There were no wet fish, dead parrots or cheese of any kind on the stage of the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan on Thursday evening. What we did have, however, were all five surviving members of the Monty Python team proving that, even in their late 60s, being anarchically rude to one another still comes naturally.
The band of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and the two Terrys – Gilliam and Jones – were on hand to promote the premier of a six-part documentary tracing the origins, successes and shortcomings of the Monty Python brand that will air in America next week on the Independent Film Channel. After the audience watched a two-hour boiled-down version of it, the performers trooped on to the stage to – naturally – the J P Sousa theme music to the Flying Circus.
Real scholars of Python may not learn much new from the documentary, called Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut), except perhaps the odd assertion from Cleese that his family name was really Cheese until his grandfather changed it. Those parts dealing with the alcoholism and 1989 death of Graham Chapman from throat cancer may be more moving, if only because his fellow thespians seemed so unaware of his troubles.
Still less edifying – but sometimes just as funny – was the 30-minute question-and-answer session that the fivesome (plus a cardboard cut-out of Chapman in a colonel's garb propped on a sixth chair) submitted to once the film was over. The evening ended with each them receiving a special Bafta Award for outstanding contributions to film and television.
The point of the evening perhaps was for each them to prove more emphatically than the other that they are still happy to give the finger to convention. "If you want a better view, this will be on eBay tomorrow," Cleese suggested dismissively, sitting back down with the bronze mask that Bafta had just given him.
Purportedly, the five were meant to read questions handwritten by us, members of the audience, and then collected by waiters with silver trays and delivered to them on the stage. But this apparently was too boring for them most of the time. Cleese set the tone, suggesting that his card wanted to know the date of the death of Cardinal Richelieu. "I believe 1642," he answered, a date he offered in response to a quite different question a few minutes later.
There was also some of the familiar homo-jokery. "I have never fancied Mr Palin," Cleese insisted after a question about which other member of the troupe each of them would like to sleep with before they die. "I find him physically repellent."
For his part, Palin paused when asked what his greatest regret in life was before replying that he wished he had been born a man. "It's been a right battle ever since," he lamented to loud laughter.
But those who listened carefully may have gleaned some nuggets from all the buffoonery. Cleese, for example, tried to stop the cheese sketch. He didn't find it funny. But no one on stage had forgotten that it was at a first read-through of the cheese sketch that Palin, for the first and last time, actually fell of his chair laughing.
Say what you like about Python or about Cleese. But any man who can sit on a New York stage and say with a straight face to his pals, "What about that funny thing that happened at Auschwitz?" deserves an award, Bafta or otherwise. (Never mind if the incident he was referring to actually happened at Dachau.)