An Evening Watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail with John Cleese
It Was A Silly Place
On Sunday night, January 29th, I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Count Basie Theater. Originally released in 1975, this cult hit has been a Monty Python fan favorite for decades. It is a comedy full of nonsense and would make Sir Thomas Mallory pull his hair out and run screaming off of a cliff.
Strangers to this movie should know it has very little to do with the legend of Camelot, although fans readily admit Camelot is a silly place and, aside from being a model, you shouldn’t go there.
With a running time of ninety-two minutes, this movie gives Monty Python fans the disjointed skit humor they made famous in their television show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is filled with cartoons, naughtiness, eight score of women lighting grail shaped beacons, killer rabbits, holy hand grenades, monsters, knights who say “Nee”, castles in swamps seeking vast tracts of land, the French, and witches that weigh the same as ducks.
But there is no spam. There is definitely no spam. None at all.
Watching The Movie
I can’t describe this experience to anyone who hasn’t seen this movie on the big screen in front of a live audience. All I will say is that viewing it alone on your TV simply does not make the viewer cognizant of many things intentionally done for comedic timing.
For example, one of the first scenes within the movie is an argument between King Arthur (played by the late Graham Chapman) and a man and his wife played by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, respectively. The man, Dennis, is a member of an anarcho-syndicalist commune who doesn’t believe in King Arthur’s right to rule. When Dennis asks Arthur how he became king, Chapman speaks reverently about his divine experience in receiving the sword, Excalibur, from the Lady of the Lake. The moment he was done with the line, Dennis shatters the spell by bringing Arthur back to reality – saying strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government and that supreme executive power is derived from a mandate of the masses – not some farcical aquatic ceremony. It gets even funnier as Chapman gets more and more frustrated with Palin’s natural rebellion against his God-given royalty.
I can’t do the scene justice – the Pythons do a perfect job in poking religion, philosophy, and royalty in the eyes with a piece of fruit or a pointed stick.
Over the last thirty years, I must have seen this movie forty times on my DVD and VCR. I’ve seen the Tony award-winning Broadway musical, Spamalot, based on the movie. I know when the punchlines are coming. There are no surprises because I know the lines by heart.
Yet, this time, I could see the comedic beats between the lines. I could see where the audience was supposed to sit, digest, laugh, and then laugh again. The silences and the pauses are planned and executed with a perfection that only comes from a troupe of comedians that know each other as well as the Pythons do.
The Count Basie Theatre is a landmark on the Jersey shore. Built in 1926 as the Carlton Theatre, it was renamed in 1984 after Red Bank native and jazz band leader William “Count” Basie. Today, The Count Basie Theatre hosts performances ranging from local bands to internationally famous acts. Every so often they host an event like this where they’ll show a movie and then have a guest there for questions.
Tonight’s guest was one of the surviving Pythons, comedic legend, John Cleese. This was the last stop on his tour.
John Cleese’s comedic career spans five decades as a performer, screenwriter, producer, comedian, and voice actor. Aside from his work with the Pythons, his works include Fawlty Towers, The Frost Report, How to Irritate People, and countless movies including A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures, two Harry Potter movies, two James Bond movies, as well as two of the Shrek films.
The audience greeted the seventy-seven-year-old Python warmly before he told stories about the film. While it’s hard to divorce his typically British curmudgeon personality from his high-pitched laughter, he did have some painful stories about the film.
First off, it wasn’t his favorite of the Python films. He spoke of the limited budget ($400,000) that left many of the actors and the crew to make many sacrifices. The weather was damp and cold. When the last scene of the day was done, there was a frantic race back to the hotel for the first hot shower. The hot water heater was half as big as it needed to be for everyone on the crew.
The running gag for the “coconut horses” came from budgeting issues. Fans know the bits where all of the knights were pretending to ride horses while their squires follow them with coconut halves making horseshoe Foley sounds. It’s a running gag that led to one of the funniest lines in the movie.
All because horses were too expensive.
He complained that the movie had no plot and therefore had to end the way it did. He preferred the film Life of Brian. He said that movie had a running plot and more importantly, it was set in a warm place. Contrasted to the overcast skies of Scotland, working in warm Tunisia to orange juice was preferable.
One of the other reasons they did Life of Brian, was because a reporter asked Eric Idle what their next project would be. He said, “Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory”. Cleese loved the controversy and the fact their movie marketing in Sweden could read, “So funny, it was banned in Norway!”
When asked to give a one-word description for each of his fellow Pythons he said Michael Palin is “dull”, Terry Jones is “Welsh”, and Graham Chapman is “dead”. Of Terry Gilliam, he just spoke about how Gilliam just couldn’t be understood.
When asked about who he got his sense of humor from he said it was his mother – a woman who worried incessantly throughout his childhood. According to Cleese, it had gotten so bad that he had once made her laugh when he said that there is a man a few towns away and, if she wanted, he could pay him to kill her.
For more stories about Cleese and his life, I recommend you read his autobiography entitled, So, Anyway… You will laugh out loud.
The thing John Cleese spoke about most was his approach to humor and writing humor. He said it comes from all of the negative emotions; you rarely see funny things with love and joy in comedy. So you have to allow yourself to understand pain, awkwardness, and cruelty – then make them funny. He said he took what he could from watching not only British comedy but from early silent film artists such as Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton. In Cleese’s opinion, it is political correctness that kills comedy. His irreverence toward social norms can clearly be seen in his work like Fawlty Towers and How to Irritate People.
Left Us Laughing
Near the close of the evening, he ended with an old joke to illustrate how being politically incorrect could be funny.
Two Jews were walking down the street when they both saw a sign in front of a Roman Catholic church that read, “Convert today and we’ll give you one thousand dollars.”
So, the one says to the other, “I’m going to do it.”
His friend said, “Really?”
And the first Jew said, “It’s a thousand dollars.”
The Jew went to the church for the conversion and after a few hours, he came out to see his friend. His friend looked at him and said, “Did you get the money?”
He replied impatiently, “Is that all you people ever think about?”
John Cleese is indeed a comedic genius and having the privilege of seeing him live after watching one of my favorite movies was a rare treat. But like all good things, it was over too quickly – about the same time it takes to say, “Icky, icky, icky, zip, pa-tang, zoowaaaa…” and gather a shrubbery.