We eat ham and jam and Spam a lot.
We're opera mad in Camelot.
We sing from the diaphragm a lot.
We've a busy life in Camelot.
I have to push the pram a lot.
—from the song "Knights of the Round Table" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Spamalot
Among the 1,103 Monty Python items up for bid last week on eBay were these ephemera inspired by the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail: talking action figures of King Arthur, sirs Bedevere and Robin and girlie-man Prince Herbert; Grim Reaper and killer Rabbit plush toys; "Holy Hand Grenade" and "French fart" T shirts; Black Knight "It's just a flesh wound" boxer shorts; and tickets to Spamalot, the hit musical that Eric Idle (and co-composer John Du Prez) confected from MP&HG nearly 30 years later.
Amazing, the staying power of a TV cult. From Oct. 1969 to Dec. 1974, when the four seasons of Monty Python's Flying Circus were running on BBC, you couldn't see the show in the U.S. The Pythons composed of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin had made a film of their best early skits, called And Now for Something Completely Different, but they were barely known in these parts when the Holy Grail film opened here. The movie was essentially a calling card for the show's airing on U.S. public television stations. That made the Pythons famous, which was almost as funny as their best skits, since by then the team had effectively broken up. After that, the six reunited for two films, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, a traveling stage show (released in theaters as Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl) and then called it quits.
Their fans didn't, though. Their shows became available on VHS and DVD; The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus 16-Ton Megaset was issued to general acclaim earlier this year. CDs? They've got about a dozen of them. Some 60 Python books can be found on Alibris, the most imposing being The Pythons, a gigantic hexabiography with input from the five surviving members. (Chapman died in 1989.)
Oh, and Film Forum, New York City's premier repertory house, is providing a lavish reminder that the six did have productive careers beyond their 20s by presenting Pythonalot, a two-week retrospective of the canon films, plus Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda and Gilliam's always-worth-reseeing Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and Brazil. True to the absurdist spirit of Python, a disclaimer on the Film Forum webpage reads: "SPAM™ IS A REGISTERED TRADEMARK OF HORMEL FOODS CORP. PYTHON AND ALOT ADAPTED FROM MONTY PYTHON'S SPAMALOT LOGO. USED WITH PERMISSION."
So the Pythons, each of whom earned a stingy £125 per episode in the first season of Flying Circus, would have lovely annuities even without Spamalot. Last year Monty Python won the Holy Grail a Tony for Best Musical and 18 months after it opened on Broadway it's playing to packed houses and has spawned road companies touring North America. (Next stops: Cincinnati and St. Louis.) The show goes to Las Vegas in March and Australia a year from now. And this Saturday, Spamalot opens at the Palace Theatre in London's West End. The Pythons, who can be expected to show up for that opening night (as they did in New York), will finally have come home. And full circle. Or they will if they make a film based on the show that was based on their film. They could call it Cameralot.
FROM CUTTING TO CUTE
Seeing the early Python work back in the 70s was a liberating experience for American comedy connoisseurs. Part of the kick was that Flying Circus wasn't made for us. Unlike the Beatles' music, it wasn't meant to sound like our stuff. Either the Pythons never thought to appeal abroad or they just didn't care; they were writing and performing for themselves. The show, with its sly mix of highbrow and no-brow humor, of university wit and pratfalling physicality, must have seemed strange enough to U.K. viewers. But for Americans there were extra layers of mystification: the BBC in-jokes, the references to Brit politicians and seaside resorts, the sight of grown men speaking in shrill voices and wearing women's clothing. (They'd dress as a madame a lot.) The insular Englishness of the enterprise made it, for us, something completely different. We loved the heedless risk, the show's musk of comic danger.
Once it was risky even to attend a Python event. I was at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival for the Holy Grail world premiere. As all Pythonistas recall, MP&HG begins in earnest with opening credits that keep breaking down, as the people responsible for goof-ups keep getting sacked. The last credit reads: "Directed by 40 specially trained Ecuadorian mountain llamas... and Terry Jones & Terry Gilliam." The story finally starts when they're done with the llama lot.