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Monty Python - live but not in person

A new stage show directed by Eric Idle will re-create classic comedy routines to help mark the troupe's 40th anniversary.

September 22, 2009|Christopher Smith

An English newspaper once described a soccer star as having "developed splendidly and then aged as well as could be hoped for." That might sum up another U.K. icon, Monty Python. Because while it's been 25 years since the seminal six-man English comedy troupe has produced any new material, its thoughtful silliness still resonates.

Now the group is again among us, cheerfully exploiting its upcoming 40th anniversary with a Python-palooza of events on tap: a new play in Los Angeles based on its classic TV sketches, a six-part documentary on the IFC channel, a book describing its live performances and a rare coming together of the group's five living members for a Q&A session in New York.

Monty Python's Flying Circus -- as it was called at the beginning -- first forged its reputation for comedic innovation from 1969 to 1974 in 45 programs on British television. These shows were unlike anything seen in the days of highly structured sitcom formats. Their BBC episodes were a series of nonsensical sketches stitched together by surreal, low-tech clip-art animation. Subject matter was a cascade of deceased parrots, upper-class twit-of-the-year competitions, fish-slapping dances and the occasional song extolling Spam. An innocuous yet calculated sensibility was at work, disguising sly jabs at social institutions and English behavioral traits.

Trevor Moore, leader of the multi-member, contemporary Whitest Kids U'Know comedy ensemble, seems a bit dumbstruck now at the fluidity in the work of his elders. "You just go from one sketch into the next one, you just accept the ride."

In the wrong hands, this could have made for a chaotic, unfunny journey. Instead, it still strikes many now as a revelation, an ongoing redefinition of what funny on TV can mean.

"Monty Python was amazing in many ways," Ricky Gervais said during a 2006 interview in which "The Office" writer-star reflected on other comedians. "It gave me an inherent need to deconstruct and to look at context. There was a naughtiness to it, an anti-establishment edge to it."

In an interview this month, Python co-founder Eric Idle traced the success of the material to a fundamental source.

"Our material leans on these beautiful bits of writing. And we were lucky to do 'executive free' comedy . . . no BBC bosses hovering, trying to change lines."

Idle's faith in these skits has led to a new, live venture linked to the anniversary. "An Evening Without Monty Python" includes more than 20 sketches from the original TV program and films but with other actors filling the Python roles. Idle is co-directing the revue with BT McNicholl; it opens Wednesday at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Hollywood for a two-week run.

Included are sketches that can transform Python acolytes into quivering masses of joyful expectation: "Spanish Inquisition," "Argument Clinic," "Nudge Nudge" and "Travel Agent."

One recent afternoon, a rehearsal saw a quintet of resilient actors -- Jane Leeves, Jeff B. Davis, Rick Holmes, Jim Piddock and Alan Tudyk -- searching for their inner Python-ality.

Leeves sang a sprightly version of the Python ditty "All Things Dull and Ugly." She was accompanied by three of the performers assembled as a deranged, hillbilly backup trio, playing ukulele, a plastic milk jug filled with chewing tobacco juice (ominous intimations of spitting were alluded to) and a wire dish drain subbing for a washboard.

Most familiar from her role as Daphne, Niles' love interest during the 11-season run of "Frasier," Leeves got her first movie role in the Pythons' last film, 1983's "The Meaning of Life." She was an uncredited dancer in the movie's outre production number, "Christmas in Heaven."

During the new play's rehearsal, that song was polished to a cheesy gleam, with Broadway dance cliches thoughtfully layered over burlesque bump-and-thrust choreography. ("Make it very Mitzi Gaynor-ish," choreographer Peggy Hickey urged two male dancers.)

Afterward, the cast took a break for an interview and did a good job finishing one another's sentences, a desirable skill for an ensemble charged with executing rapid-fire dialogue and carefully timed pauses in skits rarely lasting five minutes.

There was an appropriate lack of reverence for the endeavor (Piddock: "Consider this more a rip-off than a tribute"). Among the badinage was a fair amount of musing about performing material in front of audiences that likely will know the lines as well as anyone else in the house.

One thing that Idle isn't doing -- and which seemed to be a relief to the actors -- is asking his troupe for a word-for-word, gesture-for-gesture mimicking of the TV shows. Silly walks, for instance, in the skit of the same name, don't have to be exactly John Cleese's famed silly walks.

"I'm a reluctant director," said Idle. "I mostly encourage the performances. I got that from watching Mike Nichols" (who directed "Spamalot," the Tony-winning Broadway musical that Idle crafted from the troupe's 1975 hit movie, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail").

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