Like any beloved pop-culture institution, the works of revolutionary British comedy troupe Monty Python will be subject to packagings, re-packagings, re-releases, and super-deluxe mega-collector’s limited editions more or less until the end of time (or the end of physical packaging, whichever comes first, and even then, the mega-deluxe collector-deluxe special edition download package will doubtless follow). It’s difficult, then, for any DVD set, no matter how huge, to have the final say — though the new Collector’s Edition Megaset (not to be confused with the “16 Ton Megaset” of yore) certainly gives it a go.
Apart from the full run of the original Flying Circus series (45 episodes, which is like 200 American), the 21-disc set includes Monty Python Conquers America, a documentary about the group’s voyages outside of Britain; Before the Flying Circus, a documentary about the troupe’s beginnings; a 20th anniversary sketch compilation; the full Live at the Hollywood Bowl performance, the group’s 1998 reunion at the US Comedy Arts Festival, and six “personal best” specials. So yes, enough material to fill a paragraph.
So while the episodes themselves have been disseminated many times over and by now need no introduction, this set offers dozens of introductions anyway: much of the bonus material consists of those classic sketches, repackaged, reordered, and recontextualized to your liking. It’s bulky, but oddly flexible (though we’ll have to wait for that download set for a “shuffle” function).
The compilations are further distinguished by watching the episodes as they originally aired. The best-ofs aren’t as redundant as they sound; the difference between them and the episodes is akin to a fun playlist compared to a more eccentric album. In their full, episode-length airings, some of the sketches go on longer than you’d see in a compilation — the classic dead-parrot bit, for example, has an extended ending not often utilized in clip shows or live performances — while other bits are quicker but also weirder, like a wordless film piece in which criminals abduct a man and his desk, and push them off a pier.
Straight chronology also illustrates just how sure-footed the Pythons were even in their roughest beginnings; the first episode clearly establishes their obsession with death, via a sketch where famous demises are rated, ranked, and requested, and the classic bit about a joke so funny it kills anyone who reads or hears it. Even at its silliest beginnings, the show was capable of bravely confronting the indignities and mysteries of the end.
Fittingly, the most valuable of the “Personal Best” specials (which aired on PBS some years ago) is the late Graham Chapman’s. While John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin are each interviewed for their specials, introducing and commenting on their favorite sketches, they all pitch in for Chapman. The special serves as a de facto tribute, but the Pythons don’t shy away from Chapman’s bad habits — memorializing doesn’t suit them.
This is further proven in the Live in Aspen special, during which the surviving members memorably brought out a tin purported to contain Chapman’s ashes (which, naturally, must eventually be knocked over). The whole thing is sort of a goof on reunions — no tears are shed for Chapman, and Cleese’s big announcement about the group’s 30th anniversary reveals only that they plan to have tea together, not a reunion tour.
Yet as much fun as this set is — and for fans, especially those who don’t own the previous set, it is ridiculous fun — it also serves as a reminder of the futility of the supposedly all-encompassing DVD set. Even a casual fan could tell you what’s missing here: most notably, the Monty Python movies, which have themselves been re-released dozens of times in one, two, and sometimes three-disc editions, and are likely prohibitively expensive for A&E to acquire (though their sketch movie, And Now for Something Completely Different, would make a natural addition to the many compilations).
But there are other, more subtle absences. While the pre-Python and breaking-America documentaries are wonderful and informative, and further biographical information can be gleaned from interviews and the reunion special, the set is heavy on anecdotes, and light on a strong sense of chronological history. There isn’t a visual equivalent of the boys’ collective autobiography, The Pythons; you’re left to glean for yourself how their full career fits together.
Once you go down this path, though, hungering for a full history annotated with all of the films, you’re just a smidge away from wondering why they couldn’t have included the Cleese/Palin collaborations A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures, or Gilliam’s Python-ish feature Jabberwocky, and that way lies madness. The Python legacy is like the Python treatment of death: vast, ridiculous, constant