Monty Python's New Life

Two decades after Monty Python put its unique and zany spin on modern comedy, all the group's major TV and film works - along with new footage - have been released on DVD and VHS.

And now for something completely the same!

Monty Python, the British comedy troupe that made "... and now for something completely different!" an international catch phrase, is back in style. More than 25 years after "Monty Python's Flying Circus" wrapped its final TV season on the BBC, and almost 20 years after the group finished its movie career with "The Meaning of Life," all its major works are available on DVD and VHS.

This is gala news for Python fans. The six-man British comedy troupe brought a new sensibility to modern humor, rooted in a blend of literate, disciplined writing and free-form ideas that grew from their love of earlier film and TV comedians.

A look at their careening career together reveals much about the evolution of contemporary comedy, as well as their own achievements in satire and, well, silliness, to use one of their favorite words.

For all their outrageous antics, the Pythons were an educated crew. John Cleese and Graham Chapman met at the theatrical Footlights Club of Cambridge University, where they were studying law and medicine, and Eric

Idle joined them there a year later. Terry Jones and Michael Palin gravitated toward laugh-making at Oxford University, where they were history majors. Terry Gilliam, the group's only American member, joined them after moving to England to escape what he saw as American hypocrisy during the Vietnam War era.

The first "Flying Circus" show aired in 1969, stuck in a late-night time slot by the fusty British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which worried that the Pythons might be too brash and bizarre for prime time. While this may have dampened the troupe's ratings, it helped their reputation as offbeat entertainers - not suitable for squares, perhaps, but caviar for the hip and savvy.

Monty Python veered from the norms of mainstream comedy in many ways, including its approach to teamwork. The six members worked as equals, never giving special status to anyone, even when Mr. Cleese started acquiring a fan base of his own.

Breaking the mold

They also avoided longtime staples of TV comedy such as stand-up routines and sitcom-type stories. Their surrealistic style leaned toward stream-of-consciousness skits filled with mercurial changes from moment to moment. (Hence, "And now for something completely different!")

Style aside, the high laugh content of their shows is what their followers love most. Chapman and Cleese wrote as a team, specializing in verbally boisterous "thesaurus sketches" with contrasting characters hurling torrents of words at each other. Who can forget Cleese's rant at a pet-shop proprietor over a recently purchased parrot that turned out to be dead, deceased, dormant, demised, passed on, passed away, and pushing up the daisies?

Mr. Jones and Mr. Palin were the other writing duo, specializing in visual humor with an unpredictable tempo. Idle liked to write on his own, and Gilliam did his cut-and-paste animations in his own studio, splicing them into the show shortly before air time.

The six devised their sketches in strictly scheduled sessions of writing, discussing, and critiquing one another's contributions. As often as not, the creators of a sketch wouldn't end up performing it. The objective was to have the most suitable Python play each part, regardless of who dreamed up the sketch. The important thing was making viewers laugh, not satisfying individual egos.

"Monty Python's Flying Circus" flew high for about four years, not counting a few months off in 1971 and a shortened season of Cleese-less shows in 1974. As the show lost momentum in England, it gained an American following, beginning on a small number of PBS stations and swelling into a nationwide success.

Python also soared in five feature films. The quality varies widely, but each is precious to Monty mavens in its own distinctive way.

"Life of Brian," directed by Jones, is the best - although it was briefly controversial in 1979, when some moviegoers misconstrued its meaning before it was released. Set in the time of Jesus, it follows the exploits of a thoroughly ordinary man (Chapman) who's mistaken for the Messiah by a rowdy band of followers so eager for a leader that they won't listen to his only command - namely, to forget about him and leave him alone.

Some religious people attacked the movie in advance, fearing it would be anti-Christian in tone. Far from sacrilegious, though, it's a razor-sharp parody of everything from conformity and colonialism to power politics and ideological obsession. All the Pythons give first-rate performances, and Gilliam's set designs are superb.

The other primary Python pictures are "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," recently reissued with material not seen in the 1975 version, and "The Meaning of Life," a 1983 collection of scattershot sketches that marks the last joint project by all six members. "Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl" preserves their onstage performing style for posterity, and the aptly titled "And Now for Something Completely Different" serves up classic routines redux.

What inspired the Pythons during their short but rambunctious career?

The greatest single influence on their work was Spike Milligan, a British writer-director who made '50s radio history with "The Goon Show," moved into television with similarly anarchic fare, and delighted moviegoers with "The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film" and other comedy shorts. You can see him in "Life of Brian," where he briefly appears as a bewildered old man left in the dust by the hero's eager acolytes.

Other sources for the Pythons' style go further back. The Marx Brothers have a place of honor, as does the long tradition of music-hall revues and burlesque shows. Whether recent or venerable, all played a part in the quintessentially modern mayhem that the Pythons so consistently crafted.

Critics quarrel over what eventually downed the Pythons' flight. Some say the fault lay with restless members - especially Cleese, who was eager for solo TV projects like the "Fawlty Towers" series, and Gilliam, who wanted to direct ambitious movies such as "Time Bandits" and "Brazil." Others say the group simply ran out of original ideas and was smart enough to call it quits before repetition and self-imitation took their toll.

The Python package

Whatever the reason for their demise, it's good to have the Pythons back on video. The complete run of "Flying Circus" is especially impressive, though the added DVD features - replayed Gilliam animations and definitions of wacky Python words - add little to the fun. But "Life of Brian" has excellent extras, including a first-rate "making of" short and candid commentaries by sundry Pythons.

Will the Pythons ever fly again? Chapman has died, but the remaining five still have active careers - Idle is a songwriter, Palin has a TV travel show - and it's always possible a new Python series could take shape, though no plans are in the works.

In the meanwhile, fans have the Python oeuvre on cassette and disc. It's the full Monty, and it's tough to beat for wit, inventiveness, and just plain fun.

Monty Python on DVD and videocassette

Movies

And Now for Something Completely Different, 1971 Columbia TriStar Home Video

Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975 Columbia TriStar Home Video

Life of Brian, 1979 The Criterion Collection

The Meaning of Life, 1983 Universal Studios Home Video

TV series

Monty Python's Flying Circus (Vols. 1-12) 1969-72 A&E Home Video

(BBC America also reruns the show Wednesdays at 9:20 and 10 p.m. EST.)

Related books and videos

The Life of Python (Vols. 1-3), plus CD, Eric Idle Sings Monty Python A&E Home Video

Monty Python Speaks! by David Morgan Avon Books

Monty Python Encyclopedia by Robert Ross TV Books

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