Tribeca Film Festival 2015: 40th Anniversary of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, plus Monty Python QA with Host John Oliver

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This year marks the 40th anniversary of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is a new documentary coming out called Monty Python – The Meaning of Live, about the development of the live show they did last year at the O2 in London. (The last live show they did as a group was in 1980 at the Hollywood Bowl.) The documentary is fascinating! Monty Python – The Meaning of Live is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, and this entire weekend is given up to a celebration of all things Python, with screenings of the documentary, Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life and, last night, at the gorgeous and enormous Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side, a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The five living Pythons (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones) were all in attendance. Robert De Niro was there, introducing the event and welcoming everyone. John Oliver ran a raucous and chaotic Q and A after the screening with all five of them. A more in-depth piece will be going up on Rogerebert.com about last night, but here are some photos (all photos taken by me) and choice quotes.

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Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, John Oliver. That seating arrangement would not last long.

John Oliver: Why do you think Monty Python has lasted so long? Is it because silliness is basically timeless?
John Cleese: We thought we were being serious.

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John Oliver: You’ve just done this gigantic live show at the O2 in England. How did it feel doing comedy in a space that vast?
Eric Idle: It’s kind of the same. You know, you’re just talking to each other. Once the lights are on – I don’t know how many people are here – they’re in the dark – and you are just up there with these guys.
Terry Jones: The audience was so warm and welcoming.
Michael Palin: People listened. They were waiting for the lines. I thought we would be hearing the lines back before we said them. You get 15,000 people listening and laughing at about the same time – it was surprising really.

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Monty Python madness on the red carpet beforehand

Eric Idle: [to John Cleese] Tell them what Eddie Izzard said to you.
John Cleese: Oh, that’s right. Dear Eddie Izzard! He came to see the show 6 or 7 times and on the 2nd night, I saw him there and I apologized to him, I said, “I’m sorry I messed that sketch up” because I got a line wrong in Michelangelo. And he said, “No, you don’t understand. The audience has all seen you do these sketches right many times. It’s much more fun when you fuck it up.”

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John Oliver: One of the things I love best in the documentary – there’s this great moment where they will not let you play the vagina song during the televised program.
Eric Idle: We have the “watershed” in England. That’s where you can say “vagina” 5 minutes past 9, but not at 5 minutes to 9, for public safety and moral reasons. So I wrote something very quickly and Michael got straight into drag, and filled in for the television viewers what filth they were missing.
John Oliver: Right, so in response, you dress up like an old lady and give a pseudo-apology that used the word “cunt.”

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Michael Palin: The BBC didn’t censor us at all for the first two series. Once we started getting popular, they did introduce some censorship and there was a sketch, the “Summarize Proust Competition” – and people who came on [as contestants] were asked what their hobbies were. One man said, “Strangling animals, golf, and masturbating.” [We had already filmed it] and they called us in on it and said, “You can’t use the word ‘masturbating’ on television.” We all went up to the office to see the head of comedy, and we had this great discussion – well, it wasn’t really a discussion. Terry Gilliam was shouting, “I masturbate. You masturbate. We ALL masturbate!” … The funniest thing, though, was that “Strangling animals” was fine.

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John Cleese: I do a lot of … I don’t know if they’re really racist jokes … but jokes like: Why do the French have so many civil wars? Answer: Because they love to win one now and again.
John Oliver: That’s not racist. That’s a historical fact.

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John Cleese: When you’re onstage and about 6 people in the audience go, [tepid, unenthusiastic] “Ha ha ha”, you really want to kill yourself. But when there’s complete silence, it’s hilarious.
John Oliver: It’s an out of body experience, thinking: the only reason I’m onstage is to entertain people. I’m failing to do that. And I’m dressed in drag. And I’m an adult. What am I doing with my life. It’s inherently ridiculous.
Michael Palin: That’s what makes it fun.

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At one point, a woman in the front row made some sort of loud sound in response to something – I couldn’t figure out what it was, but John Cleese turned to her, pointing his finger at her, to Shush her.
John Oliver: There is immense authority in the British accent. Still! If you had done that in 1776, all this would still be ours.

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Terry Gilliam: [on filming “Holy Grail”] We had chosen all the castles in Wales and Scotland, and then we were told after we started to shoot that the National Trust was banning us from the castles because we wouldn’t respect the dignity of the fabric of the building. [These were places where] tortures, disembowellings, guttings … had gone on! So we didn’t have castles to work with and that’s why you see painted cut-out castles, and we made jokes about it. That last castle, we didn’t have the keys to the castle, and the son of the owner had to fly up from Kent to deliver the keys … so we could get in there and then dump shit on Terry and Graham.

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There was much mayhem. John Cleese left the stage multiple times. He wandered around backstage, poking his hand out between the flats and wiggling his fingers at us. At one point, Terry Gilliam left the stage too and then he and John returned, Gilliam crouched down, hiding under Cleese’s blazer coat-tails. And they hid behind Terry Jones’ chair and made loud fart noises. John Oliver crawled (literally, there were no steps) off the stage and came out into the audience to take questions. John Cleese commented at one point, “These questions are rather bad.” One guy stood up and asked, “Could you do the four Yorkshiremen?” and John Oliver exclaimed, “It’s not a fucking jukebox up there!” It was a rough-house environment, sharp-edged and full of insults, and I felt like the air was pure oxygen. It was wonderful. Wonderful to see them all in the flesh. Wonderful to watch “Holy Grail” in that gigantic 3,000 seat theatre. The excitement was so thick you feel like you could reach out and touch it. I have always loved John Oliver. Watching him handle that group interview, with 5 master comedians and improvisers, who were constantly careening the event out of control, was inspirational. It was a beautiful night of tribute to these super-star guys who have done so much to help create the culture in which we live.

I’ll post the link to the round-up on Rogerebert.com when it goes live. There was much more to the discussion, including a couple of references to Graham Chapman, and a long and interesting conversation about political correctness and comedy. It was a great night and I felt very lucky to be there.

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14 Responses to Tribeca Film Festival 2015: 40th Anniversary of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, plus Monty Python QA with Host John Oliver

  1. mutecypher says:

    Must not give in to envy. Must not give in to envy.

    Fail.

    Crap.

    • sheila says:

      Ha! My press pass got me in – so great, and I was in the second row – but the crush of people at that box office who didn’t have tickets but who saw the marquee and were trying to get in was insane.

      One thing I included in the Rogerebert.com piece that I didn’t include here – but I’ll just give a glimpse is: Early on, they were all seated in a row. John Cleese answered some question at some level of depth. He finished, and then got up and walked off the stage. At first it seemed like a “bit” and that he would return right away – like he was faking us out – but he didn’t return. He was gone for some time. (Oliver joked that Cleese was now “walking down Columbus Avenue still talking into the microphone.”) Cleese was hanging around backstage, wiggling his fingers at us, etc.

      When he finally returned he had another chair with him. I thought to myself, “Oh – he’s an old guy – maybe those little swivel chairs aren’t comfortable for him” 0r something like that. And maybe that was partly true, but when he put the chair down – in the line with all the other chairs, he said, “This is for Graham.”

  2. Lyrie says:

    // but when he put the chair down – in the line with all the other chairs, he said, “This is for Graham. //
    Oh, my heart.
    I have read countless interviews, and they never fail to mention him. I love them. I want to marry Michael Palin.

    Mutecypher:// Fail. //
    Me too.

    • sheila says:

      One of the things I love so much is how different they all are. And how cantankerous they all are. People who want everyone to be lovely and polite all the time just don’t get the dynamic. (John Oliver brought up the whole “ludicrous” rumor that these guys “don’t get along.” He said, “People just cannot understand how comedians talk to each other.” Ha! In the documentary, John Cleese says at one point, “I don’t think Terry Gilliam has ever said one word that I agree with.” I’m dying ….)

      Terry Jones – who barely said a word during the entire interview – (he seems so sweet) tried to interject something at one point, and Cleese barked, “Shut UP, Terry.” And of course Terry roared.

      Make sure to seek out the documentary – and I’ll bet that this John Oliver QA will end up on Youtube. It might already be there.

      All of the mentions of Graham were just amazing – there were more. But the chair moment was really special.

  3. Loved them from Day One. I’m their 71 year old spiritual kid brother. Michael Palin’s Diaries – 1969 – 1979, The Python Years is a book you, a fellow diarist, would adore (have already adored?).

  4. May says:

    Mutecypher has already summed up my feelings: //Must not give in to envy. Must not give in to envy. Fail.//

    I was practically raised on Monty Python. My mom, and her older brother and sister, were big fans. I was probably under 10 the first time I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I clearly remember being at my grandparents with my cousins and our parents forcing us to watch it on TV. We enjoyed the witch trial and the black knight scenes, but didn’t really understand the rest (the whole castle anthrax scene is just very confusing to a child).

    Of course, now it is one of my favourite movies.

    • sheila says:

      May – I was practically raised on them too! I remember hearing my parents ROARING watching them on TV from the other room, and they let us come in and watch too. I didn’t get a lot of it – I was intrigued by the animation, although I didn’t quite understand it – and it all seemed sooooo British to me, which I loved. It was like “Penny Lane” or “Sgt. Pepper” or something like that. Those animations reminded me of the Beatles (and now of course I know that George Harrison was a huge Python fan and mortgaged his house to help finance Life of Brian!!) So many classic sketches – and then of course the movies. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen Holy Grail. But to see it in a gigantic gold-leaf movie palace with 3,000 other super-fans? WOW.

      It was such a special night!! Love these guys so much!

  5. Martin says:

    I’m another envious commenter. But part of me imagines that being in an auditorium with 3,000 Monty Python fans, with the Pythons themselves on stage, would be kind of a nightmare. The people I know who identify as Python superfans use Python as an insular language, endlessly quoting and spontaneously reenacting skits without a shred of context, at every party, every gathering–people who use Python references to avoid real communicati0n. I think every Python lover in my own circle would be like that guy who shouted from the audience for them to do his favorite skit. They would all demand that the Pythons on stage be their “fucking jukebox.” And that’s all they would want from them–the safe little ritual of a laughing at a Monty Python sketch.

    Maybe this happens mostly among fans a generation removed from the ones who actually saw the show on TV, when it was all fresh. Two generations later, Monty Python appreciation–appreciation of a group loved for insane invention and restless energy– has become a very static and sterile activity.

    • sheila says:

      Martin – Ha, I know just what you are talking about with Python fans – the same is true of Seinfeld fans, Simpson fans – the guys (mostly guys) who think quoting these things mean that they themselves are witty.

      But the event on Friday night was not at all sterile or static – it crackled with electricity and excitement – and the Pythons themselves were so in the moment, they were so in charge up there – that all sense of “standing on ceremony” was abolished. They couldn’t bear themselves if they took themselves TOO seriously, know what I mean?

      And it was a very mixed crowd – teenagers to elderly – so that was pretty cool too!!

  6. Dg says:

    Just the fact that they had a Summarize Proust Competition is good enough for me.
    Love these guys.

  7. Jessie says:

    thank you so much for this and for the other post on the event. What an incredible opportunity. I bet John Oliver was pinching himself non-stop.

    Holy Grail (now there’s a movie I have seen in a theatre with fans and it was uproarious) easily coasts into my top five Formative Movies list. My most recent plane trip was an overnighter that I couldn’t sleep through, so I figured I’d watch some Flying Circus (mistake). I had to hold my hand over my mouth to muffle myself (unsuccessful, I was very loud). I didn’t think that even happened in real life. Nothing kills me faster than Cleese and Chapman screeching at each other.

    • sheila says:

      You could tell how delighted John Oliver was at having this gig – and he was prepared, man. Not a surprise, but still! He was READY. With the pages of questions, and making sure he talked to everyone – directing specific questions at specific guys. Watching him manage those 5 guys – who were all over the place – sometimes literally – it was inspiring!

      I love the image of you roaring with laughter on an overnight flight because of Monty Python!!

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