The Monty Pythons took Manhattan this weekend and received a rock star reception. The British comedy troupe attended the Tribeca Film Festival to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their classic, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” with a screening of the film and a Q&A moderated by HBO’s John Oliver that turned out as comic absurdist as their films.
The five surviving members of the British comedy troupe – Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, John Cleese and Terry Jones (Graham Chapman died at age 46 in 1989 of cancer) – now septuagenarians, still have their comic mojo and behave like total goofballs.
The fun began Friday morning at press conference for the Pythons at the SVA Theater on West 23rd street. Entering the stage, Idle blurted, “Oh well! We’re in the wrong fucking theater!” Cleese did a dramatic pratfall as he walked into the theater and landed on Palin’s lap where he sat for a good five minutes.
They continued to get silly and giddy as they riffed on the past, favorite sketches, and their 2014 reunion shows at London’s vast 02 Arena. The preparation and staging of their performance at the 02, which featured some of their most famous skits – like the dead parrot routine – is the subject of the documentary, “Monty Python – The Meaning of Life,” which screened this weekend along with “Life of Brian.” The documentary is a total high, and proves wit and curiosity don’t have to fad with age. The doc’s catch phrase is, “One down and five to go.”
The full house at the Beacon Theater clapped and howled at every comic vignette in the film, which was a total joy to watch on a large screen in a theater as beautiful as the Beacon. The movie holds up well after four decades. King Arthur (Chapman) and his men pretend to ride horses, while a servant smacks coconuts together to imitate horses galloping. The routine is still hilarious even after you’ve seen it a dozen times. And the bloody attack of the killer bunnies that forces King Arthur and his men to retreat is still hysterical. On the red carpet outside the Beacon, Idle assured me that “no bunnies were hurt, only actors.”
The Pythonesque silliness was in full swing on the red carpet, where the septuagenarians horsed around with journalists and each other.
Asked about the blood and gore in their films and if anyone did it as well today, Idle replied, “Al Gore. He does it the best.” Idle patted Jones’s head and murmured, “This is my twin. We were separated by birth … and rather badly.” Swaying slightly, he said, “Also, we should never have stopped for the beer.”
Asked about their creative process, Idle replied, “Some of us still are creative.”
They look like they still have a blast performing together, so why not stage these reunions every two years, I asked Idle. “Every three months, we’ve decided,” Idle replied. “We’re going to take the bus on the road again, very soon.”
Asked how being a Python has helped his career, Gilliam noted, “It taught me never to work with the other Pythons,” Gilliam said. “That was the most important thing in my career, because they were obviously holding me back for all those years. Luckily, once I got away from them, my career shot up.”
At one point, Cleese stuck his eye against a camera lens and peered at the cameraman on the other side, who tried to focus on his job but cracked up. Soon after, a publicist corralled all the Pythons to take them inside for the screening, but not before they told us we looked lonely and insisted on speaking to everyone, even those of us in red carpet Siberia.
What followed the screening was less a Q&A than a Pythonesque free-for-all, manic and magical. Behaving like rambunctious school children on a sugar high, Idle and Jones switched chairs, Cleese wandered around the stage and disappeared and Gilliam made fart noises into the microphone.
Off the bat, Oliver asked the Pythons why they thought “The Holy Grail” lasted so well after four decades, “other than being f….g great?”
Palin replied, “Probably that’s the only reason… it’s just f….g great!”
When the film came out in New York, they had an unusual advertising campaign, Idle recalled. “We had a guy go down here in New York walking around as a knight.” He was tailed by a “patsy” who “clicked coconuts and “held a banner that said ‘Come see Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The first 1000 customers will be given free coconuts,’” Idle said. “They all turned up!”
“For ‘Life of Brian,’ did you give out free nails?” asked Oliver. “It was a free bris,” Idle replied.
Asked about preparations for their 2014 reunion show at the massive 02 Arena, Cleese mentioned Eddie Izzard saw the show six or seven times. The Pythons messed up their sketches and when Izzard came backstage, Cleese apologized. “The audiences have seen you doing the sketches correctly. It’s much more fun when you f…k it up,” Izzard said. “We f…d it up every night,” said Cleese.
Oliver read written questions from the audience, which turned out to be duds.
“There’s a question here from Stacy,” read Oliver. “Which Python will live the longest?”
“Which Python has the longest?” Idle pretended he didn’t hear the question correctly.
The audience laughed for five minutes.
Oliver read another question. “Which one of you is Michael Palin?” He looked up. “That’s a genuine question here.” He lambasted the audience for their “shit” questions.
Idle replied, “The answer is… me.”
Oliver read off a few more “shit” questions from the audience and then hustled off the stage to see if he could do better by going up the aisles. He didn’t succeed, but the Pythons riffed, played musical chairs, made farting noises.
Cleese got up and walked off stage. “He’s walking down Columbus Avenue, speaking into the microphone still,” said Oliver a few minutes after Cleese’s exit.
When Cleese returned, he had an extra chair. The Pythons shifted positions on the stage again. Cleese shoved the whole top of the microphone into his mouth and nearly sat on Oliver’s lap, who deadpanned, “You’ve always had a fundamental, healthy disrespect for authority.”
Palin told the audience the “Ni” sounds the knights make in “The Holy Grail” are based on the sound his high school teacher made every time he located a book in the library. Some years later he ran into the teacher, who asked if the noise the knights made in the film was inspired by his “Ni” sounds. “’No, not at all,’ I told him, and he said, ‘What a pity. I loved them,’” said Palin.
Oliver brought up the rumors in the English tabloids that the Pythons don’t get along.
“It’s so insane. There’s nothing less funny than sincerity,” Oliver said. “It’s almost as if people don’t understand how comedians talk to each other,” that they “take the shit out of each other out of respect.”
Idle replied, “That’s always been true of us.” He noted that when they were writing the script for “Life of Brian” in Barbados, one day at breakfast there were some black birds singing. “Michael, you said, ‘There’s some blackbirds singing. And he said, ‘Good morning, black bird.’ And I said, ‘Good morning white c…t!’” We always had a go at each other. It’s more healthy than saying, ‘I think you’re so lovely, I think you’re just adorable…you c…t.’”
After the laughter died down, a member of the audience asked if they ever discussed another ending for “The Holy Grail.” Palin replied, “There are about seven endings” already.
Idle added, “We could never do endings. My daughter hates me forever because of that ending. She said, ‘Is that the ending?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I wrote it.’ Her comment was, ‘That was shit!’”
A woman in the audience asked if they could share their fondest memory of George Harrison.
“I think she’s trying to make you cry,” Oliver said.
Idle recalled meeting Harrison at the end of a screening with Terry Gilliam of “The Holy Grail” at the Directors Guild in Hollywood. “He suddenly showed up at the end, said, ”I’m Georgie, I really loved that. Do you want to go and have a reefer in the screening room?’” He added, “We went off from there for two or three days, I think.”
Harrison later put up five millions dollars of his own money to get “Life of Brian” made. He mortgaged his house. When Idle asked Harrison why he would do that, Harrison replied, “Well, you now, I just wanted to see it.”
Idle’s Liverpool accent was spot on.
Another hand raised in the audience. “A question from an American blond that John hasn’t married,” Idle cracked. Cleese has married and divorced three times, all of them Americans. (He is currently married to a English woman 33 years his junior.)
Someone asked, what comedy do they find funny today?
Idle and Jones said they liked “Silicon Valley” and “Veep.”
Someone else asked if there was anything in ‘The Holy Grail,” they wished they could change.
“The title,” Cleese cracked.
After a few more dud questions from the audience, Oliver scrambled back on stage for one final observation about the Pythons.
“Look, we’ve established there’s nothing less funny than sincerity but you’re the f…g greatest!”