The full Monty: Can the Pythons really set side mutual antipathies and work together again?

Like other comedy groups, the Pythons are both pushed together and pulled apart


Godless soul that I am, I have long believed that if the British have a national religion, it’s our sense of humour: the one thing which defines us utterly in the eyes of the rest of the world (aside from perfidy, colonial mishaps and our inexplicable fondness for Marmite). And if our religion has a catechism, it is surely the Monty Python canon. I would bet hard cash that more people know the lyrics to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” than could recite the Lord’s Prayer.

So the promise of Thurday's press conference, in which the Pythons are expected to announce a live tour show, is a thrilling prospect. At least in part because it will be extraordinary if the Pythons can settle their differences for long enough to reunite. It’s only a couple of years since John Cleese and Eric Idle became embroiled in an ugly spat about the money from Idle’s stage show Spamalot, which reached its nadir when Cleese described his fellow Python as “Yoko Idle”. Idle scrapped Cleese as the voice of God in the show, re-recording the part himself. Even borderline saint Michael Palin showed mild irritation for Cleese and Idle in his Python Years diary, which is the same as a normal person screaming, “For Christ’s sake, pack it in”.

Like virtually every other comedy group in history, the Pythons are pushed together and pulled apart at the same time. As a collective, they’re probably greater than the sum of their parts, though Terry Gilliam’s film career makes that a tough call (and that’s before you remember that Cleese made Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda).

But comedy is an angry art – John Cleese’s comedy especially. Sketch groups are always rife with jealousy and bitterness: watch Peter Cook bullying Dudley Moore in Derek and Clive Get the Horn to see this at its worst. Cook was consumed with fury that his comic inferior, as he perceived Moore, was having a more successful career than he himself had carved out (impressive though that career was). Comedians more than anyone live by Gore Vidal’s quip that it isn’t enough to succeed, others must fail.

And the Pythons were a fractured group to begin with: Cleese wrote with the late Graham Chapman, Palin with Terry Jones, and Idle worked alone. Chapman was the fantastical surrealist (the Dead Parrot sketch was about a broken toaster until Chapman suggested the change) who took the edge off Cleese’s barely contained annoyance with the world. Idle was the musical one, Jones the extravagant cross-dresser, and Palin was the silly one.

When the animated film A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman came out in 2012, Idle was the only Python not to voice any of the characters. If the remaining Pythons found it easier to work with a dead man than Eric Idle a couple of years ago, what chance that this reunion show can really happen? Will they announce it and then fall out again before the opening night? And yet, as I’m writing, Idle has just tweeted a photograph of the five of them sitting around a table. Not only that, but he is sitting next to Cleese, and Cleese is smiling.

It’s doubtless a sign that I am becoming overly sentimental, but I find it hard not to be moved by this picture. These men are far more important to me than the musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, simply because comedy has been a much bigger part of my life than music. And the Pythons changed it for ever. There was surreal comedy before the Pythons, of course (in Aristophanes’ The Wasps, there’s a verbal defence from the family dog, standing up in court against a charge of cheese-theft).

But comedy worked on the principle of surprise until the Pythons. We usually laugh because of an unexpected juxtaposition of two things. Ask most comics and they’ll tell you that once they’ve done a routine on telly, they stop doing it live, because the laugh doesn’t come when people know what to expect. But with the Pythons, we knew their sketches and films by heart, and laughed all the harder for it. They weren’t just rock star famous; like musicians, they had greatest hits.

There are plenty of critics pointing out that the Pythons can’t possibly be the anarchic geniuses they once were. Those critics have, presumably, forgotten the Aspen Comedy Festival in 1998, when Gilliam kicked what they claimed were Chapman’s ashes all over the stage: hardly the comfortable middle-aged comedy anyone else would have gone for. Moaning that the Pythons aren’t as young and innovative as they once were is like saying the same thing about the Rolling Stones. It’s undeniably true, but you’d still go and see them if you had a chance.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Recruitment Genius: Estimator

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a major supplier of buil...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Engineer with SQL skills

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The Top Ten: Words In Christmas Carols That Ought To Be Revived

John Rentoul
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas