Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Python (Monty) Story

The Python (Monty) Story: IFC ran a five-part documentary on the Pythons in honor of their 40th anniversary, Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyer's Cut), and it was wonderful. It featured interviews with all the surviving members and it was an absolutely joy to re-live all the old skits and movies. I have scrupulously avoided watching them for the past quarter century or so because I was afraid of how they would age. I needn't have feared. They've aged pretty much as you would expect. The shows were uneven, but the first two movies still rank in the top five funniest movies ever, with Life of Brian being the Python pinnacle.

Some of the more personal aspects of the Pythons were fascinating to learn of. For example, I always thought of them as a kind of close-knit bunch; dearest friends from the outset, like Lennon-McCartney or Seinfeld-David. Not so. While they seem to have had good working relationships, they were not the best of friends, generally going their own way outside of work, and they did have their (temporary) falling outs. I never realized how much the two Terrys were the driving forces behind the movies. For some reason, I always had it in my head the Idle and Chapman were sort of the grand poobahs of the troupe, with Cleese as the main face. I suppose that shows how dedicated they were to getting things right rather than personal promotion. No individual egos really showed through.

And God bless John Cleese for knowing when to end things. It was he who wanted to end the original series when he saw things were getting stale. He left the troupe and the remaining members did another half-season before realizing he was right. He also didn't really want to do the Meaning of Life which was distressingly uneven. Again he was probably right they would have been better off stopping after Brian (although the world would miss Mr. Creosote). Related to that, Cleese also did only 13 episodes of the utterly brilliant Fawlty Towers then stopped, just letting the work stand and its reputation grow over time. Knowing when not to go on is a rare quality in a world with 20 god-awful years of The Simpsons and Law and Order.

What is perhaps underappreciated about the Pythons is what astoundingly good actors they were. You can't tell me you aren't expecting a vein in Cleese's neck to burst while offering training for self-defense against fresh fruit, or Graham Chapman to have a nervous breakdown on the spot in the this job interview. For my money, Palin was the best of all. The variety of characters he played in Life of Brian was a tour de force of comic acting. They did, perhaps, have the advantage of both writing and acting. Comedy is such a sensitive and subtle thing that I suspect in many cases what is funny in the writer's head cannot adequately be described in words -- it's a matter of nuance and timing -- so by portraying their own creations they were able to get the characters pitch perfect. If they had produced some dismal melodrama rather than absurdist comedy these guy would be hailed as artists of historic importance.

In the end, what comes through most from the interviews is the personalities of the Pythons. To a man they were unbelievably smart, witty, engaging, and cleverly rebellious. Each had specific qualities that contributed to the whole -- Idle had musical and business sense, Gilliam had the visuals covered, Jones was the fervent driving force, Chapman and Cleese had star quality, Palin was the affable, do-it-all guy. The confluence of such people is a lightning strike and as they themselves point out when the question of reunions comes up, it can't be repeated; only noticeably mimicked.

Don't over think it. Just kick back and rediscover. Monty Python is not dead, or even pinin'. It's as fresh as it ever was.