Monty Python Live (Mostly)
2014 • 180 minutes • Fathom Events
I have been extremely appreciative of the recent trend of screening plays and other theatrical performances in movie theaters. After spending much of high school tearing my hair and rending my garments at the fact that I was missing specific casts in specific shows and had no access to the Paley Center, I’m delighted to see theater being made more accessible. (I have since left musical fandom, because I lack superhuman powers of media consumption, no matter how much.) Now, events that previously would have me gnashing my teeth in despair—like that time I missed Eddie Izzard in Atlanta—are actually within my reach.
Events like Monty Python Live (Mostly), tickets for which sold out in under a minute. Before undertaking the road trip we are currently on, my roommate and I were delighted to realize that we had an opportunity to watch the legendary comedy troupe reunite for the first time in thirty years and, according to them, for the last time. (We’ll have one in Yonkers, of course, but we’re waiting for the one in Brooklyn to open.) We purchased our tickets, worked our itinerary around it, and were thrilled to be in a theater full of fellow Python fans. She’d recently, in the past few years, started looking into Monty Python’s Flying Circus in-depth; I had warm fuzzy memories of recording episodes off of BBC America, watching Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, and overidentifying with Eric Idle during my preteen years.
But despite our disparate approaches, we both ended the evening frustrated and disappointed. When we overheard another filmgoer sigh in utter contentment, we fled as soon as we could.
Monty Python is so beloved around the world that they could have done anything on the stage of the O2 arena and people would have been happy. Just seeing them together (along with Graham Chapman, in pretaped form) is a joy: Terry Gilliam retains his stocky, bearded, weirdo charms, the glint in Michael Palin’s eye remains as manic as ever, and Eric Idle is sharp, sharp, sharp. Seeing them update classic sketches to include references to the departed Chapman, or Palin’s career as a travel documentarian, or John Cleese’s divorces is practically sweet, given the troupe’s famed acerbic affection. (A private memorial for Graham Chapman found the rest of the troupe laughing through their tears as they told increasingly vulgar jokes.) And, of course, seeing Eddie Izzard turn up as a special guest during “Bruces’ Philosophers Song” is beyond heartening.
However, watching the material that they’ve decided appropriate for this particular show is just alarming. What was mildly explainable (but, of course, not excusable) in the context of when the bulk of their shared material was produced (the seventies and early eighties) is just painful to watch, with jokes made at the expense of queer folk (“The Lumberjack Song,” of course, as well as the “Camp Judges” sketch) and the climax of Act One, the 1980 song “I Like Chinese,” featuring not only sung stereotypes but an entire troupe of able dancers in yellow face. What flew then cannot and should not fly now, but it’s only baffling if you don’t remember that the troupe can basically get away with murder at this point.
So the actual baffling thing is that they don’t have to. They have plenty of beloved material that doesn’t rely on tired stereotypes that can be trotted out for audiences to mouth the words along to and cheer. Total Film’s list of “The 40 Greatest Monty Python Sketches” features oodles of them, and I’m particularly fond of the sketch that calls for Eric Idle to read a children’s book and be constantly horrified at the sex and violence he encounters. It takes work to trot out the offensive stuff in such great numbers that it leaves you feeling ill and excluded.
There are bright spots for the Python faithful. “Not the Noel Coward Song” has been updated to include verses for penises, vaginas, and butts, allowing everyone, no matter what bits they’ve got, to be included. (This almost makes it more frustrating, to see that they’re perfectly capable of updating their material to make it more inclusive.) Seeing Carol Cleveland and Eric Idle waltz to “The Galaxy Song” for the last time is sweet and poignant. And since John Cleese is no longer physical able or willing to do the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, having the dance troupe do an inspired number to a beautifully produced version of the song is lovely. But all in all, it’s padded, creaky, and curdled, making me doubt my love of Monty Python in the first place.
It’ll be restored with a viewing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, of course, but still.
I saw this event in theaters.