Odds are if you ask anyone older than 35 about Monty Python, you’ll get a quote or a song from the comedy troupe as an answer. Most of the members of Generation X and older have grown up in contact with the lingering effects of the British Invasion. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and others before and after who took American blues and soul and country back to their island and made it something different, made it apply to their politics, conflated it with their culture, and sold it back to us.
The members of Monty Python - John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones - are contemporaries of these British Invasion bands, and naturally, they approached comedy pretty much the same way. They took the word puzzles of the Marx Brothers, elements of Vaudeville and slapstick. They applied a British sensibility and the curiosity of a hippy cosmos and the absurdity of English punk. And then, they had something completely different.
In fact, the group’s influence on comedy has been likened to The Fab Four’s impact on popular music.
But does the eccentric comedy troupe Monty Python still have a grip on pop culture? The remainder of the group - Chapman died in 1989 - is launching a tour this spring, and locally, Theatre of the Republic (TOR) in Conway is taking on “Spamalot,” the musical adaptation of the cult classic film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Are there college kids and millennials on the Grand Strand still quoting this classic, or is it reserved for the Gen-X and older crowd? How will the warped sense of Brit humor play on a Conway stage?
We went on an exploration to see if there were any 20-somethings with a bright side of comedy sensibility, or has time silly-walked Monty Python out of today’s pop culture? But first, what’s the big deal with these old dudes?
Nobody expected the Flying Circus
The history of Monty Python is a long and winding road, but the shortcut goes kind of like this. The six members were a weird bunch. Chapman, Cleese and Idle met as students at Cambridge. Jones and Palin met at Oxford. And American Terry Gilliam was brought in to be the group’s animator and co-director. Each member brought in strange comic sensibilities. All six were cerebral thinkers. They wrote smart bits and musical bits and dark bits and edgy bits. Plus, they also had a great sense of comedic timing.
Somehow, these six strange fellows got a show on the BBC, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” which ran from 1969 to 1974, and reruns became popular in the U.S. when aired by PBS in the 1970s and ‘80s and in 1987, MTV began showing it nightly, bringing the madcap laughs to a new audience.
They begin to make films in 1971. Their filmography includes the comedy classics “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in 1975 and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” in 1979. They do a final live performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 1980, before the troupe comes to an end in 1983 with the uncharacteristically dark film “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.”
Joe Cannon is a 67 year-old retired baby-boomer. He has decided to spend his golden years enrolled in classes at Coastal Carolina University. He’s earned two bachelor degrees and is triple majoring in marine science, biochemistry and history – just because he can. “I remember Monty Python first airing on PBS at 9 on Sunday nights back in the ’70s. There was nothing like it,” he says. “No one was doing what they were doing. It was timeless slapstick, but it was also dry and English. But above everything else, it was physically funny.”
Then, Monty Python was no more. Monty Python ceased to be. Literally in some cases – Chapman who played King Arthur in “Holy Grail” and Brian in “Life of Brian,” died of cancer as the ‘80s came to a close..
The rest of the group goes on making films, writing books, contributing to each others’ projects (some suck, some are great). In 2004, Idle co-writes a Broadway production that he “lovingly ripped off” of “Holy Grail” with other Python bits sprinkled in and called it, “Spamalot.” It wins Tony Awards and is generally loved by Python fans and non-fans alike.
The remaining members, all in their 70s, intend to reunite for a live show to do the career-spanning fan-favorite bits on July 1 at the O2 Arena in London.
But anyway, back to the search for the young people who think these old people are funny.
Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Know what I mean?
In our search for millennials with experience in the Python arts, we found more than a handful of people who had seen a movie or two from the troupe. Sometimes we found that a high school teacher or a college professor had made them watch one of the movies or a section of the show. Sometimes a boyfriend made them watch, and when asked what they remember, they usually say something like, “I guess, it was funny” or “I remember it being silly” or “My boyfriend laughed a lot.”
But for the most part, they didn’t want to talk to us anymore and wanted to fart in our general direction, and tell us our mothers were hamsters and our fathers smelt of elderberries.
But then, we dug a little deeper and began to see there are young fans out there. And we’re not talking about just one or two Anglophiles, who obsessively watch the BBC because American TV is too predictable. But real, local young people with varying tastes who weren’t around when Python was at its height of popularity and somehow still found the shows and movies and got the humor - or humour. And here’s the crazy thing about Monty Python – it’s the type of funny that’s funny over and over. Every time you watch it, it just keeps getting funnier.
Madelyn Johnson is a 22 year-old, full-time student at CCU from Atlanta. “I was first introduced to Monty Python when I was about eight-years-old,” says Johnson. “My oldest brother always loved the movies, and I found them to be funny in a ridiculous kind of way.”
Johnson’s favorite Python films are “Holy Grail” and “The Meaning of Life.” And as far as her favorite scene is concerned, she says, “I will always love the Black Knight dueling scene in the ‘Holy Grail’…hilarious.” She refers to Monty Python’s brand of humor as a “lost art form and will always be dumb and funny, and that’s that.”
Robert Hibbs is a 26-year-old security guard and stand-up comedian from Murrells Inlet. “I discovered them around sophomore year of high school, about the same time almost everyone watches ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ and won’t shut the hell up about it,” says Hibbs.
“My favorite of their films is ‘Meaning of Life,’” says Hibbs. “It’s generally wackier, and it’s got all my favorite scenes, starting with ‘The Crimson: Permanent Assurance.’ And I love the end when the grim reaper puppet dramatically raises its finger, points and says, ‘The salmon mousse!’ I also like that ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ is a strangely heartwarming tune, even though it’s insanely dark and nihilistic.”
But with Hibbs, the hits keep on coming, “I also like the Parrot sketch because they keep redoing it,” he says. “And I hope they keep doing it every five years until Eric Idle and Michael Palin die. In fact, it would be perfect if they died performing it.”
Hibbs believes Monty Python still works “because absurdity is in. Cartoon Network’s ‘Adult Swim’ is the leader of off-beat, absurd humor right now,” he says. “If they put Monty Python on there, I’m sure it would be a hit.”
Megan Fahey is a 25-year-old, full-time student at CCU from Wheeling, W.V. When she was a kid, her parents used to let her hang out in their room on Saturday mornings and watch reruns of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
“Monty Python appeals to a something-for-everyone kind of audience, regardless of age or culture,” says Fahey. “Some of the heavy-British jokes might get lost in translation, but physical comedy is the universal language.”
Fahey is a proud owner of all of the Python films. “‘The Holy Grail’ in particular is rather worn from being loaned out,” she says. She has even kept up with the members’ other projects. “Be sure to check out the John Cleese show, ‘Fawlty Towers,’ on Netflix. It’s a gas.” And she uses Monty Python songs as therapy – “I listen to ‘The Galaxy Song’ at least once a month to keep me grounded,” she says.
Andrew Lesh is a 23-year-old administrative assistant/writer from South Bend, Indiana, currently living in Myrtle Beach. When asked about Monty Python, Lesh shouts, “She turned me into a newt!” - in reference to the witch accusation in “The Holy Grail.”
Lesh’s favorite scene is the Black Knight duel. His favorite song is “The Camelot Song.” His favorite walk is the Ministry of Silly Walks. “How can you not laugh at any of those?” he asks.
“I was introduced by a childhood friend to Monty Python when I was nine,” says Lesh. “It’s slapstick humor with a clever line of thought behind each witty retort. It’s something everyone can laugh at no matter age.”
We are no longer the knights who say ni!
Monty Python has always been irreverent, and “Spamalot” continues the irreverence. But the county seat of the Republic of Horry - Conway - is known more for its reverence, than for a thumbing-nose stance. “We look for shows that haven’t been done in the area as often as your typical musical shows,” says Tim McGhee, executive director of community theater outfit Theatre of the Republic. “Our audiences also like to laugh, and you can’t go wrong with ‘Spamalot.’ We’re introducing Monty Python to a new audience, some of who weren’t around during the Monty Python period.”
McGhee tells us the reception for the show so far has been positive. “We’re getting a great response. Tickets sales are going great,” he says. “And why wouldn’t they? This is a funny show.”
But the whole thing didn’t come together without some bumps. “We’re doing all the songs, and there was some large dance numbers, special effects, a lot of props and all the different costumes. When was the last time you saw a 10-foot wooden rabbit in a store?” says McGhee. “But I have the best production team, led by Sandra Adams the choreographer, Alyssa Watts the vocal director and Paula Zink the stage manager. I am proud to say we have pulled it off.”
That includes designing a stage in the classic Monty Python cut-out style. “What’s funny is I thought it would be so easy. I mean how hard is to paint a tree?” McGhee asks. “But if you’re not an artist, it’s harder than it looks. But actually, they turned out great, if I say so myself.”
TOR is a nonprofit community theater with core cast members. But this show called for open auditions and a lot of new faces will be introduced to the TOR audience. “The age range for this cast is between 19 and 50,” says McGhee. “A lot of the younger cast members didn’t know Monty Python, so I asked them to YouTube them to find out what all the hubbub was about – seeing it gave everyone a true sense of that Monty Python vibe.”
But McGhee doesn’t think it’s a question of whether Conway can handle irreverent English comedy. “If you love British humor, you’ll love ‘Spamalot.’ If you don’t like British humor, you’ll still love ‘Spamalot’,” he says. “It’s about coming into the Main Street Theater, having a glass of wine, a good-old belly laugh and always looking on the bright side of life. Then, you whistle.”
Python’s influence is all there in black and white
The influence of Python had a scattershot effect on surreal comedy from the mid-‘70s onward. And we’re not talking about a passing phase, here. Elements of the troupe have dribbled down through decades to current trends. The allowance of sketch comedy to take broad steps in absurd directions led the way for shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” “Kids in the Hall,” “MadTV” and on and on.
The stream of consciousness and tie-in taglines changed the way comedy shows were written. “South Park” is a direct descendant of Gilliam’s cut-out style of animation, which appeared randomly throughout episodes of “Flying Circus” and is a Python trademark.
The Python brand of comedy can be directly felt in hundreds of films, exampled by “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” You see it in animated series such as “Futurama,” “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.” Python’s use of absurd irony can be seen in “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” And these are just a few, it’s all over sitcoms and movies and every overtly British import from “Doctor Who” to “Downton Abbey.”
But the comedy troupe has had such an impact that there is a wealth of other influences outside of entertainment. There’s a prehistoric snake fossil named Montypythonoides riversleighensis. Ben and Jerry has a Vermonty Python flavor. There’s a Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale from the Black Sheep Brewery. There’s an endangered lemur named after John Cleese – Avahi Cleesei. There are seven asteroids named after Monty Python – 9617 Grahamchapman, 9618 Johncleese, 9619 Terrygilliam, 9620 Ericidle, 9621 Michaelpalin, 9622 Terryjones, and 13681 Monty Python. Hell, even the term "spam," when used as a reference to unsolicited e-mail, comes from the sketch about Spam (the canned meat).
The very fact that Monty Python has been incorporated into our culture as an association to anything bizarre may go against the guys’ initial intent of being unable to be categorized. But there’s no denying that these six blokes may have never scheduled a punch line, but they always delivered one – even after their quest was at an end, and it was up to the audiences to discover Castle Aaahhhgggg on their own.