[6 January 2010]
This two-disc documentary about the origins of Monty Python is an informative and enjoyable blend of archival information and contemporary interviews. There are no skits within, only occasional excerpts; instead the programs focus upon how the infamous troupe first met, overcame numerous obstacles and eventually became world-famous practitioners of absurdly silly comedy. Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle all found that thread of madness in their youthful experiences that demonstrated they saw life a bit differently. And once they realized that there were others who shared this skewed vision, they quickly immersed themselves in a myriad of artistic endeavors until their paths finally crossed into this immortal configuration.
Before The Flying Circus (A Black and White Documentary) illustrates how the six members of Monty Python shared similar influences and nurtured them through their student days at Cambridge and Oxford. Much the same way American comics speak reverentially about watershed improve groups like Second City or The Committee, British comedians have their legends as well, like The Goon Show on radio, and stage the legendary Beyond The Fringe (“Still the funniest show I have ever seen” says John Cleese.)
To a person, what impressed the Pythons was the unabashed lunacy of these bold new practitioners, leading to that liberating confidence that if there were other people who thought this way, so too could they find their own audiences. Cleese and Chapman met at auditions and became writing partners as well as performers; similarly Idle and Jones found themselves working scenes or starring in collegiate cabarets. Gilliam had found his inspiration in Disney animation, mesmerized by the limitless boundaries of the genre in the same way that the erudite Cleese structured language with surgical precision.
The film utilizes narrative, home movies, present-day interviews and a wealth of news clips and photos to weave their parallel and sometimes intersecting stories. How the collegiate sketch players moved to the Edinburgh Fringe Fest, a crew later to be pilfered by David Frost for That Was the Week That Was. How Gilliam hired Cleese to be an actor in a live action comic book, or Jones tenure at the BBC opened opportunities; how the writing staff and cast of Frost’s next program (The Frost Report) employed five of the future Pythons as well as Marty Feldman and Ronnie Corbett before Feldman joined Cleese and Chapman in another sketch ensemble, At Last The 1948 Show.
Even those moderately familiar with their backgrounds will enjoy the fascinating web of pre-Python activities including Do Not Adjust Your Set, the Bonzo Doo Dah Dog Band and The Complete and Utter History of Britain (which fathered John Cleese’s famous piece “How to Irritate People”). When the six were finally in the same camp and struggling to refine their vision, they were brought in to the BBC by Marty Feldman’s partner to pitch a program. But being a combination of verbal Cambridge alums and conceptual Oxfordites, they could not facilitate a cohesive explanation of their plans. Yet somehow they got an order for 13 episodes anyway… and thank heavens for that.
Monty Python Conquers America picks up the ball, assuming you know that all was not for naught. Indeed, the program became a great success in the UK despite (and perhaps because of) the BBC’s decision to slot it late at night and turn their eyes away from it. Even the Pythons knew that what was working in the land of Peter Cook and Spike Milligan probably had no shot in an American market, but there were some smart Americans in Britain at the time who figured that if they ‘got it’, so too might the ripe young American audience.
What follows is a fascinating look at an almost grass-roots movement behind the scenes to get Monty Python across The Big Pond and into the land of milk and honey. Thanks to rabid fans in the right places – a tireless record promotional exec, an enthusiastic program director in a small market, even a partner in Hugh Hefner’s London Playboy Club – someone who appreciated just how special the troupe was helped them get from one point to another.
If you weren’t aware of the eventual outcome, the journey plays like an edge-of-your-seat thriller. A film of highlights is made to distribute across 200 college campuses but gets shelved by the studio; when finally coerced into a screening it dies quickly only to be resurrected by being shown on a prominent Boston disc jockey’s bedroom wall. Comedy albums made in the UK get to the US only because they share a label with Genesis.
A live British stage show somehow sells out across Canada in the most haphazard fashion, and after a disastrous appearance on The Tonight Show, somehow a program director at a small PBS station in conservative Dallas, Texas determines that “funny is funny” and starts a revolution. A major network finally decides to air the BBC shows but butchers them with edits and gaps to sell commercials…and the ensuing lawsuit (the only time someone sued to keep themselves off TV) the result awarded full rights of ownership from the BBC back to the artists.
There are plenty of tidbits about the movies as well as cameo comments from several contemporary entertainers and comics who bow at the altar of Python. The Simpsons, SNL and South Park, among others, are touted as being the result of the Pythonmania of their creators, and the common theme among all was that Monty Python wrote smart and wrote for smart. They didn’t talk down to their audience; they gave them credit enough to get the jokes, even if not all of them or not immediately. Only nominal extras here - the proof of their credo is fully evident in the television shows and films, all readily available. The Other British Invasion is an excellent companion that threads it all together.