It's impossible to overstate the influence of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Debuting almost 50 years ago, and running a mere four seasons, it's still arguably the most influential TV comedy series of all time, and its impact is still felt — for better or worse — to this day.
Pythons Eric Idle and John Cleese were, of course, huge factors in that success. Idle, the youngest member, was responsible for most of the troupe's counterculture-related material and wrote the best songs of the series and subsequent movies ("Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," "The Philosophers Song") as well as co-creating and writing the music for the musical Spamalot. Cleese developed (along with frequent writing partner Graham Chapman) some of the show's most memorable sketches ("The Ministry of Silly Walks," "Dead Parrot,""Cheese Shop") and has also had the most visible post-Flying Circus career, appearing in Fawlty Towers and a number of mainstream Hollywood films.
So what could we expect from the pair as they brought their "Together Again At Last...For The Very First Time" show to Cullen Performance Hall on the U of H campus last night? According to the tour site, the show was to consist of "scripted and improvised bits with storytelling, musical numbers, exclusive footage and aquatic juggling." This was a mostly accurate statement, and the nearly sold-out crowd probably wasn't in the mood for juggling anyway.
Cleese and Palin are in their seventies now, but their chops are still more or less as keen as ever. Introduced as an "Evening of Not Michael Palin" (accompanied by a picture of Palin with an X through it), they came onstage to a [completely spontaneous] standing ovation, then left again before returning, settling down in a couple of easy chairs and launching straightaway into wondering why the city of Houston pronounces its name that way.
From there, we heard some history of how Cleese and Palin met (at
Trump Cambridge University), and their early career working on The Frost Report (Cleese was "discovered" by David Frost during an airport phone call), as well as rarely aired scenes of the pair on 1967's At Last the 1948 Show, footage of which was apparently erased by Frost himself. The two also re-enacted two of that show's skits, one about a memory school and "Bookshop," which hardcore fans have heard on the Contractual Obligation Album.
Of course, the focus of the evening was the Flying Circus years, and we were treated to: a handful of video clips, the reason for Cleese's departure after the third season (he was bored), and a live version of "The Undertaker's Sketch," written by Cleese and Chapman and still in the running for one of the most off-putting comedy bits of all time.
To make up for that, they played a clip from their German TV special, Fliegender Zirkus, in which Cleese's butch Little Red Riding Hood is upstaged by a dachshund in a wolf costume.
There was an intermission, followed by talk of the movies (the Pythons' creative process involved traveling to the West Indies and struggling with writer's block) and post-Flying Circus career (Cleese introduced several clips from Fawlty Towers). Much of the information, quite honestly, wasn't really new, but getting to hear them talk about things like Beatle George Harrison's mortgaging his house to finance Life of Brian, as well as seeing footage of Harrison's "Pirate Song" from Idle's Rutland Weekend Television, was a genuine treat.
Indeed, there was a comforting quality to the whole evening. Idle and Cleese have two of the most recognizable voices to comedy fans and nerds, and honestly, most of us could have just sat and listened to them shoot the shit for hours. Cleese, admittedly, was a tad slower on the uptake, but Idle was in fine form, whether talking trash about the other Pythons or singing signature tunes like "Sit On My Face" as well as new offerings "The Selfie Song" and "Fuck Christmas" ("Tell all Santa's elves/To go and fuck themselves").
And being comedians, they of course had to address the elephant in the room. In this case a literal elephant: GOP President-elect Trump. Cleese mentioned it when the Cullen Hall lights inexplicably began flickering in the second act ("I thought this sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen until January 20"). while Idle declared it their purpose as "Limeys" to cheer us up during our post-election depression, closing with an "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life" sing-along, the American flag waving proudly(?) behind him.
It was a needed release, frankly. So much of today's comedy is — necessarily — topical, if not wholly fueled by recent outrage, but who do we go to for absurdism, or broader satire? Monty Python's Flying Circus looked square in the face of the Cold War and economic malaise and said they were a lumberjack, and that was okay. Where is the surrealism necessary to escape today's existential dilemmas? In short, where can those despairing of the future turn for the comfort of a Fish Slapping Dance?
Kids these days, heads all filled with Cartesian dualism.
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