Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro introduced Monty Python at the Beacon Theatre on Friday night by teasing, “It’s a great opportunity to see how badly they’ve aged in 40 years.”
Well, it turns out this circus still knows how to fly. After a special anniversary screening of their classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, during which each of the film’s vignettes ended with applause from the nearly 3,000-capacity crowd, the five surviving Python members took the stage for a discussion moderated by John Oliver. As it turned out, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam—each man in his 70s—proved that insane comic mayhem doesn’t fade even after four decades.
Here are the 12 best moments from the night.
1. Cleese Storms Off
After a raucous standing ovation from the crowd, the Python’s opening minutes onstage were beset with microphone difficulties and lukewarm banter until Cleese changed the mood. After saying, “All the audience has seen us do these sketches many times. It’s much more fun for us when we f-ck it up,” he stood and walked off stage. “He’s walking down Columbus Avenue, speaking into the microphone still,” said Oliver.
2. Musical Chairs
Cleese soon returned with an extra chair and the Pythons rearranged their positions, climaxing with Cleese shoving the whole head of his microphone into his mouth and sitting practically on Oliver’s lap. “You’ve always had a fundamental, healthy disrespect for authority,” said Oliver.
3. Question time
In a disastrous attempt to restore order, Oliver read from cards containing audience questions. “There’s a question here from Stacy saying, ‘Which Python will live the longest?” “Graham, I think,” said Jones, referring to sixth Python member Graham Chapman, who died in 1989. “Which Python has the longest?” asked Idle.
4. Two Monkeys
Cleese exited the stage again, this time followed by Gilliam. In a few moments they came back on with Gilliam’s head and shoulders buried under the back of Cleese’s blazer, the two men giving the impression of an aged minotaur. Cleese initiated loud farting noises in order to get Gilliam unstuck from his behind.
5. Peaceful Doves
Addressing the widespread belief that the Pythons don’t like each other, Idle said, “I remember once I was at breakfast with Michael and there were some black birds singing. And he said, ‘Good morning, black bird.’ And I said, “Good morning, white c–t.’ We always had a go at each other. It’s more healthy than saying, ‘I think you’re so lovely, I think you’re just adorable…you c–t.'”
6. Breaking the Peace
Gilliam and Jones, the co-directors of Holy Grail, attempted to tell a story about the difficult filming conditions during the shoot. “Oh, shut up!” snapped Cleese. Jones continued, telling the audience, “This is what it was like while shooting, you’re getting your glimpse.” “It was like this every f–king day with these a–holes, that’s why we hate them,” said Gilliam. Cleese wouldn’t stop: “I told you to shut up, shut up!”
7. Free Bris
Idle recalled that when Holy Grail opened in New York, an unemployed actor (“Robert De Niro,” joked Jones) dressed in Arthurian robes and advertised the film on Fifth Avenue with an offer of free coconuts. “For Life of Brian did you give out free nails?” Oliver asked. “It was a free bris,” Idle countered.
8. Seriously Funny
Oliver praised Cleese’s stance against all forms of political correctness, telling him, “One of the things that you’ve said that’s stayed with me for years regarding this: You don’t get any reasonable expectation not to be upset throughout your life.” Cleese replied, “When people get upset I feel like saying, ‘Well, how many people weren’t?’ When you do something that’s going to upset people, you sometimes think, well, is it going to upset one percent but 99 percent think its hilarious? Like the sketch about the guy who goes to the undertaker because he wants to bury his mother and the undertaker suggests that they eat his mother. Now there’s always a few people around whose mother died the night before. So for them that’s possibly near the bone. But the other 99.9 percent think its quite funny, so shouldn’t we think of them too?”
9. British Authority
Cleese pointed his finger at a rowdy audience member and shouted, “Quiet!” “There is an innate authority in the British accent,” said Oliver. “If you’d been alive in 1776, this would still have been ours, John.”
10. The Full Montel
Oliver eventually leaped into the audience to do what he called the “Full Montel” — a reference to Montel Williams — passing the microphone around with very disappointing results. “Oh, come on, audience,” shouted Cleese, who spoke gibberish in response to a question about the use of coconuts in the movie. “I’m one question away from going back to the sh–ty cards,” said Oliver.
11. Whistling in the Graveyard
Cleese was asked about his gleefully off-color eulogy for Graham Chapman. “One thing he could not stand was what he called mindless good taste,” he said. Idle mentioned the troupe’s similarly playful spirit at the memorial service for their good friend George Harrison. “Olivia Harrison said, ‘Would you play ‘Little Piggies.’ And I said, ‘Well, no, that’s not what we do. So we sang, ‘Sit On My Face and Tell Me That You Love Me.'”
12. American Blonde
Cleese, who’s been married and divorced to three American women, pointed to someone with her hand raised in the audience, wanting to ask a question. “There’s an American blonde John hasn’t married!” shouted Idle.