Not Spam: Monty Python Reunites For Night

The surviving members of the legendary Monty Python comedy group gathered Thursday night in New York to attend the opening of the documentary, Monty Python Almost The Truth (The Lawyers' Cut).

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Forty years after the Monty Python comedy troupe started skewering the British establishment with silly walks and Spam, the establishment is honoring them. Last night, the five surviving members accepted a lifetime achievement award from the British Academy of Film and Television, although in New York City. Go figure.

It was a rare reunion for the group and it was used to promote a new six-hour documentary called "Monty Python Almost the Truth (The Lawyers' Cut)." It airs on the Independent Film Channel this weekend. And NPR's Robert Smith attended the reunion.

ROBERT SMITH: If Monty Python taught us anything, it's always lead with the non-sequitur like a man dressed in tattered rags crawling out of the forest with a single word.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS")

Unidentified Man #1: Eight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Unidentified Man #2: Monty Python's Flying Circus.

SMITH: Or at least an NPR report about a reunion inspired by a documentary based on some silly, 40-year-old sketches from "Monty Python's Flying Circus," featuring Michael Palin talking last night about his biggest regret.

MICHAEL PALIN: I wish I'd been born a man.

SMITH: Also starring rabid Python fans, who were there to recite every line by heart.

SIEGEL: They put out a couple years ago all of the scripts. So I have a lot of it memorized, and if not, I have shelf reference. So I'm a nerd.

SMITH: And packed with completely gratuitous comedy clips that are now as predictable as the Spanish Inquisition.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONTY PYTHON FLYING CIRCUS")

PALIN: (As Cardinal Ximenez) Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONTY PYTHON FLYING CIRCUS")

PALIN: (As Cardinal Ximenez) Our chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and fear. Fear and surprise. Our two weapons are fear and surprise.

SMITH: If none of this is making any sense, then the next four minutes are going to be downright cryptic since the Monty Python TV series became a cult hit around the world, and after 50 years of records, movies and stage shows, Python fans and the comedians themselves, speak in a kind of adolescent code.

Terry Jones, on the way into the reunion, said it still amazed him that every time they get together, there are more of these fans.

TERRY JONES: There seems to be a new generation. Every time somebody's 11 or something, they seem to discover Python. And so it's quite curious. I mean, I have no idea why, but there it is.

SMITH: Is there one skit they bug you with all the time?

JONES: Oh, actually, Spam, Spam, Spam.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPAM SONG)

SIEGEL: (Singing) Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam.

SMITH: The Python troupe screened two hours of the IFC documentary last night. It revisits Spam, the silly walks, fish-slapping, the larch, Raymond Luxury Yacht.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

GRAHAM CHAPMAN: (As Raymond Luxury Yacht) No, no, no, it's spelled Raymond Luxury Yacht, but it's pronounced Throat-Warbler Mangrove.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: And the amazing story of how the absurdity ever got on British television in the first place. The Pythons basically say that the executives at the BBC were so worried about heading to the pub at 5 p.m. that they just didn't care.

Unidentified Man #3: And he said, well, what do you want to do? And we said, well, we want to do a funny show. And he said, well, what's the show going to be about? And we said, we don't know, really. He said, are you going to have guest stars? We said, oh, guest stars, we hadn't thought about that. Well, what's it going to be called? Well, we haven't got a title.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

Man #3: It was the worst interview that anyone or any group has ever done. And then they kept looking at each other, and they said, well, I'll give you 13 shows, but that's all.

SMITH: They couldn't have known that "Monty Python's Flying Circus" would soon start lampooning the BBC itself and the pretensions of television. Python launched the whole genre of self-referential comedy that we see even today on "The Daily Show," "Colbert," "Family Guy," take your pick. The mix of high-brow and low-brow, the obscure cultural reference, the sudden jump.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MONTY PYTHON FLYING CIRCUS")

Unidentified Man #4: And now for something completely different.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SMITH: After the airing of the documentary, the Pythons bounced up to the stage: Palin, Jones, Eric Idle, John Cleese and Terry Gilliam. They propped a cardboard cutout of Graham Chapman onto a chair. He died 20 years ago of cancer, but there wasn't any sentimentality last night. Just as it mocked the formats of television and British culture, they didn't take the whole reunion thing seriously. They didn't say anything nice about each other. Eric Idle read questions from the audience.

ERIC IDLE: Eric, you are clearly the cleverest and the brightest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IDLE: Not to mention the funniest and the sexiest. Why do you still come out and hang out with these pathetic and rundown, decrepit old (unintelligible)?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: And the boys proceeded to not answer a single question, except the most obscure fan jokes.

IDLE: The question here is: What was the dates of the death of Cardinal Richelieu?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: The answer is 1642, but it would take way too long to explain the joke.

By the end of the night, the audience was during more of the entertaining than the Pythons. Ten-year-old Falia Linder(ph) jumped up on stage and screamed her version of the Spanish Inquisition sketch into the microphone.

FALIA LINDER: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Our main weapon is surprise, surprise and fear, fear and surprise. Our two main weapons are surprise, fear and ruthless efficiency.

SMITH: After 40 years of doing the same sketches, Palin and the other Pythons seemed thrilled to let someone else take over.

PALIN: That's what we need. We just need four more like her, and we can all piss off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PALIN: Beautiful.

SMITH: Outside the theater, John Cleese conceded that they'd probably return for a 50th reunion, even if they require a few more of those cardboard cutouts on the stage.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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