by allan tong for FILMbutton
On Sunday, July 20th from a giant stage at London’s O2 Arena and simulcast around the world to 1,500 theatres, including 86 across Canada (five in Toronto), the greatest comedy troupe ever bid farewell in a lavish final performance.
Monty Python Live (mostly) showcased the five surviving members of the famed Anglo-American comedy group that saw them perform classic sketches like The Dead Parrot and The Lumberjack Song, update others including Blackmail, and mix them with Terry Gilliam’s loony animation and some of the original TV sketches. There were also lavish dance numbers as well as self-deprecating jabs at John Cleese’s divorces and Michael Palin’s “boring” travel shows. The atmosphere was celebratory, not sad, but largely retrospective which preached to the converted.
When the camera cut to the audience at the O2 Arena, a sea of middle-aged faces—kids when Python hit the BBC in the seventies—filled the screen. The audience there and here loved it. In the nearly sold-put Scotiabank Theature, one woman dressed as a knight out of The Holy Grail, while others sang along to the show-closer, Always Look On The Bright Side of Life. It seemed like everyone in the audience knew every line and gag by heart.
The Pythons themselves seemed to be enjoying the evening, perhaps too much, which created a looseness in some performances that robbed them of their original bite. For instance, Cleese and Palin flubbed their lines in The Dead Parrot sketch and went on to castigate the British papers for slamming their week’s worth of shows on this farewell tour. That moment tasted of sour grapes and was unnecessary. Meanwhile, sketches such as The Argument Clinic and Four Yorkshiremen were spot on and hilarious.
Seeing original clips of the brilliant Philosophers’ Football Match and the hilarious Barley Townswomen’s Guild Presents the Battle of Pearl Harbor only reminded us of how cutting and surreal Python comedy was back in the day. In contrast, Sunday’s performances of The Lumberjack Song and Blackmail were entertaining, but they owed more to lavish choreography than inspired lunacy. The same goes with the Penis Song and Every Sperm is Sacred, a showpiece from the 1980 film, The Meaning of Life. Sketches such as I Like Chinese were radically updated, shedding the racism of the 1980 Eric Idle tune and replacing them with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that even fear the economic dominance of China. How times have changed.
The farewell show was really a tribute that the comedy troupe awarded itself and its fans. A chubby Mike Myers popped up unexpectedly in Blackmail to break the third wall by proclaiming how honoured he was to be on stage with the greatest comedy troupe in the world. A little less reverent, but just as surprising was finding Stephen Hawking soaring through space in a new video. There were many nods to the missing Python, Graham Chapman, who passed away in 1989. Python regular, Carol Cleveland, filled for him in some sketches.
Watching Monty Python Live (mostly) via satellite on a movie screen was like catching a modern Rolling Stones concert. They’re both lavish spectacles performed by wrinkled legends who present their greatest hits to a middle-aged audience that knows every tune. That’s not to say that Sunday’s farewell wasn’t entertaining. In fact, it was great fun, but only to devout fans who attended it as a rite of passage and not for pure entertainment.