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The Life of Python : It's been 25 years since the six men of Monty Python banded together to skewer authority, celebrate silliness and always look on the bright side of death. The Beatles of comedy? Well, don't expect a reunion from these guys either.

October 23, 1994|Chris Willman | Chris Willman is a regular contributor to Calendar

D eath be not proud seems to be one of the chief themes of the collective canon of Monty Python, the six-man British comedy troupe whose work first began airing on the BBC a quarter-century ago this month. Their TV show was infamous for its litany of dead parrots, sick undertakers and quasi-cannibals; their movies signified by medieval torture and disease, heroes dying on crosses and grim reapers. In Monty Python's world, there are 8 million ways to die--all of them silly.

"I think all of us have always been intrigued about how far you can go, to explore the areas that are supposed to be banned to comedy, that they're either in bad taste or they're too painful for people to deal with," says ex-Python animator Terry Gilliam, now a successful film director. "And I think that's what one should be dealing with.

"Comedy is to keep the angel of death away. I always think, if you can laugh at it, it somehow diffuses the potency of things, whether they be diseases, death, whatever.

"I've been getting away from comedy toward more serious things in my own films. But I do know that if I ever get to the point where I can't make a joke about anything , it's time to pack it in and get out. I love bad taste jokes. I don't know if you were at the event the other night when David Sherlock, Graham's longtime companion, brought Graham (Chapman) to the party?"

Gilliam is referring to the opening night of the 25th-anniversary salute to Monty Python held last month at the Directors Guild. This film festival (co-sponsored by the American Cinematheque and the British Assn. of Film and Television) featured the most comprehensive roundup of Python group and solo work ever assembled. And, as the only official MP commemoration on either side of the Atlantic this year, the five-day confab was able to claim four of six Python members on the premises--Gilliam, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman--with only John Cleese and Michael Palin not making the fest.

Of course, it's been a little more than five years since Chapman--to quote the dead parrot sketch--"rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible." Which would seem to have precluded any further personal appearances.

And yet, announced Sherlock, as the assembled gathered to pay tribute to the legendarily wild Chapman on the opening night, "I think Graham would've absolutely loved to have been here tonight, and I've done my very best to bring Graham with me. And here he is." Whereupon Chapman's ex reached into a packet, pulled out some ashes and proceeded to gently sprinkle several smatterings of his late, longtime companion's remains onto unsuspecting patrons in the front rows.

"Now how many people would do that?" asks Gilliam, still giggling in his inimically maniacal fashion days later, appreciating that Sherlock's unexpected gesture managed to incorporate shock value and sentiment. "And I think it's wonderful. I'm sure most of the people there thought it was a joke, but it really was Graham. A bit of him."

*

Just as there's literally a trace of Python now, presumably, in the Directors Guild's vacuums and a few dozen shower drains around the city, there's much more than a bit of Python in the state of contemporary comedy, as the troupe's sweeping influence continues to be deeply felt.

Would the world have been ready--one can only wonder--for "Mrs. Doubtfire," the Kids in the Hall, RuPaul or "Ed Wood" without Python's pioneering transvestism, on a scale not seen since the days of Shakespeare?

More seriously, would there have been a "Saturday Night Live" as we know it without the debt that transformingly irreverent series' creator and original cast acknowledged they owed to their British forebears?

It's cliche by now to refer to Monty Python as "the Beatles of comedy." But the analogy holds up, inasmuch as the group's whole was even stronger than the sum of its highly individualistic solo parts, and inasmuch as their psychic effect on society at a turning point in history for youth culture was incalculable.

Python itself borrowed heavily from literary and pop media antecedents but, caught up in the anarchic spirit of the late '60s, the group synthesized these elements like no one before (or, really, since)--mixing the arcane with the juvenile, sight gags with slippery linguistics, biting anti-authoritarian satire with unrepentant silliness, pointed social parody with non sequiturs.

And, to wax post-modern for a moment, here was deconstructionism--a self-reflexive playing with the very form itself--on a level not heretofore witnessed in the mass media, later to be echoed a bit more linearaly by descendants from Steve Martin to David Letterman.

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