You know how you’re watching something funny at the movies or on television and say to yourself, “That’s really funny,” but you don’t laugh?
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That’s happened to me many times while watching Monty Python’s television programs and movies. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the six comedians who comprised the troupe, five of whom are British (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones) and one American (Terry Gilliam.) Rather, it’s about the type of comedy they perform.
The only time I recall really laughing — if I remember correctly, tears even came to my eyes — at one of Monty Python’s brilliant comic sketches was at the end of their 1979 film “Life of Brian." It was the crucifixion scene at the end, when a group of crucified men breaks into the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to encourage the likewise crucified protagonist. (The song, which became one of the most beloved British anthems, is still played at soccer games and other events with large crowds.)
It is a moment of comic genius that perhaps made me laugh because it was more direct and unmediated than most of the other, brilliant moments from the group's films and its “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” television show, aired from 1969 to 1974.
Monty Python has never been forgotten. In 2004, its comic legacy even inspired “Spamalot,” a musical directed by Mike Nichols. One of the most successful musicals of recent years, “Spamalot” won three Tony Awards.
Now, Monty Python has returned, with the reunion of five of its members for ten farewell performances (Graham Chapman died in 1989 at the age of 43.) Only two performances were scheduled for London’s O2 arena at first, but eight more were added when tickets to both shows sold out within 43.5 seconds. The first show took place on Tuesday this week, while the last, on July 20, will be shown live in movie theaters around the United Kingdom and in 1,500 movie theaters around the world, including in Israel.
The British press was not uniform in its response to the reunion. Some writers said that the only motive for it was money, since each of the remaining members of the troupe is in need of it. Comedy, too, suffers from class inequality
In post-World War II Britain, which had lost its status as an empire on which the sun never set, a comic tradition developed that combined elements of both extremes. At the one end was the sophisticated British humor of such brilliant comic playwrights as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, together with some of the cleverest comedies in cinematic history such as “Blue Blood” and “The Ladykillers.” But on the other side was the deliberately vulgar and popular comic style of Benny Hill, the “Carry On” film series and television series such as “Little Britain” and “The Catherine Tate Show.”
These films and television programs showed the vulgar, popular side of the cleverness, and the clever side of the vulgar and popular. During the second half of the twentieth century, British writers focused more and more on the issue of class divisions and the increasing blurriness of the boundaries between them. The integration of both these sides in British comedy can be seen in the work of writers such as Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, among others, whose very act of combining them in comedy contained a subversive social and political element.
At the core of these programs and shows was the legacy of the English music hall, with its spectrum of both elegant and coarse performances and songs that were tender, lighthearted and mischievous at the same time. Over the years, this legacy influenced not only British comedy, but also British popular music, including the Beatles (“Sergeant Pepper” is a direct, sophisticated result of it.) Monty Python, some of whose members came from Oxford and others from Cambridge, was influenced by the work of these comics and by their anarchistic humor at the time.
They borrowed their habit of sometimes stopping a skit before the end on the basis that it was too silly from Spike Milligan. In Monty Python’s shows, this sometimes translated to sketches that stopped before reaching their punchline to link up with the next sketch. Monty Python’s comedy was defined as absurd and surrealist, but more than anything it was the kind of comedy that broke rules, whether of good taste (the “Dead Parrot” sketch) or of the construction of a comedy program (the credits sometimes appeared in the middle of the program, and in one show the ending credits rolled right after the opening ones.) To a large extent, Monty Python’s humor expressed the spirit of the time in that decade, when Britain changed its appearance and London was suddenly thought of as the center of a new, young and lively world.
Monty Python’s humor was simultaneously popular and intellectual, complex and accessible in terms of appearance and language, clever and also harsh in its approach to history. That is where its brilliance, and sometimes its failures, came from. Maybe that is also the source of my response to it, which I described above.
There are various stories of how the group came to choose the name Monty Python. The one I like best is that “Monty” is a reference to Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, one of Britain’s heroes during World War II under the nickname Monty, and that a slippery name was required after such a heroic name, so “Python” was chosen. I find it funny, even if I’m not laughing at the moment.