And now for something completely lucrative
Monty Python are re-forming. Is it because they need the money? And what can they offer their fans?
Flying Circus: Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin in the 1970s. Photograph: BBC
And now for something completely predictable: Monty Python said this week that they are re-forming for a show at the O2 in London, with a tour likely to follow. It’s cash-in-your-status-chips time for the quintet in a move that will dismay as many people as it will excite.
Now all in their 70s, the surviving Pythons – John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam – haven’t worked together since their last film, The Meaning of Life, which was released 30 years ago. (Graham Chapman died in 1989). They had always said they would never get back together because of their age, geographical spread – Idle lives in Los Angeles – and their solo careers.
But on Thursday they announced details of a “one-off” performance in London on July 1st. It won’t be a one-off: it will sell out in brisk time when tickets go on sale, on Monday morning, and more days – weeks, even – will be added. Then it will likely travel to Broadway, with a live DVD also being scheduled.
Two key events earlier this year led to the Pythons’ announcement. In July one of the producers of their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Mark Forstater, won a high-court case against the comedians about royalties from Spamalot, the hit musical based on the movie.
Since 2004 Spamalot has made hundreds of millions of euro in ticket sales. Forstater took the action because he believed he was entitled to a share of that money. The court having found in his favour, further hearings will determine how much he is awarded. The Pythons’ legal fees are believed to be substantial.
Also this year, Jim Beach was believed to have become Monty Python’s new manager. Beach is the long-time manager of the rock group Queen and was the prime mover behind getting We Will Rock You, the musical that uses the band’s songs, on stage. Translating big-name acts into theatrical productions is what Beach does best.
It’s no surprise, then, that Idle said on Thursday that the new show will be like “a huge musical”. John Cleese added that there will be “some new material”, but this will be mainly a greatest-hits affair – and, given the Pythons’ status and the rarity of live shows by them, box-office records could tumble.
Doing it for the money?
Critics already say that Monty Python are doing it for the money. Although the comedians aren’t poor, it seems they are not nearly as rich as they deserve to be. Despite being the “Beatles of comedy”, they were always more cult than mainstream, and they broke up well before the entertainment industry became as sophisticated at making money as it is today.
Apart from this year’s Spamalot court case, Cleese has spoken openly about how much his last divorce settlement cost him. “When Alyce Faye and I split up, she got $13 million and I got to keep $8 million,” he claimed three years ago. It prompted his first solo tour, which he nicknamed the Alimony Tour, saying at the time, “I get angry that I have to pack my trunk, just to tour to make money.”
Cleese is believed to be the Python who had said no to reunions in the past, but his circumstances are different now.
With the exception of Gilliam, the six members of the team had all been to Oxbridge; they met in the mid 1960s while collaborating on scripts for The Frost Report, the late David Frost’s satirical television show.
They made their name – and changed the course of comedy – with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the BBC show that ran from 1969 to 1974. Featuring surreal humour that eschewed traditional punch lines, it was influenced more by the Theatre of the Absurd than by music hall.
Most fondly remembered for its sketches about the Spanish Inquisition, a dead parrot and singing lumberjacks, the programme didn’t have had the widest audience, but it had the hippest one. Performers from Stephen Fry to Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais have acknowledged its importance, and, because of repeats years later in the US, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is still cited by the people behind Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and South Park as the reason they do what they do.
“Pythonesque” even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary: “Denoting or resembling the absurdist or surrealist humour or style of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” A Python sketch is also the reason we now describe unwanted email as spam.
But they did their best work on film. Between the third and fourth series of Flying Circus, and on a tiny budget donated, at least in part, by their uberfans Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, they made Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Based on Arthurian legend, the film was such a success that when Idle was asked if they had plans for a follow-up, he replied, flippantly, “Yes, and it’s going to be called Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory.”
Thinking the title was too good to waste, the Pythons decided to make a film about a man who is continually mistaken for Jesus. The result, Life of Brian – controversial on its release, in 1979, for its religious subject and banned for years in many countries, including, until 1987, Ireland – is still regularly voted the best comedy film of all time.
The group finished working as a collective in 1983 with the underrated film The Meaning of Life.
How galling it must be for them to look upon the riches being amassed by their disciples. Live comedy has been growing even more than live music. Peter Kay and his fellow “super stand-ups” can earn more than The Rolling Stones and the average Premiership footballer – combined. In 2011 alone Kay made more than £20 million from ticket and DVD sales.
But there is sadness about the Pythons’ reunion among a significant number of long-time fans. Neil Innes, a musician who has worked with them, says that “the idea of John doing the silly-walks sketch with two false hips is very amusing”.
The comic actor David Schneider told the BBC that he has mixed feelings about the comeback. “The worry is, what if it’s rubbish? As you get older and part of the establishment, you lose your edge comedically,” he said.
On the one hand, the supreme silliness that is Monty Pythons’ stock-in-trade shouldn’t date. On the other, Thursday’s announcement gave added resonance to what the Python watcher George Perry wrote about them 30 years ago: “With the passing years, the members of Monty Python have begun to occupy an institutional position in the edifice of social culture that they had once had so much fun trying to demolish.”
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Worst Lenny Bruce. In the late 1950s he was a comedy genius, railing against hypocrisy, piety and politics. But after a series of drug busts and an obscenity trial he lost the plot when he reappeared on stage in the mid 1960s.