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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.