, All the Group's Major TV and Film Works - along with New Footage - Have Been Released on DVD and VHS


David Sterritt New York, The Christian Science Monitor


And now for something completely the same!

Monty Python, the British comedy troupe that made "... and now for something completely different!" an international catch phrase, is back in style. More than 25 years after "Monty Python's Flying Circus" wrapped its final TV season on the BBC, and almost 20 years after the group finished its movie career with "The Meaning of Life," all its major works are available on DVD and VHS.

This is gala news for Python fans. The six-man British comedy troupe brought a new sensibility to modern humor, rooted in a blend of literate, disciplined writing and free-form ideas that grew from their love of earlier film and TV comedians.

A look at their careening career together reveals much about the evolution of contemporary comedy, as well as their own achievements in satire and, well, silliness, to use one of their favorite words.

For all their outrageous antics, the Pythons were an educated crew. John Cleese and Graham Chapman met at the theatrical Footlights Club of Cambridge University, where they were studying law and medicine, and Eric

Idle joined them there a year later. Terry Jones and Michael Palin gravitated toward laugh-making at Oxford University, where they were history majors. Terry Gilliam, the group's only American member, joined them after moving to England to escape what he saw as American hypocrisy during the Vietnam War era.

The first "Flying Circus" show aired in 1969, stuck in a late- night time slot by the fusty British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which worried that the Pythons might be too brash and bizarre for prime time. While this may have dampened the troupe's ratings, it helped their reputation as offbeat entertainers - not suitable for squares, perhaps, but caviar for the hip and savvy.

Monty Python veered from the norms of mainstream comedy in many ways, including its approach to teamwork. The six members worked as equals, never giving special status to anyone, even when Mr. Cleese started acquiring a fan base of his own.

Breaking the mold

They also avoided longtime staples of TV comedy such as stand-up routines and sitcom-type stories. Their surrealistic style leaned toward stream-of-consciousness skits filled with mercurial changes from moment to moment. (Hence, "And now for something completely different!")

Style aside, the high laugh content of their shows is what their followers love most. Chapman and Cleese wrote as a team, specializing in verbally boisterous "thesaurus sketches" with contrasting characters hurling torrents of words at each other. Who can forget Cleese's rant at a pet-shop proprietor over a recently purchased parrot that turned out to be dead, deceased, dormant, demised, passed on, passed away, and pushing up the daisies?

Mr. Jones and Mr. Palin were the other writing duo, specializing in visual humor with an unpredictable tempo. Idle liked to write on his own, and Gilliam did his cut-and-paste animations in his own studio, splicing them into the show shortly before air time.

The six devised their sketches in strictly scheduled sessions of writing, discussing, and critiquing one another's contributions. As often as not, the creators of a sketch wouldn't end up performing it. The objective was to have the most suitable Python play each part, regardless of who dreamed up the sketch. The important thing was making viewers laugh, not satisfying individual egos.

"Monty Python's Flying Circus" flew high for about four years, not counting a few months off in 1971 and a shortened season of Cleese-less shows in 1974. As the show lost momentum in England, it gained an American following, beginning on a small number of PBS stations and swelling into a nationwide success.

Python also soared in five feature films. The quality varies widely, but each is precious to Monty mavens in its own distinctive way. …

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