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The screening was held in a small theater off the rue d'Antibes, because this most film-savvy film in part a homage to The Seventh Seal ("Ingmar Bergman's going to be jealous of this one," co-director Gilliam promised during the filming) had not been deemed worthy of inclusion in the Festival proper. Such is the tardiness of official culture in understanding radical popular art. (The same thing happened this year with Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen, mocking the Festival's fabled history of topless starlets, paraded down the Croisette in a chartreuse G-string, but the film had its one showing off-campus.) It takes a while for the art burghers to catch up with important bumps in the comedy curve. Eight years after MP&HG, the Pythons snagged the Grand Jury Prize for the, I think we can agree, much less adventurous The Meaning of Life. (Give the French another few years, and they'll anoint Baron Cohen as le nouveau Jerry Lewis.)
Once the Pythons were comedically dangerous. Thirty years later, in part because they schooled the Western world in their brand of sublimely silly comedy, the rebels have inevitably become a nostalgia act. So, what changed between the Holy Grail film and the Spamalot show? Idle codified and cute-ified the old loopy, spiky surrealism. The show is so mainstream it's arrière-garde. It's been polished and burnished, pressed and dry-cleaned, into a Broadway musical that is super-ingratiating don't risk, can't miss.
And, I say, don't complain. As directed by Mike Nichols and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, it has as much charm, vigor and musical-comedy knowhow as anything on Broadway. But a Telegraph of London headline for a story about the show got it right: "And Now for Something Completely Familiar."
THE BEATLES OF COMEDY
In their prime which extends from the debut of Flying Circus through Life of Brian 10 years later the Pythons were lauded as doing for comedy in the '70s what the Beatles did for pop music in the '60s. They extended Britain's primacy of Cool through a decade that, in other respects, was pretty bleak. Not that a Silly Walk through Harrod's could lessen the likelihood of an IRA bomb, or a thought of the Parrot sketch could warm a body through a winter rendered heatless by the oil embargo. But the Pythons lightened the load. Whatever the real-life ordeal, their dose of surreal fun was medicine for fretful minds. They helped prove Britain could take it.
Another thing about the Beatles and the Pythons: both could be called musical comedy acts. Just as the Fab Four made humor a crucial part of their appeal, so the Pythons frequently used songs in Flying Circus ("Eric the Half-a-Bee," "The Lumberjack Song," "Dennis Moore") and their films. Idle's blithely idiotic ditty, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," helped make Life of Brian that rare Crucifixion movie you could hum your way out of. And the Jones-Palin anthem from The Meaning of Life ("Every sperm is sacred / Every sperm is great / If a sperm is wasted / God gets quite irate") could be choraled today by half the U.S. Senate. These musical interludes set the Monty-men firmly in the tradition of the English variety show, as well as making Spamalot less a break with the Python spirit than a natural continuation of it.
At least one of the Beatles saw the connection. "George Harrison was always convinced that Python was the spirit of the Beatles kept alive," Gilliam notes in The Pythons, "because we started the year they broke up. George was convinced there was this transference of spiritual essence." (Another fan, apparently, was Elvis, who is said to have watched MP&HG at least five times.) Harrison's company, Handmade Films, produced Life of Brian and Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, then subsidized many of the projects starring or written by members of the splintered troupe: Gilliam's Time Bandits, Palin's The Missionary and A Private Function, Cleese's Privates on Parade, Idle's Nuns on the Run.