It’s a pretty big deal when one of your favorite bands gets back together for one more tour. Yeah, it’s a little weird to see how old your heroes have grown and, sure, you’re bound to spend the evening with tons of material you already know by heart — but it’s still a pretty big deal. Especially when that band is the world’s finest comedy troupe.
Like most intelligent people of my approximate age, I first discovered Monty Python through my local PBS channel. My sister and I didn’t watch a whole lot of PBS, truth be told, but somehow we stumbled upon an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and fell madly in love. (With Monty Python. Not with each other.) Within a few years I’d seen every episode of the series, the compilation film And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), as well as the brilliant Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), the amazing Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), the classic concert film Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982), and the uneven but still hilarious Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). Hell I even rented Jabberwocky (1977), which I didn’t understand at all.
Suffice to say I was a big-time Monty Python nerd for more than a few years. I will even admit to quoting lines from the movies in a failed effort at making my friends laugh. Over the years it has been great to see all five of the remaining Pythons branch off on all sorts of disparate projects. (The hilarious Graham Chapman passed away in 1989.) Cleese, Palin, Idle, Jones, and Gilliam have had many successes since the “end” of Monty Python back in 1983, but there’s nothing like seeing the guys reuniting for a big-time 10-night concert series.
The final performance of the Monty Python Live (Mostly) tour was streamed across the globe, and later released on video, but fans who crave one more morsel of Monty Python minutiae will certainly want to check out Monty Python: The Meaning of Live, which not only takes us behind the scenes on the big reunion show, but also provides a fascinating glimpse of the troupe’s historical live performances from the 1970s and early ’80s.
Co-directors Roger Graef and James Rogan offer brief sections from the ten-night run, wisely focusing on the best moments, the funniest flubs, and dashes of relatively newer material (we don’t need to see the full sketches at this point, do we?) — but where The Meaning of Live succeeds best is in its more personal moments. There’s something inevitably amusing about following the Pythons around as they plan, rehearse, and perform their classic bits, but it’s even more appealing to hear the veteran comedians’ insights on their origins, their longevity, their fans, and their approach to live performance.
The gents are refreshingly candid about their reunion: Mr. Jones has a little trouble remembering his lines, but is still as funny as ever. Mr. Cleese seems to have mellowed a bit with age, but also seems to relish his status as the “difficult” member of the troupe. (Hey. Geniuses are allowed to be difficult.) Mr. Gilliam, perhaps best known to some film fans as simply an excellent director, is clearly having a lot of fun revisiting his former partners. Mr. Idle, previously known as the silliest member of the crew, has transformed into a world-class stage director — who is still very silly indeed. And Mr. Palin (my personal favorite) remains the ever-classy, always upbeat, and quietly brilliant comedian. (The late Mr. Chapman appears in some archival footage, as well as in some lovely anecdotes from his friends.) The guys may be a lot older now, and they move a bit slower, but they’re no less funny than they were four decades ago, and this film works a lovely reminder of what makes the Pythons so special, both individually and as a team.
Although The Meaning of Live could probably be described as a “for fans only” sort of documentary, that raises an important question: who among us is not a Monty Python fan?