Television: The meaning of Monty Python

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2009 - 9:45 PM

A new documentary on Monty Python suggests that creating great comedy is more daunting than a hunt for the Holy Grail.

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Cast members of the original "Monty Python's Flying Circus" line up on a beach. PBS is airing six new one-hour programs called "Monty Python's Personal Best."

Photo: Associated Press, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Those who can hum "The Lumberjack Song," recite every syllable of the "Dead Parrot" sketch and qualify as honorary members of the Ministry of Silly Walks will need little arm-twisting when it comes to investing time in "Monty Python: Almost the Truth," a six-act, high-flying circus that opens its tent flaps tonight on IFC.

But viewers of a younger generation -- the ones who define classic comedy as early Jim Carrey flicks -- will also be treated to something completely familiar: absurdist theater that sends up anything and everything reeking of authority. If the six members of the group had practiced their silly skills a few decades later and across the pond, they'd probably be living in "South Park."

Instead, they conquered the early '70s with a breakthrough TV series, followed by a series of films, including "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and "The Life of Brian," all a brilliant combination of juvenile tomfoolery and sophisticated wit that still holds up today. But the six-hour extravaganza, which includes commentary from the entire troupe, including the late Graham Chapman and Minnesota-born Terry Gilliam, continually reminds us that grand silliness is serious business. (The original series and films will air late-night on IFC throughout the week.)

Tonight's opener, "The Not-So-Interesting Beginnings," contradicts its title with an engaging back story of six young lads, raised in the free-wheeling, post-World War II period when they no longer had to keep the radio tuned for bomb alerts and could concentrate on more frivolous matters, such as the groundbreaking series "The Goon Show," featuring a young Peter Sellers. John Cleese's account of listening to episodes with one ear pressed to the speaker and the other muffled by a pillow so he could make out every word is an early indicator of just how committed each performer was at an early age.

The second installment, "The Much Funnier Second Episode," is also the most disappointing, despite (or perhaps because of) the testimonials by more contemporary stars. It's fine to hear Russell Brand and Seth Green share their favorite sketches, but after a while, I got that creepy feeling that comes over me every time some "Family Guy" fan traps me in a corner at a party and recites every line from last week's offering, as my eyes frantically search for the exit, or at least the bar.

The rest of the project, directed by Bill Jones (son of Python's Terry Jones), Alan G. Parker and Ben Timlett, is more irreverent and more revealing as the worshipers step aside and allow the cast to revere -- and rip -- one another.

Cleese and Terry Jones, interviewed separately, come across as the most stubborn of the group, two egos battling for dominance, which made for some uncomfortable shoots, but also assured that the show wasn't too drab or too daring. (Cleese admits that he often sided with the BBC censors.) When Cleese left after three seasons, the balance was thrown out of whack and the series trickled off the air.

Even more telling are the final three installments, focused on the troupe's three original films. Python fanatics will eat up the insider details -- Cleese's unsuccessful bid to play the lead role in "Life of Brian"; Chapman's four-pints-of-gin diet; Elvis Presley's obsession with "Holy Grail"; a scrapped scene of Jesus trying to book a room for the Last Supper, and Gilliam's meticulous approach to directing, which drove his partners to temper tantrums.

Through it all, one never doubts that the six men respected and cared for one another, but their work was never a silly walk through the park. "Holy Grail" required numerous rewrites (the troupe eventually threw out 85 percent of the original script) and 13 edits. "Life of Brian" got financed only when George Harrison mortgaged his house and office to secure the cash.

Monty Python may have looked like a romp, but it required a few fish slaps to the face. Diehard fans and newcomers alike will relish the sting.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431

  • MONTY PYTHON: ALMOST THE TRUTH

    ★★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    When: 8 p.m. today-Fri.

    Where: IFC.

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