Thursday, October 15, 2009

40 Years of Python

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was like the Beatles, except Elvis Presley reportedly loved them. They were a one troupe British comedy invasion. All sketch comedy which came before them now seems quaint, while that all that has come afterwards appears derivative. Starting this Sunday, IFC marks the fortieth anniversary of the Pythons with the six part behind-the-scenes history, Monty Python: Almost the Truth—The Lawyer’s Cut.

As viewers learn in the first episode, The Not-So-Exciting Beginnings, the very British Pythons, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones, all came from respectable middle class roots and were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. The ringer of the group was Terry Gilliam, Cleese’s scruffy yank friend, whose surreal cartoons became the bizarre connective tissue between Python’s subversive sketches.

For reasons the Pythons themselves are at a loss to explain, the BBC green-lighted them for a 13-episode trial run, despite their inability to explain exactly what they wanted to do. As one might expect, it took them a while to catch on, but word of mouth spread, eventually building into a comedy phenomenon, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Featuring original interviews with all five surviving Pythons, as well as many of their friends and well known fans, Truth nicely conveys their personalities and the working dynamics within the group. While viewers might be surprised to learn the Pythons were never particularly close to each other, they seem pretty even-handed when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their fellow group members. However, the third episode, And Now the Sordid Personal Bits, only really delves into the private life of the late Graham Chapman, who candidly discussed his alcoholism and his difficulty coming out to the group on several talk shows, while promoting his memoir.

Not surprisingly, Monty Python and Holy Grail and The Life of Brian each merit their own episodes. However, The Meaning of Life is treated like their hit-or-miss last hurrah in the concluding The Last Episode Ever…For Now, which also covers Chapman’s death from cancer at the tragically early age of forty-eight, as well as briefly addressing the Pythons’ lives after Python.

As one would expect, the Pythons are quite amusing interview subjects. Truth also shows many short clips from their classic television series, stage productions, and films, but includes none of their skits in their entirety. However, the third disk of the upcoming DVD release features some of their greatest hits, including the Dead Parrot sketch and of course “Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition,” complete, uncut and still devilishly funny.

Truth is a brisk, tightly edited documentary that features some rarely seen film of the fab six, including some appropriately humorous and touching footage of Chapman’s memorial service. Above all, Truth demonstrates the Pythons could at times be eccentric, and even a little pompous (much like their characters), but were and still are very funny people. Aside from an opening credit sequence that tries unsuccessfully to channel the Python spirit, Truth is a very entertaining look at the British comedy titans. It debuts on IFC this Sunday (10/18), continuing through Thursday (10/23), with the DVD releasing the following Tuesday (10/27).