Having issued all 45 episodes on a 16-disc mega set already, alongside myriad collections of live shows and special editions of all of their films, albums and books, Monty Python would appear to have run out of ways to repackage themselves. As its members begin to enter their august years, however, and as such they turn reflective, the troupe have submitted to that most self-congratulatory of final acts: the retrospective. Recently, the A&E network got them together to offer up anecdotes about the wild and crazy times they had back then, the Pythons themselves loosely compiled their favorite sketches, and then everyone called it a day. The Personal Best of Monty Python’s Flying Circus box set is the result; a nostalgia-tinged scrapbook satisfying to only the most ardent of collectors.
It’s not that the material itself is weak, of course. Monty Python has managed, after nearly 40 years, to remain a consistently hilarious, subtly anarchic force, its influence into modern comedy so deeply rooted and widespread it’s in most comedians’ DNA, whether they acknowledge it or not. Prior to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, most comedy shows were stagy, ham-fisted affairs, with contrived set-ups leading inevitably to punchlines telegraphed from miles away. Monty Python’s Flying Circus turned that convention on its ear, sustaining a giddy absurdity throughout, with characters often wandering from one sketch to the next — or, even better, grinding to a halt as Graham Chapman’s fusty Colonel stomped in, demanding that the sketch end “because it’s silly”. Monty Python rescued comedy from the stale coffin it had been trapped in since the days of vaudeville. Without it, the world’s sense of humor would undoubtedly be quite different.
While it’s impossible to overstate the influence of Monty Python, this box set does little to sell the troupe to newcomers. Comprised as it is of each member’s personally chosen best (excluding, of course, the late Chapman), the sketches here offer a very limited glimpse at what made the show remarkable. Episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, after all, were notable for the way they flowed effortlessly and heedlessly from one idea to the next, a sketch always spinning off of whatever preceded it. Here, with skits cut adrift and patchily edited together, there’s no sense of the innovation or careening stream of consciousness that was the show’s signature. Instead there are only snapshots of the obvious landmarks — the “Dead Parrot” sketch, the “Lumberjack Song”, the “Ministry of Silly Walks” — familiar as nursery rhymes to even the most casual of fans, and plenty of ephemera: half-sketches, even quarter-sketches, as well as haphazardly tossed-in live bits from the troupe’s stand at the Hollywood Bowl. It can be a frustrating experience for first-time viewers and veterans both.
In order to justify this collection as anything but a fast buck, the elder statesmen of Monty Python each contribute a handful of original material to bookend their collections. Most of these, however, amount to staged introductions that feel more like contractual obligations than anything else. Eric Idle, for his part, once again revisits his earnest reporter character from The Rutles, offering a typically tongue-in-cheek introduction from the Hollywood Bowl. Despite Idle’s still-quick wit, however, the whole thing never rises above being a rehash. Similarly disappointing, Michael Palin’s protracted tutorial on “fish slapping” — the original sketch of which appears on every single disc here — wears out its already thin premise rather quickly, growing tiresome as it is stretched out over the entire program.
Terry Jones fares a little better, even though his contribution seems lazier and more of an afterthought in comparison. Nevertheless, the suavely unctuous way in which he takes credit for the entire show (“‘Monty Python’ is, of course, an anagram for ‘Terry Jones'”) is a typically deft performance from the most underappreciated member of the group. The other Terry, animator Gilliam, appears in a brief new cartoon sequence that is a welcome return to the form for the famed director. The cheeky inclusion of a bright neon bong on his editing console is an unexpected, modern twist, as Monty Python never really broached drug humor despite their massive stoner appeal. In what has become somewhat of a running gag in recent years, John Cleese appears in a wheelchair, looking grizzled; interviewer Dayna Devon woodenly plays along with the “96 year-old recluse” as he offers up ornery rejoinders such as this one about writing partner Chapman: “He was a shirt-lifter and a boozehound. Half the time he was dead drunk; then he stopped being drunk and just started being dead.”
Chapman’s absence is felt across all six discs, and he is given similarly irreverent eulogy by each of the surviving members. His own disc may be the only part of the collection worth owning, as it is more of a biography and tribute than a compendium of sketches. All of the Pythons remember him in tones both wistful and even somewhat awestruck, and there is the general sense that many of the members, as Gilliam puts it, “never really met Chapman. Perhaps he was a figment of our imaginations.” Many fans may feel the same way, as this disc contains such revelations as the fact that Chapman was an accomplished medical student well on his way to becoming a doctor before choosing comedy.
Chapman was also apparently the true absurdist of the group and generator of some of the more outlandish non-sequiturs — such as the famed “Albatross!” bit — something the group contributes to his rampant alcoholism. As the only openly gay member of Monty Python, Chapman apparently “hid it well behind a very butch façade”, and the men’s recollections of Chapman’s various sexual escapades, such as being thrown out of a hotel in Germany for having too many men in his room, are by turns bemused and remorseful for not understanding more about the man he was. Most importantly, homage is paid to Chapman’s skill at portraying a wide breadth of straight man types, including his leading roles in Holy Grail and Life of Brian, that “held us all up”, in the words of director Gilliam.
Chapman’s profile — as someone “completely off the wall in this very seriously British, stiff upper lip sort of way” (Palin) — is uniquely his own, in much the way that the rest of the Pythons had their own niche roles to fill. While they all shared common skills and malleability, each member of the troupe had a very specific strength, as this collection handily illustrates. Cleese, for example, was genius at playing misanthropes, the insane, or both. His characters were often so blithely id-driven and deranged that he drove others into a frenzy, as in his famous “Self Defense Sketch”, where he demands the others attack him with fruit against all protests, and shoots every one that complies. He could also play big and loud quite well, handy for his own memorably apoplectic fits of rage, such as in the “Dead Parrot” sketch. Jones was a wonderful schlub, perfect for henpecked husbands or easily dominated wallflowers. Throw a toothpick or stick of gum in his mouth and Palin could transform himself into a gangster or snake oil salesman, or some metaphorical variation, as when he sinks his shark’s teeth into playing the gleefully malicious host of “Blackmail”. Idle, meanwhile, had an affable, everyman streak that lent itself to his playing hosts and reporters, his eagerness to please often stretched to absurd extremes, as in the famous “Wink Wink, Nudge Nudge” sketch.
There’s really no way to single out one single Python for praise above all others, however. Unlike modern day sketch shows like Saturday Night Live, there was hardly room in the show’s 45-episode run to play favorites. As testament to that, most of the discs in this set are egalitarian affairs, containing sketches each member enjoys even if they had no part in it, despite being ostensibly the “personal best of” each performer. Idle’s disc is the only one that feels like a celebration of ego; he compiles a virtual yearbook of everything featuring him or written by him, often fast-forwarded to the bits with his own lines, and as such his disc is the least enjoyable by far. Gilliam’s disc is similarly focused only on his own animations, but this is to be expected. Anyway, for fans that have long wanted a compilation of all the interstitial cartoons, Gilliam’s disc is a welcome diversion.
Unfortunately, that and the sweetly nostalgic tribute to Chapman are the only worthwhile aspects of this box set. The rest just feels like wasted effort. Veteran Python-heads will surely take umbrage at the choppy editing of their beloved sketches, and the new material is hardly enough to justify the hefty $79.95 asking price. Newcomers tentative of buying the 16-Ton Megaset may be intrigued enough to then pursue the episodes themselves, but in doing so, they make owning this set completely unnecessary.
All in all, most viewers will tend to agree with the box’s winking assertion that Monty Python “have sold out once again”. As Idle himself puts it in his introduction, “In this new world of many types of television DVDs, [Monty Python’s] particular brand of cheap sketches will always be available for recycling.” It’s a typically self-deprecating mark from the Pythons, who have always used explicit acknowledgement of the shameless nature of self-promotion and marketing as a way of excusing it. There’s really no excuse for wasting the goodwill of the fans, however, and this collection is an undeniably superfluous addition to the Monty Python library. If it’s true that nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless, then The Personal Best of Monty Python’s Flying Circus is absolutely stunning.