While the comparison has been made before, the passage of time has confirmed it as fact: Monty Python’s Flying Circus is indeed the Beatles of sketch comedy. True, similarities do stop at content and culture-shaping impact, but there are a few undeniable facts that link to two UK phenomenons together. Both came out of Britain to conquer the world, forever changing the way we look at certain artistic styles and creativity. Each used their distinctive personalities and divergent interests to shape their approach, and the final results remains relevant even 40 some years later. There’s even the same sentiment toward a “reunion”. With the death of a significant part of each outfit, bringing them back is just never going to happen.
And so, like the Fab Four, it’s time to cement the remaining members place in history. It’s time to tell the truth, Anthology style, to pour on the context and explain away the misinformation – or in some cases, create a few new myths along the way. Recently, IFC Films presented the stunning, six part overview of the group’s founding and immeasurable success that followed. While far from definitive (even at nearly five and a half hours, it still skips by many of the more important aspects of their origins) it still represents a massive attempt at explaining away Python once and for all. In that regard, A&E is releasing two separate documentaries on DVD, a pair of features that, in their own way, supplement and support the Almost the Truth take on Monty Python. While The Other British Invasion does repeat some of the same stories and anecdotes, it argues for its place as part of the overall sketch god Bible.
The first offering, Before the Flying Circus, is the best. It covers the boy’s formative years, from Eric Idle’s 12 year stint in an authoritarian English boarding school to the awkward physicality of a young John Cleese. Terry Gilliam was a BMOC A-student in Minnesota while Terry Jones and Michael Palin showed an early love of the theater. Because he is no longer here to speak for himself, Graham Chapman’s switch from doctor to performer is handled in a perfunctory is pleasant manner, and we get nothing on unofficial “seventh” member of the troupe, actress Carol Cleveland. While a few of the same faces show up (Palin’s old school chum who introduced him to cabaret, UK comic icon Ronnie Barker) and a few more make an exclusive appearance here (most notably, David Frost).
As with Almost the Truth, happenstance seems to play a great part in the Python’s evolution. We get the impression early and often that many of the opportunities provided to the fledgling superstars literally fell into their lap. No horrific tales about waiting tables, working in a factory, or slogging away in an insurance office before the “big break” arrived. No, once they entered University and took up residence in the Oxford/Cambridge theatrical societies, it was graduation, TV shows, and eventual world domination. Of course, the gang would argue differently, though it is odd to see how someone like Gilliam went from Occidental College to a national humor magazine (Help! ) to Python while having no set career path. Apparently, talent trumps even the most rudimentary of individual struggles.
Throughout, it’s the stories that sell us on Monty Python’s lasting legacy. We hear how certain partnerships took shape, how the guys bounced ideas off each other while staunchly supporting their own vision. Unlike Almost the Truth, which set up the various battles inside the situation (Jones had the notion of constantly breaking down barriers, while seasoned performer Cleese was convinced the group was prone to repeating itself), this is a prologue, a primer in preparation for the real story behind Python’s astonishing success. If you’ve seen Almost the Truth, Before the Flying Circus will function as a fascinating fill in the blanks (why no mention of the seminal Complete and Utter History of Britain, IFC?). Together, they take us to the moment when a group of English jesters carved up the court of international satire.
The second feature, Monty Python Conquers America, is more of a tribute than an actual narrative. We get dozens of doting celebrities – everyone from Hank Azaria, Carl Reiner and Luke Wilson to Judd Apatow and South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone – expressing their appreciation for what the group did for post-modern humor. In between are clips of classic sketches as well as input from various PBS personalities, all of whom marvel at how an initially unsuccessful show (at least in US) became perhaps the most important comedy series ever.
The Pythons also offer their two cents, suggesting that much of the hoopla came not from the show itself, but from the otherworldly success of the Holy Grail film. Of course, Almost the Truth took three hour long episodes to cover most of this material, meaning we get less factual analysis and more famous fawning. Still, as a glimpse into how their peers felt (and still feel) about the Flying Circus, Conquers America is an indispensible indication of the group’s lasting impact.
One of the best bits here, however, is reserved for the DVD bonus features. Found on the Before the Flying Circus disc, “Animated Gilliam” allows the now famous filmmaker to comment on the four distinct cartoon opening he created for the series. While some of his reminiscences are rather obvious (“I was clearly thinking about sex then”), he does try to decipher the mystery behind some of the faces, and feet, used. The other extra is taken from an old PBS vault copy of an episode in which the opening sketch “A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Conservative and Unionist Party” was presented. Later cut from UK versions of the episode (the BBC felt it was blatant political pandering and pulled it), this “Silly Walk” like effort is very funny indeed (a version of it appears live during the Hollywood Bowl ‘concert’).
As with the lads from Liverpool, history and its various clueless contrarians have tried to rewrite the truth about Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Some dismiss it outright, claiming it’s dated and fails to deliver on its overhyped, overexposed promise. A few will take it further, acknowledging the group’s importance but then pointing out how others did it better and more bravely. Still, there is an undeniable truth that even the most notorious naysayer can’t deny – like The Beatles, the efforts of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam endure. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is indeed the most important comedy series of the post-modern era. It really doesn’t take a definitive documentary (or set of same) to prove that. The continuing laughter speaks for itself.