1969 to 1983: Monty Python
There aren’t many artists who will freely admit they reunited for financial reasons. But then, there aren’t any artists like comedy troupe Monty Python, whose British TV sketch show (which ran from 1969 to 1974) and subsequent films (including 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail and 1979’s infamous, seminal Life of Brian) have inspired generations of comedians. Ask any of the outfit’s five surviving members — John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones — why they got back together to perform 10 dates at London’s O2 arena this past July, and you’ll get the same answer: cash. Or, as Idle puts it, ”we had lost a court case and we were looking at a bill of about a million pounds.”
The possibility of seeing the Pythons perform their classic sketches has itself long been regarded as a comedic holy grail by fans. And the fact that they reunited for the dough made the shows no less momentous. (Actually, it’s very much in keeping with the Python legacy. These are the people, after all, who named their 1980 collection of sketches and songs Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album.) The influence of the Pythons is as omnipresent as spam is on the menu of a restaurant that really likes serving spam. Famous fans include Steve Martin (who hosted a Python TV tribute in 1989), South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who animated their own Cartman-featuring version of the team’s famous ”Dead Parrot” sketch for another televised special in 1999), and Key and Peele. The enduring appeal and influence of the Pythons is doubly remarkable given that they hadn’t worked together in any substantive form since the 1983 film The Meaning of Life and, prior to this summer, had not performed a concert since 1980. In fact, the Pythons never really appeared live that much anyway, and the chances of them ever doing so again seemed to diminish from slim to none following the cancer-related death of the troupe’s sixth member, Graham Chapman, in 1989. Further adding to the instantly legendary nature of the O2 shows is that the first Python performances in 34 years will almost certainly be the last. ”We can’t expect to be older and trying to perform,” says Idle, who at 71 is one of the younger Pythons. ”I think everybody has had enough.”
The court case that inspired the Python reunion was instigated by Mark Forstater, one of the producers of Holy Grail. He claimed he deserved a greater share of the profits than he had been previously receiving from the highly lucrative, Idle-co-penned musical Spamalot, which, as the show’s own advertising materials point out, is ”lovingly ripped off from” the film. On July 5, 2013, a London judge sided with Forstater, and Team Python found itself with a huge legal bill. ”We finished up with enormous, enormous court costs,” says Cleese, 75. ”The legal case was going to cost us 800,000 pounds, so it’s quite a lot of money.”
In desperation, the five Pythons met with longtime Queen manager Jim Beach — an old friend of Cleese and Idle from their days at Cambridge University — to find a way they could dig themselves out of this financial hole. ”He said, ‘You’re f—ed,’ basically,” says Idle, laughing. ”No, he said, ‘You are in a mess. But one night at O2 would certainly liquidize you.”’ Cleese recalls that the quintet all agreed to take part ”within five minutes.” Even so, Palin, 71, and Gilliam, 74, had doubts. ”Terry, rather like me, took a slightly skeptical view, perhaps saw the dangers as [being as] sizable as the advantages,” Palin says. ”It could have gone wrong.”
Python fans had no such worries. When tickets for the ”one-off” show were made available to the public on Nov. 25, 2013, it took just 43.5 seconds for them to sell out, prompting the immediate announcement of four more Python performances at the O2 — tickets for which were snapped up within the hour. Two days later, the Pythons added another five shows, bringing the total to double digits. ”I thought we’d probably fill the place two or three times, and we filled it 10 times,” says Cleese.
With the other Pythons busy with solo projects, Idle had volunteered to direct the show and, after the initial meeting with Beach, set about compiling a list of possible sketches with input from the rest. ”I went round to everybody and said, ‘What do you want to do?”’ he says. ”So I had a list of that. There are certain gotta-be’s: You’ve got to do ‘The Argument,’ you’ve got to do ‘Parrot.’ [But] I was keen to put in some of the great old Python bankers that had never been done live. We’d never done the ‘Spam Song’ on stage. We’d never done ‘Spanish Inquisition’ on stage.” Idle decided the show should heavily feature lavish productions of tunes from the Python songbook, including ”I Like Chinese” and the Meaning of Life ditty ”Every Sperm Is Sacred.” ”I realized fairly quickly it would be much better if we put on stage more than they would ever expect,” says Idle. ”So it became Monty’s Musical in my mind. It became ‘Let’s put on 20 boys and girls, singing the songs of Python and dancing.’ That fills up this enormous stage and will give us time to change and come on for the next sketches.”
Idle would also oversee the design of a Gilliam-inspired stage set and the assemblage of video material that featured some new footage — notably a sketch in which Python fan Stephen Hawking runs down fellow British physicist Brian Cox in his wheelchair — and clips from the original BBC TV show. The latter allowed Idle to showcase both Gilliam’s animation and Chapman, the late Python member who was additionally referenced in the show’s title, Monty Python Live (mostly) — One Down Five to Go. It soon became clear that Idle’s vision would have a hefty price tag. In fact, the budget for the show — a show that, you will recall, was designed to recoup 800,000 pounds — was actually 4.5 million pounds. ”Nobody told us until the press conference that it was costing four and a half million pounds,” says Gilliam. ”I don’t think there was a plan of how we would do it if we were only going to do one show. But luckily it was 10.”
In late June of this year, the Pythons gathered for a week of stage rehearsals at what Palin describes as ”this rather bleak industrial estate” in west London, before relocating southeast to the O2. The comedian says, unsurprisingly, that there were nerves aplenty before curtain call on the night of the show’s July 1 opening. But Palin’s remaining doubts about the project were swiftly discarded thanks to the ecstatic response of the audience at seeing such famous skits as ”Four Yorkshiremen,” ”Nudge Nudge,” and ”Dead Parrot,” in which his pet-store owner tries to convince Cleese’s customer that the deceased bird he has sold him is merely resting. ”I wasn’t quite so nervous about the performance — I thought we could do it,” says Palin. ”But would the audience be able to hear it? Would they listen? Could we play the nuances? Would they shout the next line out before we said it? Because it was 16,000 [people], I thought you’d never hear one single laugh at one particular time. What surprised me is, if you got a line particularly right, or even just a pause right, the whole audience laughed at exactly the same moment. That really did surprise me and made me feel very relieved. I felt, ‘We’re going to enjoy this,’ as we did.” The performances by the Pythons were not always line-perfect — although the audience seemed to enjoy the occasional departures from scripts many attendees would have known by heart. ”I couldn’t remember the lines in ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ and I couldn’t remember the lines in the ‘Crunchy Frog’ sketch,” says Jones, 72, referring to a skit in which he plays the proprietor of a company that sells disgusting and/or dangerous chocolates. ”I was reading it off the card, and one time John — he forgot his words — he pinched the card and said, ‘I’m not reading it off a card like you are!”’ Meanwhile, the thrice-divorced Cleese was himself the butt of a new, scripted joke during Palin and Idle’s performance of the ”Camp Judges” sketch, in which they play women’s-underwear-sporting justices (Idle: ”Did you handle the Cleese divorce?” Palin: “Which one?”). ”We tease each other all the time,” says Cleese. ”But it’s all basically very affectionate.”
Idle reveals that at one point it seemed possible the Pythons would perform outside the U.K., but by July it had long been clear that that wasn’t going to happen. ”We got an offer, I think, for Australia, and North America, and South Africa,” he says. ”I think John was keen, and Terry Jones was keen, and I didn’t mind. [But] Michael said no, he didn’t want to do that, and I know Terry Gilliam wasn’t very keen. I said, ‘Look, this is great because we now have a final night. This can be the last night of Monty Python, and that’s really cool. Nobody ever gets to do that — you fall over backstage in some club.”’ Indeed, if there’s one thing the bickering Pythons agree on, it’s that they will definitely, definitely, definitely not perform together again. Unless they do. ”Well, I don’t have any plans to perform again,” says Gilliam. ”But I think it was Bond who said ‘Never say never.’ It probably won’t be the same show. Because it will probably be two down, four to go. I’m not sure that’s Python anymore at that point.”
And Now For Something Completely Insulting
We asked the famously bickering Monty Python team which of their colleagues most irritated them during their reunion shows this summer
Terry Gilliam is always blabbing his mouth off to the press. He’s not as funny as the rest of us and therefore has to say lightly shocking things to get attention. He probably annoys me more than anyone else — but he’s quite good-natured.
John. Every time we did a sketch — and I’m playing the jailer, or whatever — I’d look up at John and I just knew he wanted me out of the way so he could do his part properly.
Eric Idle was directing the show. He got pretty shirty sometimes.
It was hard to get Terry Gilliam to realize that I knew what I was doing. He’d been directing a film and an opera, and directors take a long time to give up directing. He thrives in chaos and disaster. That was mildly irritating. I said rude things, then went and apologized, as one must.
Graham (Chapman), for dying so early on, when we needed him. How dare he get out of a show like that! But I find them all pretty irritating.