And now for something (not) completely different: Monty Python bids farewell

The five surviving members of British comedy troupe Monty Python launch a string of 10 farewell shows tonight in London, 45 years after they first hit the comedy scene.

John Phillips Invision/AP
From left, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones of the comedy group Monty Python pose for photographers in London Monday. The group's last reunion tour starts tonight in London, 45 years after their TV series, 'Monty Python's Flying Circus,' first launched.

Will they perform The Dead Parrot sketch, or maybe The Lumberjack Song? Perhaps they’ll dress up as Hell’s Grannies?

Whatever they act out tonight, the first public performance by the Monty Python team in three decades is already a commercial success with nearly 150,000 tickets sold for 10 live gigs at London’s O2 arena.

The first batch of 14,500 tickets sold out in just 43 seconds last November, underlining the comic troupe’s endearing popularity since their eccentric, cultish "Flying Circus" series ran between 1969 and 1974.

Their brand of sardonic, satirical, class-provocative, and cross-dressing humor revolutionized comedy in the UK and further afield. Many followers are able to recite sketches and lines not just from the series, but from their numerous films including the "Life of Brian" and "The Meaning of Life."

The act – John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Terry Jones – have signed up for 10 farewell gigs with special guests including scientists Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox. The sixth "Python," Graham Chapman, died of throat cancer in 1989 – hence the shows' title "One Down, Five to Go" in his honor – but he will appear on screen in the performances. The tenth show, on July 20, will be broadcast worldwide.

But what is it about Monty Python which has given them staying power among generations of fans?

Sociology lecturer Sam Friedman at City University in London, who has researched comedy in his book "Comedy and Distinction," says there was "something for everyone" in Monty Python across the notorious UK class divide. “They had their roots in theater, in Footlights at Cambridge so a lot of their comedy was performance based. They had that British upper class wit tradition, which has passed into popular cultural humor not just in Britain but around the world."

“There is something for everyone whether it’s a critique, satire, or slapstick humor poking fun at our social structure at every level," Dr. Friedman says. "They were revolutionary and a lot if it has stood the test of time.”

One skit the Pythons – average age 72 – won’t be recreating is Mr. Cleese’s "Ministry of Silly Walks" where the lanky comic goosesteps in a traditional English bowler hat and suit. Though Cleese told the BBC that he didn't think the skit was "very good," perhaps the real obstacle to its encore performance was more age-related: “I have an artificial knee and an artificial hip, so there’s no chance of that.”

Times of London television critic Andrew Billen says he can remember watching repeats of Python and listening to them on vinyl, particularly at university. He said they were the last group of comics who openly mocked the British class system, but said the humor was not "nasty." 

“Fans were obsessive, almost nerdish, about Monty Python, reciting sketches and knowing every line. Their humor was very visual, especially with Terry Gilliam’s cartoons, and satirical with a Belgian surrealist element," Mr. Billen says.

“There was also a very snobbish element to it, using northern accents, laughing at spam which was eaten by the working class. It was probably the last time a bunch of snooty graduates were allowed to go on TV and take the mick out of them. But I don’t think it was nasty – it was more silly.”

The group’s last major live show was at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982 and the Pythons have said the July run will be their last.

Despite being a fan, Billen won’t be attending the gigs. “There’s a lot of affection for them and they’ve become cuddly figures but there won’t be any new material so it will be a bit sad watching them. It would be like a Beatles reunion.”

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