I’ve been thinking about Monty Python a lot recently.
A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that all of the living Pythons (except Cleese) would reunite for a one-night-only performance at the Royal Albert Hall. As an immediate reflex, I booked tickets without even finding out what they were actually doing. All I needed were the words ‘monty’ ‘python’ ‘royal’ and ‘albert’. Without even knowing what they were doing or who I would be going with, some inner force was already typing my credit card numbers into the online form. And then I had successfully booked tickets. And then I remembered that whenever anyone mentions Monty Python to me, my response always begins with a heavy sigh. I had to stop and think about whether I actually liked Monty Python – especially enough to stand for several hours far removed from the action for a performance that essentially appears to be Eric Idle leading songs based on Life of Brian.
I first discovered Python when I was 13 and the BBC started showing repeats of the original series, although I quickly discovered that unrecognised python references had already permeated my entire young life. It turned out to be the source of my mother’s oft-cried ‘NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition’ and I finally understood the surreal occasional ‘This parrot is no more’ that I had heard so many grown-ups bluster out to immediate recognition and amusement from their peers.
It was brilliant. I was hooked. I taped the episodes and watched them obsessively, bought the transcribed screenplay books and marveled at the comedic construction. I was just getting into screenwriting then and I remember being blown away by the ‘spam’ sketch on a structural basis – that might even have been the first time I looked at a piece of film beyond whether I liked it or not to WHY I liked it. I thought it was genius – it worked as a simple comedic sketch, a customer in a cafe wanting a meal without spam in it but the owner refusing – but the surreality was incredible. The two protagonists were lowered into their seats on wires at the beginning of the sketch, the cafe was full of vikings, everyone kept saying ‘spam’. But it never felt lazily surreal like so much would in it’s wake. The surreality was beautifully constructed and written. I found actual lyricism in the line ‘spam, spam, spam, egg and spam’ and the denouement of that speech, after all of the multiple spam dishes, the last thing on the menu being ‘Lobster thermidor a crevette with a mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top… and spam’. Terry Jones and Graham Chapman both awkwardly squawking their dialogue as old ladies, John Cleese appearing and announcing ‘great boobies’ in a bad foreign accent. It was just brilliant. I hadn’t even conceived of such comedy genius up to that point.
I quickly moved on to the films, which I enjoyed even more than the series. To a young teenager, there could be nothing funnier. Gently subversive, extremely silly and quotable and full of stupid ideas and even stupider voices. As a film lover anyway, to see my TV heroes effortlessly take to bigger production values and story structure was a dream come true.
I endlessly quoted Python with my friends, bought up all the books and albums I could, discovered their side projects – Ripping Yarns, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Fawlty Towers (I already had seen but re-appreciated) and then I kind of grew up. It couldn’t have been more than 18 months later that my new obsession was Bill Hicks and I’d crossed from awkward pubescent to jaded Cure-listening, long haired almost-politicized aloof and laconic teenage Jon.
Monty Python was a lot of things, but it was never cool.
Python quickly became something I associated with really nerdy geeks. The kind of guys who never moved on from that awkward adolescence. They quoted it endlessly like broken records and were stuck on it. It came to represent gentle immaturity. Even worse, Eric Idle for some reason released ‘Always Look On The bright Side of Life’ as a single and it became this cringeworthy national anthem for a while. I still tense up when I hear people sing it. Out of the genius context of a crucifixion scene, it becomes moronically gay (in the non-offensive sense) and frustrating. I was done. Let them laugh at their men in drag talking about ‘crunchy frogs’, I had found Rob Newman and David Baddiel, Dennis Leary, people who swore and shouted and looked at everything with detached cold disdain. Comedy was not to be found in a man in a suit doing a silly walk, it was to be found in politics, the futility of existence and shouting ‘WHAT THE FUCK?’
One of the nice things about being in your thirties is you get to drop the very notion of being ‘cool’. You have by now learned that the coolest people are not the shouters or the posturers but the decent, kind, warm, interesting and intelligent. So, with a lack of social fear one can re-assess their own tastes. I love that. That has granted me licence to publicly declare my love for Doctor Who, The Beatles, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Queen, The Muppets, Fairport Convention, Steptoe and Son and all the other things teenagers of the 90’s might roll their eyes to. (In fact, reassessing the things I liked in my teens often destroys them. I found it a tedious slog to make it the whole way through both the Vic Reeves Big Night Out DVD and the Levellers’ eponymous album)
So after spending the last couple of weeks re-watching scraps of Monty Python, I think it only right to declare my love for them once more. I don’t think I ever actively disliked them, I just managed to tie them up in a package with their fans and the period of my life in which they were prevalent and forget that they were actually really really really good.
Youtube being the staggeringly amazing resource it is, I found a clip that I remember being very moved by on television at the height of my Python obsession – since that was also the point of Graham Chapman’s untimely death. The clip posted below starts with John Cleese’s speech at his writing partner’s memorial. I think it is one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard and displays all that was great about their work.
So, I’m incredibly excited to see them at the Albert Hall in October, to be able to see them onstage together for what might well be the last time, to be able to applaud as loudly as I can that they might somehow understand how much they meant – and I guess continue to mean – to me.
I might even sing along to Always Look On The Bright Side….
I doubt it, though – Bill Hicks left his mark too.