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I Reflect in Your General Direction

Eric Idle's Broadway musical comedy Spamalot is likely to tap into a seemingly boundless reservoir of American affection for that landmark of British lunacy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

By now several generations have built a bonus vocabulary based on the movie's multitude of comic moments. Let's face it... that rabbit IS dynamite. A second shrubbery WOULD look better, especially with a little path down the middle for a two-level effect. Why SHOULD we quibble about who killed who, when this is supposed to be a happy occasion? And who among us, faced with the prospect of inheriting the curtains, doesn't secretly just want to SING?

Sure, lots of us love Python. We get all the jokes and the jokes within the jokes, too.

But let me ask you this… did you and your five high school friends make your own movie to raise money for the band at the school carnival? And was it almost entirely derivative of Python? And did it rake in $82 at a NICKEL a moviegoer?

It began not as a quest, but as a lunchroom incident. My friend Jim was telling us about something he'd seen the previous night on public television. This was a time when suburban home entertainment consisted of a Tenna-Rotor and a prayer, and public TV in Cleveland meant a fuzzy UHF station.

What Jim saw on good old WVIZ Channel 25 made him laugh so hard that he snarfed milk through his nose just trying to tell us about it.

That was my introduction to Monty Python, and in a sense the snarfing has never stopped. I'm sad to say I can't remember exactly which sketch Jim had seen. Memories of those days don't fade for me so much as bleed into one another. It could have been the ex-parrot. It could have been the man who wanted to give up his dull job and become a lion-tamer. It could have been the Spanish Inquisition, which of course no one expects.

But it hardly matters. It was Python — early Python, the really off-the-wall BBC stuff — and soon my high school friends and I were totally hooked.

There were six Pythons and there just happened to be six of us: the band president, the track star, the rock 'n' roll wannabe, the guy voted "Most Intelligent," and Jim and me. I'm not going to describe Jim. Just think of an old friend whose past antics still make you laugh though you haven't run into each other in 25 years. For purposes of this discussion, that's Jim. I'm you.

Python quickly became the constant comic soundtrack to our senior year of high school. And when the big-screen collection of the BBC sketches, And Now for Something Completely Different, came to a Cleveland State University film festival, we drove into the city and got our first taste of a college-style Friday night.

Then Monty Python and the Holy Grail arrived. It is, for my money, the funniest film ever made. It's certainly the most rewarding to share with friends of a like disposition. The combination of lowbrow slapstick silliness and highbrow literary, political and historical satire remains an irresistible combination.

Then somebody bought the screenplay in book form, and within a month or two, we were able to recite most of the lines. (And we also realized that there were acres of hilarious scenes that didn't make the final cut. The shavings from that screenplay are wittier than 95 percent of the material that passes for film comedy today.)

But to teenagers growing up in the Cleveland suburbs, it really was more than entertainment. In some inexplicable way, the Python crew helped us meet the serious business of fast-approaching adulthood with a proper sense of the absurd.

"It's endearingly silly," Eric Idle says of The Holy Grail. "It has a freshness and a simplicity which is rare. I think it has some of the same charm as A Hard Day's Night: young men ignorant of what exactly they are doing but totally confident about it."

And so we made our own movie, full to the brim with that liberating cocktail of ignorance and confidence.

One of my buddies had a Super 8 movie camera and another one had a reel-to-reel tape player. We shot many rolls of film on location around our little town, most of it in the dead of winter. We spliced in footage from Niagara Falls. We shot a scene at Mario Fazio's Pizza Roma restaurant, where U-1 on the jukebox played Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Saturday Night Special." We shot a scene at the bar where our sad old English teacher skulked in his off hours. We shot in the park in a foot of snow, where I lost the keys to my father's station wagon for a paralyzing hour before my friend Larry miraculously found them. We filmed my friend's goldfish and called our little company Goldfish Productions to have something for the credits.

We laughed and laughed and laughed. We showed the movie to our families and they laughed. We showed it to our classmates and they laughed. And then came back to laugh again.

You're never going to see our film, a mock travelogue entitled Willoughby Hills, A Dead Issue. (We billed it this way: A movie you have to see to forget.) And it's just as well that you won't see it. You wouldn’t get the jokes. You had to be there.

The beauty and torment of Monty Python is that all I need to do is think about them and I AM there, all over again, enjoying absent friends. Calculating the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow. Reminding you that your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries. And eating ham and jam and Spam. A lot.

Todd Holzman is senior editor at NPR.org.

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