Python Forever

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(Pictured, L to R: Jeff Beck, Robert Plant, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin; the Pythons’ rock-star friends helped fund Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and George Harrison famously founded Handmade Films so the group could make Life of Brian.)

The five surviving members of Monty Python concluded a run of shows at London’s O2 Arena yesterday with a worldwide live broadcast. What follows is a reboot of some stuff I wrote about them in 2009.

The members of Python first met in 1966 and appeared on a couple of British TV shows, but they also have roots in radio: John Cleese appeared on the long-running BBC Radio show I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, where Graham Chapman was a writer; some of the other Pythons also appeared on or wrote for radio shows in the mid-to-late 60s. Python’s radio roots are never clearer than on the series of record albums they released.  So here’s my list of the Top 5 Python albums.

(Late edit: it occurs to me that Cleese and Chapman would have met at Cambridge University in 1963; the six Pythons would have all met one another by sometime in ’66.)

5. Monty Python’s Previous Record (1972). This album was their first to contain sketches that never appeared on TV, and one that came from an unusual TV source. “The Tale of Happy Valley” is based on a sketch first produced for Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus, two editions of which aired on German and Austrian TV in 1972. The Pythons wrote all-new material for both shows, performing the first one in phonetic German but having the second one dubbed. The material was not seen in the States until some of it surfaced during the 1982 American shows that resulted in the movie Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (and pieces of it were included in this month’s reunion shows).

4. Another Monty Python Record (1971). Python’s earliest albums often modified TV sketches to work without accompanying visuals, and a friend of mine adored this album for years before she ever saw the TV sketches. Highlights: theater-of-the-mind on “Royal Festival Hall” and a version of “The Piranha Brothers” that’s better than the one seen on the TV show.

3. Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album (1980). This album is the source of several of the songs featured in the reunion show—the album is mostly musical and contains only a couple of sketches. The group performed one of them, “Four Yorkshiremen,” at the reunion show, and it was a staple of the live shows they performed in the 70s. It actually dates back to At Last the 1948 Show, a 1967 TV program featuring Cleese and Chapman.

2. Matching Tie and Handkerchief (1973). If, as George Harrison is supposed to have said, the Pythons carried the spirit of the Beatles into the 1970s, Matching Tie and Handkerchief is their Revolver—the material is significantly more ambitious than their earlier material. With no track listing, it was meant to surprise listeners, and it did. Original vinyl pressings included a set of concentric grooves on side two, meaning that it contained two different programs depending on where you dropped the needle. (Listen to medieval agriculture collide with mid-70s British pop music on “The Background to History.”)

1. The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). If Matching Tie and Handkerchief was Python’s Revolver, then this is their Sgt. Pepper, if by Sgt. Pepper we mean the group’s single greatest recorded achievement. The album is a fully realized comedic whole, with new sketch material linking clips from the film. Some of the new material is among the funniest stuff they ever made. (Opening segment here; others available at YouTube.)

If, as seems likely with all of the members in their 70s now, the 2014 reunion marks the end of Python’s career, the group will remain eternally ripe for discovery by new generations of fans. In that way, they’re also very much like the Beatles. The best tribute to Python’s innovation, and to the difficulty in describing precisely what they did, is also Beatle-derived. Both groups’ success resulted in the coining of new adjectives: “Beatlesque” and “Pythonesque.” Apply them to something today, and everyone knows what you mean.

4 thoughts on “Python Forever

  1. After watching the live simulcast of the last show, I found myself unexpectedly moved in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

    I came to realize in a way I hadn’t when I was a kid how much Python changed comedy and made a lot of what came after them even possible.

    I was awed (again) by the list/synonym sketches that were the signature of John Cleese & Graham Chapman.

    I was saddened that Eric Idle is apparently continuing his feud with Neil Innes and seems determined to wipe Innes from the memories of Python fans. (How great would it have been to cut one of the schmaltz faux-Vegas numbers in favor of a nice rendition of “Brave Sir Robin.”)

    But mostly I was incredibly happy to see these five men, visibly older but still with their wits and wit intact, have a chance to put everything else aside and celebrate their legacy one last time (or ten) and have live crowds (and those watching simulcasts from all over the world) give them the accolades and appreciation they didn’t get enough of back in the day.

    And maybe it also made me wish the Beatles themselves had been able to have such a celebration… if not for their fans then for themselves.

    Thanks for sharing this list again.

  2. Steve E.

    I also saw the live broadcast on Sunday (in a movie theater), and there were a few hundred of us in there that morning. True, they are a bit slower in delivering their lines, and there were a few moments where they broke character to adlib, but that just added to the fun. The theater they were performing in looked enormous, almost like a stadium. Graham Chapman’s presence was felt in film clips and in spoken references. Eddie Izzard and Mike Meyers showed up in guest spots, and they were clearly thrilled to be on stage with these guys. The Beatles comparison is appropriate — they really were the Beatles of comedy. This was a nice farewell.

  3. jb

    I watched the reunion show in a mostly full theater, and I liked it a lot. The mix of classic and unexpected sketches was just about right (I never expected to see “Penguin on the TV” as long as Graham Chapman remains dead), but two of the most impressive bits were the overtures opening each half of the show. The Pythons have written a remarkable number of songs over the years that hold up not just as comedy, but as pieces of music. I thought they might have a few more celebrity cameos, but in the end it was OK that they didn’t. More Python is the best Python.

  4. Steve E.

    Oh, another thing I liked was how Cleese and Palin went straight from “Dead Parrot” to “Cheese Shop,” giving us a two-for-one sketch.

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