Like many misfit American kids of my generation, my brain was permanently rewired when I discovered the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS in the 1980s. Monty Python, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy formed a triumvirate of British pop culture that gave dorky anglophiles like us a pool of clubby shared references.
But I suppose my interest waned over the years, aside from catching Spamalot on Broadway in 2007, being happy to see Michael Palin pop up in The Death of Stalin, and of course periodic rewatches of Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, still one of my all-time favorite movies. Even when the surviving members of Monty Python reunited in 2014 for a series of live shows at London’s O2, I wasn’t motivated to go see the global theatrical simulcast or rent the subsequent DVD. But no more excuses, now that Eric Idle and Aubrey Powell’s film Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Four to Go has appeared a click away on Netflix.
I’m not sure if I’ve grown out of Monty Python, if Monty Python has grown out of Monty Python, or if this reunion show was just rubbish. I sat through the film mostly stonefaced, when not cringing (except during Terry Jones’ befuddlement in the “Nudge Nudge” sketch, which is still funny). Part of the appeal of their earliest work was that it was done on the cheap and on the fly. But Monty Python has long since become Monty Python Inc., and these shows’ high production values come across as insincere and inauthentic — in other words, professional. It’s a nostalgia trip, like a veteran classic rock band on a yet another greatest hits tour.
At over 2 hours, it’s also somehow simultaneously too much and not enough. I realize the Pythons are all over 70, and even youngsters would need time to change costumes between sketches anyway, but I wasn’t expecting so much filler. They rely heavily on excerpts from the Flying Circus TV series and some of the movies. A large troupe of young dancers and singers often take over from the stars for big production numbers like “Penis Song (Not the Noël Coward Song)” and “The Silly Walk Song”. This preponderance of musical numbers suggests the show was Eric Idle’s baby. Notably, I don’t think there’s any material at all from Monty Python and The Holy Grail, perhaps to avoid overlap with Idle’s Spamalot musical.
Watching Monty Python’s greatest hits now, in the cold light of adulthood, the makeup of their humor seems pretty easily broken down:
- 5% university-educated wit (philosophy, religion, world history, etc.)
- 15% bodily fluids & noises
- 20% naked or scantily-clad ladies
- 50% exaggerated regional accents
- 10% gay men talking and walking funny
Which brings me to the difficult subject of how so much of Python’s material struck me as offensive. The cheeky insouciance of their original BBC TV series The Flying Circus was genuinely boundary breaking in the late 60s. But a surprising percentage of the same material lands with a dull thud in 2018. The lumberjack and barrister sketches are transphobic, the “I Like Chinese” song and Mao cartoons are racist, many sketches (including Gilliam’s mincing in the Michelangelo sketch) are homophobic, and the Doctor Who “RETARDIS” gag is not only cringeworthy but also simply a really lame pun. Only “Penis Song” is substantially updated to be inclusive, now expanded to include additional genitalia.
Perhaps I am hypersensitive after living the past few years under an ascendant sexist and racist ruling class — emblematized by Trump — and how movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have further exposed the exploitation. All this has left me exhausted, making it hard to tell the difference between juvenile rudeness and expressions of greater societal ills, and predisposed to not laugh at any of this.
The ground is also shifting in popular culture, as it grapples with its depictions of gender, race, and sexuality. The world’s increasing tolerance is being abused by conservatives that would like to silence comedians (such as the recent vilification of Kathy Griffin). So I want to be careful when I try to explain how I now find some of the Python’s classic material offensive. Perhaps comedy should never be polite, and is under no obligations to be gentle to anyone. But as contemporary comedians like Sarah Silverman and Mike Birbiglia have explored, the potential of comedy to offend is one of its biggest strengths, but also its biggest a minefield. This paradox is explored at length in Birbiglia’s one-man show “Thank God for Jokes” (also available on Netflix).
Blundering right through this minefield comes Monty Python’s original material, transplanted mostly intact from the late 60s to today. Even though this show was put together years before Trump and Brexit bulldozed through the world order, the show is disappointingly apolitical, aside from a dated Mao reference and quick jabs at Putin and the Daily Mail. But I suppose its fair to note that even in their heyday, the Pythons usually steered clear of politics, instead being more eager to skewer class and religion.
Sadly, these septuagenarians come across as dinosaurs clueless as to how the world has changed while they’ve been in semi-retirement.
But maybe if a bunch of legendary comedians want to throw a farewell party for themselves, and fool around on stage one last time, I should just relax. They seemed genuine in their fond ribbing of each other, their tributes to the late Graham Chapman, and spotlighting collaborator Carol Cleveland.
two out of five stars