[Review] - Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five To Go

Beautiful plumage.

The lasting influence of Monty Python's Flying Circus cannot be overstated. Therefore, I won't even try. But, since its original broadcast in 1969, those six highly educated gentlemen redefined both the notion of sketch comedy, and called into question the very nature of comedy itself. Certainly, their predecessors and contemporaries like Spike Milligan and Peter Cook were experimenting with structure and content in the fifties and sixties, but it took Cleese, Palin, Idle, Jones, Chapman and Gilliam (and one needs to remember to mention the seventh Python, Carol Cleveland in the same breath, who readily and ably appears throughout this show too) to actually take comedy in a bold new direction, a direction that has been endlessly copied ever since.

And close to fifty years later (45 to be exact), this is it. Monty Python is no more. It has ceased to be. It has passed on (see what I mean, sometimes it's just unavoidable), if the memorial card that closes the show has any truth to it. Python has been put to rest by the very men and one woman who birthed in the first place, after a series of ten live shows at London's O2 arena, the last of which was broadcast around the world on Sunday. And 45 years on, not much has changed except for the member's agility. And that, in part, is the problem.

When the show was announced, Cleese specifically said that people wanted to see the old material but the boys didn't want to do it in the same old predicable ways. Unfortunately, since the announcement last year and these shows, that sentiment seems to have been lost, because Monty Python Live was really no more than Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl, by way of The Secret Policeman's Ball, with a heavy pinch of Spamalot thrown in for good measure. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't what it could have been for one last hoorah.

Hit the jump for the review, which waited a full fifteen minutes before putting on a dress.

It is immediate and obvious that Eric Idle arranged and directed this show, as his taste for musical theater makes an unrelenting mark upon it. I would guess that we was the precipitating factor behind the reunion, as he was the force of development behind Spamalot and He's Not The Messiah. However, like the latter show, Monty Python Live fails to live up to the success of the first, in an entirely different way. Mostly, aside from the musical numbers, which are many and mostly unneeded, as they are so obviously time filler and seemingly endless, it's And Now For Something Completely Different 2. Time and effort has been put into musical arrangement, costume design, set design, and choreography, but it seemed that they just ripped the old scripts from a copy of The Complete Monty Python and went at it like old times.

But these aren't old time. The only thing old here are the performers, though considering how much sprite is still left in Michael Palin and Eric Idle, you might not think quite as old. But more effort should have been put into redeveloping the old sketches so that they existed more organically within the confines of this show. Certainly, updating some of the dialogue to account for time passed might have been in order. When Cleese and Palin perform Vocational Guidance Councillor, might a quick edit have been made not to reference Pain working as an accountant for 20 years but 40, or to not reference Palin as a 45 year old man, which with all due respect he is not.

The sketches seemed oddly divorced from the rest of the proceedings. Graham Chapman remained part of the show, though use of original series footage projected on a big screen, which allowed some of the larger sketches, like the Philosophers Football Match, to appear, as well as many of Gilliam's animations. Each segment would either begin or end with yet another musical number, which considering the number of iconic songs Idle gave the world through the albums and films was to be expected. But these would drag on as they lapsed into overly long dance routines that made very little sense in a Python context. Every Sperm Is Sacred was never my favourite Python tune, but augmented by a four minute dance arrangement really strained my patience.

These time saving measures were obviously deployed to account for set and costume changes, but the boys proved adept at making these quickly anyway. Late in the show, a relatively quick (compared to what came before) change over between The Argument Sketch, Spam and the Dead Parrot showcased how the rest of the show could have been, with more fluidity between actual sketches. It might not have been the most organic change over in the world, but considering a trademark of the original show was sketches coming to an abrupt end, than the dovetailing of The Spanish Inquisition into The Universe Song was practically flawless orchestration.

The moments that worked the best were the ones that took into account not only the passing of time, but also the venue and nature of the show. An extended bit during the Death of Mary Queen Of Scots, where Jones and Cleese discuss how nice that Michael Palin fellow is when he's travelling, or a line in Poofy Judges referring to Cleese's many divorces, or inserting Chapman into the many fates of the Parrot show a self awareness that made the original sketches so alive. They weren't poking fun of themselves back then, they had their eye on tradition and convention. Now, since they are the tradition and convention, it was a prime opportunity to poke greater fun at themselves. The show never felt more alive than when, in the midst of an age old comfort, the performers betrayed themselves. You wouldn't think the Dead Parrot or the Cheese Shop sketches would be as fresh, trotted out for the millionth time, or that blending them would work despite their acknowledged similarities. But what made the sketch work this time was when both Cleese and Palin went off book. When it was just two old friends making each other laugh.

The show wasn't just revisiting the greatest hits of the Flying Circus era, or of the films. It incorporated material from across the whole of their accosted career. The show opens properly with the Four Yorkshiremen, which is actually from At Last the 1948 Show and co-written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. But because of performances at the Hollywood Bowl and The Secret Policeman's Ball, it has become associated with the Pythons, so why not throw it in. Likewise The Penultimate Supper, which was never actually featured on the show, or the Finland Song from Spamalot: they're all part of the heritage. Idle, as I've mentioned, clearly put his love into the musical arrangement, even adding two additionally gender balanced verses to Isn't It Awfully Nice To Have A Penis, or creating a Ministry of Silly Walks song that seemed ripped from a Pink Floyd album (oddly, he did not include the additional verses he recently added to the Universe Song). It's just that none of them seemed to advocate as strongly for the presentation of the sketches as Idle did his ditties.

What worked best of all though, were the performances. Like back in the day, there is a chemistry between these men, and between certain pairings of these men, that is second to none, and despite the fact that they've not all been back together in this way in a considerable amount of time, it was still there just the same. Palin and Idle seemed to be having the most fun, but by the end of the first half Cleese was warming up nicely, as was Gilliam as he pocketed the role of making the others break character. Jones, forever and always my favourite of the troupe, seemed right at home (assuming home had popped down to the shops some time ago and only just returned with a new Caribbean husband named Reginald). Chapman's absence was only occasionally noticeable, and here exists another easily plugged hole in the production.

As it stands, the show contains a slew of notable appearances, including but not limited to Eddie Izzard, Prof. Brian Cox, Dara O'Briain, Lee Mack, The Rolling Stones, Stephen Hawking, a disappointing non-appearance by Jeremy Clarkson, and for reasons beyond explanation, Mike Myers. And these walk-ons, with the exception of the scientists and rock stars, are sadly distracting and largely pointless. To draw attention to their sudden involvement brings the show to a dead stop, and then it has to get going again. Where as, if they had simply been incorporated into the show, such as Dara taking Chapman's brief role as the straight man in the Spanish Inquisition, their involvement might have seemed more celebratory and reverential (with a touch of torch passing) rather than ham-handed and opportunistic.

In the end, just shy of fifty years after sheep first took to the trees, I can say this: they make just as good looking pepperpots now as they did back then, if not better. And John Cleese has the best legs of the bunch.
Share on Google Plus

About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. Great review, those were pretty much my thoughts exactly. (I only watched the streamed broadcast at a cinema.)

    One small correction, though: The Finland song is quite a bit older than Spamalot. I first heard it on the "Monty Python Sings" record in the 1990s, and according to Wikipedia, it was first released in 1980 on "Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album".

    1. You are absolutely correct, that's my mistake.