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Tribeca 2015: Monty Python Live

This year marks the 40th anniversary of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (a film that is probably quoted somewhere on the planet every minute of every day), and the final weekend of the Tribeca Film Festival was devoted to celebrating all things Python. There were screenings of "Life of Brian" and "The Meaning of Life", as well as a screening of the new documentary "Monty Python - The Meaning of Live" (directed by Roger Graef and James Rogan), which tracks the development of the Pythons' gigantic July 2014 live show done at the O2 theatre in London. The live show was titled: "Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go", a gallows-humor reference to Graham Chapman, the Python who died in 1989, leaving John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin to carry the torch. Monty Python's last live show was in 1980 at the Hollywood Bowl, so the anticipation and pressure in 2014 was enormous. Additionally, Friday, Tribeca screened "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" at the Beacon Theatre on New York's Upper West Side. Introduced by Tribeca Film Festival co-founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, it was a massive event, standing-room-only and all 5 living Pythons attended. "Last Week Tonight"'s John Oliver ran the raucous Q&A following the screening. 

From the moment the credits began to roll at the start of "Holy Grail," (with the running joke about the moose, and the title cards bickering at one another), the laughter began. The Beacon Theatre has two tiers of balconies and seats almost 3,000 people, so a collective burst of laughter in that venue was a sound to behold. The laughter was the laughter of recognition. It was also anticipatory laughter, with people starting to guffaw 30 seconds before the well-known funny moment even occurred. After certain famous moments ("your father smelled of elderberries," "farcical aquatic ceremony"), the entire audience erupted into applause. "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is one of those rare comedies that does not diminish with repetition. Seeing Graham Chapman gallop through a field in full knight's regalia without a horse, followed by a lunatic Terry Gilliam knocking two coconuts together to sound like horse hooves is as funny the 20th time as it was the first. Perhaps it's even funnier, because the level of absurdity is even more pronounced.

John Oliver was a worthy host for the mayhem that followed. There were times when events careened out of control because there were 5 Pythons on that stage, 5 master improvisers and comedians, who refused to stand on ceremony, who felt as comfortable onstage as they do off (more, probably), and were not afraid to say what they thought. After the third question from the audience, Cleese remarked flatly, "These are fairly bad, these questions." All of the other Pythons agreed. John Oliver begged the audience, "You're letting your country down. This is embarrassing. America is better than this."  At one point, John Cleese got up and walked off the stage with no warning. He did not return for quite some time, although he did stick his hand out from behind the curtain on the other side of the stage, wiggling his fingers and stealing focus from the interview still going on. When Cleese finally did return, he brought with him another chair, placing it amongst the rest, saying, "This is for Graham." While done in an offhand manner, the moment contained extraordinary emotion, and the extra chair remained onstage, allowing a game of unofficial musical chairs to commence. People stood up and moved around. People swiveled the chairs so their backs faced the audience and they talked to each other from those positions. John Oliver maintained as much control as he could, interjecting one-liners and bringing them back to focus as a group. By the end, he declared he would go "full Montel" and roamed throughout the audience, looking for questions. The mood was one of ribald hilarity, punctuated by moments of poignancy, that much more startling because of the chaos surrounding it. One of the questions from the audience was "What should I name my parakeet?" A rather silly and inconsequential question, and the group of men sat there in silence for a second, before Cleese said, simply, "Graham." 

John Oliver observed, "One of the crazy things I've been reading is this ludicrous thing that you don't get on with each other. It's almost as if people don't understand how comedians talk to each other. There's nothing less funny than sincerity. You are going to rip the shit out of each other. Out of respect." All the Pythons nodded, that's right, that's exactly right. 

Along those lines, one audience member asked John Cleese if he had gotten any criticism for his irreverent eulogy at Graham Chapman's funeral.

It was the type of event where you were never sure what would come out of any of their mouths, but in this case, Cleese answered the question quite seriously and quite beautifully: "It was a Python occasion. There was nobody in there except Pythons and friends so I knew I was safe. When they [asked if they could record it], I said, 'Well, you can, but for God's sake, don't put it out until we've thought about it.' And then it went out and it was extraordinary the effect that it had. But Graham's whole ceremony was like that. We were laughing, and then we were crying, and laughing and then crying. The emotion was flowing through us instead of getting blocked like it usually does in England. It was a wonderful occasion." Michael Palin interjected, "I think Graham would have loved it." Cleese repeated one of the things he said in that famous eulogy: Graham Chapman despised what he called "mindless good taste."

The question of "good taste" brought up the issue of political correctness, a subject dear to free speech advocates and comedians, in particular. Monty Python had always run into censorship problems with their television show, but that usually had to do with naughty language. Michael Palin described a moment when they were hauled in before the "head of comedy" at the BBC, who informed them that they couldn't say "masturbating" on television. Palin said, "We had this great discussion in his office - well, it wasn't really a discussion. Terry Gilliam was shouting, 'I masturbate. You masturbate. We ALL masturbate!'" 

John Cleese, after making jokes about the French, and the Mexicans, and discussing how Python always joked about Canadians, and Swedes, and Germans, and everyone else, said, "Every day when I read the newspaper, I get deeply offended. The British papers at the moment are propaganda leaflets for the Tory party and it disgusts me. So when people say 'I've been offended' [by a joke] I want to say 'Well, how many people weren't [offended]?' When you do something that's going to upset people, you sometimes think: Is it going to upset 1% of the 99% who will think it's hilarious? Like the sketch about the guy going into the undertaker saying he wants to bury his mother and the undertaker suggests that they eat his mother. And a person [in the audience] - their mother died the night before and so [they feel offended] - the sketch is pretty near to the bone. But you say, 'Yes, but there weren't TOO many people whose mother died the night before. The other 99.9% think it's quite funny so shouldn't we think about them too?" Python's irreverent attitude to all of this was summed up by Cleese in his comment, "In comedy there's two ways of attacking something. One is just being rude about it, and Two is taking on those attitudes and making them ridiculous." It was the Python stock in trade. 

John Oliver brought up a fascinating moment in the Monty Python documentary. Backstage, during one of the performances, John Cleese speaks to the camera about what he thinks is working, what he thinks isn't working, and cuts he wants to make for the next performance. Even when the show was up and running, they remained in process. Cleese said, "The audience is king. If you make them laugh, you've won. If you don't make them laugh, you've lost. You really listen to the audience. They are part of the show. They are the litmus test all the time of whether or not it's working." 

"Monty Python - the Meaning of Live" screens today at the Tribeca Film Festival at 3:30, and it's an entertaining and fascinating look at Monty Python's journey as a group (then and now), at how all of the clashing personalities and sensibilities (at one point during the documentary, Cleese observes that he doesn't believe that Terry Gilliam has ever said one thing with which he agrees) work together to create something, a group that is larger than its individual parts, a group that not only broke a mould, but created a new mould entirely. John Oliver closed out the interview by calling back one of his quotes from early on in the night, "It's obvious that there's nothing less funny than sincerity, but you're the fucking greatest." During one of the O2 performances of the live show, Mike Myers was called onstage to do a small bit, and he is captured in the documentary, backstage, nearly unable to speak. With the documentary camera on him, the only words he was able to muster were, "That was .... beyond."  "Beyond" is how so many people feel about Monty Python, and that energy was palpable last night at The Beacon. 

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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