A Cult of SPAM-eaters
Monty Python’s Eric Idle was recently on Celebrity Jeopardy. In a goofy, almost surreal scene, Idle, who was losing quite steadfastly throughout the game, scored both the daily doubles in the second round of play and ended up handily beating opponents Wayne Brady and Dana Delany. His victory was less about his knowledge and more about good strategy, yet Idle seemed as baffled by his victory as everybody else. And when Alex “I Know More Than You Do” Trebek asked Idle about the success of Monty Python, Idle chalked it up to timing: Monty Python was simply in the right place at the right time. Fair enough.
But here’s the thing: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the second feature-length Python production, is every bit as brilliant and hysterical in its re-release as it was in 1975. Monty Python—a group of five British and one American social critics and comedians—captivated British television with its dry political and social humor, and ridiculous skits that make even the heyday of Saturday Night Live look about as insightful or dangerous as Sunday night re-runs of Who’s The Boss?.
In the process, MP inspired a cult following that has remained steady over the past 25 years, and become a standard of Friday night “Midnight Movies” at theaters in major cities all over the U.S. Monty Python fans are easy to spot—they are the video game freaks and D&D players who march around proudly trying to imitate John Cleese’s best effort at getting a grant from the Ministry of Silly Walks. They are the social critics who know “Every Sperm is Sacred” and “The Lumberjack Song” by heart. They are the liberal arts majors who proudly, obsessively eat Spam. If you’re already a Monty Python fan, you know what I mean.
If you aren’t, The Holy Grail is a pleasant enough place to start. The film does what Monty Python does best: deconstruct, satirize, and straight-out ridicule some of the most important and sacred figures in all of history. Here, Arthur (Graham Chapman) is the melodramatic king of the Britons, who travels through the English countryside collecting the bravest and smartest men in the country, even while he is disrespected by his subjects at every turn. When finished, the bumbling King has managed to recruit Sir Launcelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Galahad the Pure (Michael Palin), and Sir Robin The Not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Launcelot (Eric Idle). These Knights of the Round Table are, as Monty Python tells it, the most motley of crews.
Almost immediately after assembling his Knights and visualizing a flashback complete with dancing knights in kick-lines, Arthur decides that “Camelot is a silly place.” With no place to go, King Arthur and his men walk just a few paces when he is visited by God, who tells him that his sacred charge is to find the Holy Grail. Arthur and company comb England for the relic on foot (although, with the assistance of servants who bang coconut shells together as they “gallop,” the knights are all convinced that they are, indeed, riding horses). Sir Galahad the Pure ends up at the Castle Anthrax, a brothel of “blondes and brunettes all between 16 and 19 and a half,” only to be rescued just as he is about to be subjected to the horrors of oral sex. Sir Robin meets up with a three-headed forest guard committed to his torturous murder and flees in fear, much to the delight of his minstrel, who immediately composes and then repeatedly sings an ode to Robin’s cowardice. Sir Launcelot the Brave, after receiving what he assumes to be a plea for help from a young woman being forced to marry against her wishes, commits mass murder at the site of the planned nuptials, only to find that the damsel in distress is actually a young man far more concerned with singing show tunes than expanding his father’s kingdom.
It’s the kind of social commentary that perhaps only MP could get away with, or would even want to get away with. And it works with delirious punches at the status quo and the class/caste system that was (and still is) the ruling system in Western culture. In The Holy Grail, Monty Python creates a ridiculous world in which knights say “Ni!” and demand decorative shrubbery as payment for safe passage, where women are determined to be witches if they are made of wood and therefore weigh the same as ducks, and where knowing the air speed velocity of an African vs. a European swallow can mean the difference between life and death. It’s no wonder that the cult of Monty Python is alive and thriving, with such imaginative and surreal critiques delivered with inspired and absurd acting.
But despite the cultural and social devotion that Monty Python has enjoyed for almost three decades, of which I am admittedly a part, I have to be honest and say that among Monty Python films, The Holy Grail is not exactly the cream of the crop. While the first two-thirds of the film are non-stop laughter and brilliant social commentary, the last third drags and seems to lack the imagination that so richly colors the first hour. While the acting never falters, the script does. This is somewhat surprising, since the group that makes up Monty Python (and shares the writing credits for the film) is clearly a brilliant and vibrant group of comedians. They just seem to lose their footing during the last 30 minutes or so.
Still, even a “bad” Monty Python film is better than just about anything else in the theaters right now, and is certainly far more deserving of a second release than most films are of a first. The social/political commentaries, while perhaps not as stinging as they were when they were new, are still relevant and imaginative, and the inventive physical and verbal humor is still the stuff that bladder accidents are made of.
And so, in some ways, perhaps, Eric Idle is right: timing is everything. The timing was right for Monty Python in 1975. And now, 26 years later, when Kevin Smith is retiring Jay and Silent Bob, there’s no new South Park movie waiting in the wings, and American popular humor has been reduced to testosterone-driven pie-fucking, the timing is every bit as right again.