They’re grizzled and jowly but barely less quick with the sardonic retort, the five surviving members of Monty Python. The recent concert reunion of Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Michael Palin in London (sixth member Graham Chapman died in 1989) is the subject of Monty Python: The Meaning of Live, Roger Graef and James Rogan’s documentary, having its premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s tribute on the 40th anniversary of the release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
‘EMI was going to put up the money, but then they took the trouble to read the script.’
“Now that we’re no good any more,” Cleese japed at the outset of an on-stage interview and Q&A with press on Friday afternoon, “we’re trying to squeeze everything we can out of the old stuff.” He added that the 45-installment run of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, from 1969 through 1974, “we never did a perfect show. Episode 11 and 13 were as good as it got.” Idle recalled the group promoting the show’s premiere in the streets, promising a free coconut to the first thousand people to attend. “It was like Beatlemania,” he said, adding that 2,000 showed up for their coconuts — “and then we had to sign the f*cking things.”
They still had choice words for good old Spam (“still funny but only if you eat it”). Reiterated Cleese: “Still squeezing everything out of it.” Cleese and Idle were the most talkative of the quintet. Regarding The Life Of Brian (1979), Cleese recalled that “EMI was going to put up the money, but then they took the trouble to read the script.” It was the by-then former Beatle George Harrison who saved the day, backing them to the tune of $5 million, according to Palin. Asked why, Harrison had replied, “Well because I just want to see it.”
“I don’t think you ever know whether something is going to be successful,” Cleese said, adding that while American audiences have kept the flame alive for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Life of Brian is more popular in the U.K.
Asked by an audience member what sketch best captured the essence e of Monty Python, the answer was unanimous: The “Fish Slapping Dance,” in part because it has no intellectual content and in part because it’s brief (and in full because it’s funny). Idle paid tribute to Lorne Michaels and “the university of Saturday Night Live for turning out a steady stream of top comedians who’d survived week upon week “of rotten material.” He also mourned the loss of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert from cable TV “just when the Republicans are coming back.”
Someone asked about the promotional commercial Mick Jagger (and cameoing Charlie Watts) made for the O2 concerts in London, in which Jagger ribs the Pythons for bing “wrinkly old men trying to recapture their youth.” The Stones approached them, Idle said of the self-deprecating bit, “and they sent it over the next day.”
On a serious note, such as it was, asked if they could make a film like The Life Of Brian in today’s social climate, Cleese said, “We always upset people on occasion…but now they want to kill you. It’s something you’ve got to think about.”
To which Idle added, “I think we should apply for tax-deductible status. We’re funnier than Scientology.” Someone suggested their theology be called Briantology, to which all nodded in jovial agreement.