Godless soul that I am, I have long believed that if the British have a national religion, it’s our sense of humour: the one thing which defines us utterly in the eyes of the rest of the world (aside from perfidy, colonial mishaps and our inexplicable fondness for Marmite). And if our religion has a catechism, it is surely the Python canon. I would bet hard cash that more people know the lyrics to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life than could recite the Lord’s prayer.
So the promise of today’s press conference, in which the Pythons are expected to announce a live tour show, is a thrilling prospect. At least in part because it will be extraordinary if the Pythons can settle their differences for long enough to reunite. It’s only a couple of years since John Cleese and Eric Idle became embroiled in an ugly spat about the money from Idle’s stage show, Spamalot, which reached its nadir when Cleese described his fellow Python as ‘Yoko Idle’. Idle scrapped Cleese as the voice of God in the show, re-recording the part himself. Even borderline saint, Michael Palin, showed mild irritation for Cleese and Idle in his Python Years diary, which is the same as a normal person screaming, ‘For Christ’s sake, pack it in.’
Like virtually every other comedy group in history, the Pythons are pushed together and pulled apart at the same time. As a collective, they’re probably greater than the sum of their parts, though Terry Gilliam’s film career makes that a tough call (and that’s before you remember that Cleese made Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda).
But comedy is an angry art — John Cleese’s comedy especially. Sketch groups are always rife with jealousy and bitterness: watch Peter Cook bullying Dudley Moore in Derek and Clive Get the Horn to see this at its worst. Cook was consumed with fury that his comic inferior, as he perceived Moore, was having a more successful career than he himself had carved out (impressive though that career was). Comedians more than anyone live by Gore Vidal’s quip that it isn’t enough to succeed, others must fail.
And the Pythons were a fractured group to begin with: Cleese wrote with the late Graham Chapman, Palin with Terry Jones, and Idle worked alone. Chapman was the fantastical surrealist (the Dead Parrot sketch was about a broken toaster until Chapman suggested the change) who took the edge off Cleese’s barely contained annoyance with the world. Idle was the musical one, Jones the extravagant cross-dresser, and Palin was the silly one.
When the animated film, A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, came out in 2012, Idle was the only Python not to voice any of the characters. If the remaining Pythons found it easier to work with a dead man than Eric Idle a couple of years ago, what chance that this reunion show can really happen? Will they announce it and then fall out again before the opening night? And yet, as I’m writing, Idle has just tweeted a photograph of the five of them sitting around a table. Not only that, but he is sitting next to Cleese, and Cleese is smiling.
It’s doubtless a sign that I am becoming overly sentimental, but I find it hard not to be moved by this picture. These men are far more important to me than the musicians of the 60s and 70s, simply because comedy has been a much bigger part of my life than music. And the Pythons changed it forever. There was surreal comedy before the Pythons, of course (in Aristophanes’ The Wasps, there’s a verbal defence from the family dog, standing up in court against a charge of cheese-theft).
But comedy worked on the principle of surprise until the Pythons. We usually laugh because of an unexpected juxtaposition of two things. Ask most comics and they’ll tell you that once they’ve done a routine on telly, they stop doing it live, because the laugh doesn’t come when people know what to expect. But with the Pythons, we knew their sketches and films by heart, and laughed all the harder for it. They weren’t just rock star famous; like musicians, they had greatest hits.
There are plenty of critics pointing out that the Pythons can’t possibly be the anarchic geniuses they once were. Those critics have, presumably, forgotten the Aspen Comedy Festival in 1998, when Gilliam kicked what they claimed were Chapman’s ashes all over the stage: hardly the comfortable middle-aged comedy anyone else would have gone for. Moaning that the Pythons aren’t as young and innovative as they once were is like saying the same thing about the Rolling Stones. It’s undeniably true, but you’d still go and see them if you had a chance.