Sex. Sex, sex, sex... er, Python. That's it. That's what's been gnawing at me since Sunday, since I watched the living members of Monty Python bid us all adieu once and for all. Bleedin' demised, they've gone to meet the Choir Invisible, and in the end, fittingly, they sang. As Eric Idle strummed his guitar, leading the Pythons and the rest of the audience in one final rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," I sang with them. I don't usually join in, but there was something beautiful about it this time—the last time the group would perform together, beamed out across the world, everyone singing. Why not?
The final performance of their 10-show run at the O2 Arena in London was uneven in terms of the comedy, even lazy at times. It felt part of the charm, though. John Cleese1 impugned Terry Jones onstage, the latter having forgotten his lines in the Crunchy Frog sketch despite reading them right off the back of a card made up to look like a Whizzo Chocolate Company product guide. Lines, remember, that tens of thousands of adoring fans have known by heart now for decades. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he lost his place.
Michael Palin, long my favorite of the bunch, lacked the naive buzz he emanated as the accountant cum lion tamer during the original Flying Circus broadcast of the Lion Tamer sketch, but made up for it with decent reenactments of Argument Clinic and the Dead Parrot. Terry Gilliam filled in around the edges with his insanely wide smile, making cartoon faces all the while and playing the only Gumby of the evening. Carol Cleveland danced and played the supporting roles she was known for on the television show, but I would have loved to have seen her do a Zoot bit, which, in retrospect, I'm surprised was never referenced. Standouts like Architect Sketch and Dirty Fork, two of Cleese's finest meltdowns—seriously, there is nothing funnier than listening to him scream at someone—and the hilariously absurd Silly Job Interview were notably absent, but what are you going to do? Let the fans select from a menu?
In all, Python sent us a farewell card, packed with greatest hits and a few musical numbers arranged by Eric Idle. Cleese will get to pay off his alimony, and the fans were left with a retrospective and the somewhat surreal experience of watching the finest television comedy troupe of all time wink at them over forty years after their groundbreaking show first aired on the BBC. It was fun. It was comfortable. If you'd been expecting new material, if you'd been hoping they would pull off one more absurdist feat of brilliance by throwing us a bunch of new material and then saying "Fuck off!", proving they still had It, would die having It, you'd have been disappointed. Cleese, in fact, broke character in the Dead Parrot sketch to give it to a Daily Mail writer who'd panned the show. Palin gamely played along with the ad-lib, clearly not having expected it.
Monty Python didn't always hit their marks in the old days. They will admit as much. Palin himself has called much of what they did "crap," and I'm pretty sure that Gilliam, who, let's say, has rather self-righteous views about culture and art, probably agrees with him.2 I understand what they mean. There were plenty of flubs throughout the course of Flying Circus. You can't be great all the time. But when Python was brilliant—and they often were—they were the best, wrinkles and all. Sometimes they were the best because of the wrinkles.
In their whole canon, though, I think The Meaning of Life is my favorite. Life of Brian is a better movie; Holy Grail is funnier; and Flying Circus is full of sketches that, for me, are personal cultural milestones, bits of writing that I've simply incorporated into my everyday speech. The Meaning of Life has something at its core, however, that appeals to me very personally, an undercurrent that is found in much of the rest of their work but not so acutely: existential despair. It's written right into the title, for God's sake.
The film is almost unfailingly grim, shot through with angst, and thoroughly eerie in a way only a movie filmed in the 1980s—just before the stratospheric rise of the personal computer, flash trading, and corporate fuckery became cultural staples in the way we think of them today—can be. Moving from the stark, gray streets of Yorkshire to a religious boarding school to a dance among planets and stars, the film prods at all the wonderful and horrible aspects of being human. The opening credits feature assembly line molds of families, naked, sad-looking, all adorned in Mickey Mouse ears. Doomed tourists in an indecipherable universe being stamped into existence and, one day, stamped out again, for whatever reason. And when the absurdity emerges, it's absolutely devastating. Humans exalted as heroes for tearing apart other humans. Aristocrat officers carrying on with the cool, calm leadership of the upper classes as battle rages just outside the tent, the ground a mess of severed limbs and unspeakable gore.
A mother gives birth standing up at a sink, her baby falling headfirst onto the floor. Sighing, she continues to scrub away. "Get that for me, would you, Dierdre?"
A boarding school chancellor tells a child nonchalantly, in front of all his choir mates, in the middle of a chapel service, that the boy's mother died that morning. Later, disinterested pubescent boys encounter sex education awkwardly, with mystified looks on their faces, though only after the instructor lists off an arcane hodgepodge of rules about clothes on pegs, letters home, haircuts, and little brothers. What sort of sadist comes up with this shit? Incidentally, one of the boys is condemned for a minor infraction to play the masters in rugby that afternoon, a sentence that results in his being smashed into the mud repeatedly, his classmates punched brutally in the head by massive grown men on a rampage. The chancellor himself even trips one of younger kids, who's escaped unnoticed from a scrum with the ball in his hands. The pettiness. The good-old-boy audacity of the man. Is every game rigged? Is there any way out?
Two people sit down at a table. A theme restaurant with the trappings of a dungeon but featuring hula dancers swaying to the soft strum of a ukulele. Given the opportunity to have a deep, philosophical conversation, the visiting Americans are patently unable to say a single word of significance, and instead prattle away vapidly about Burt Bacharach.
I mean, what the fuck is going here? Is it all really this irrepressibly drab and awful? I feel like one of those goddamned fish. We may as well just watch each other be devoured calmly at the hands of some handsomely dressed couple filled to gills with sedatives and forty-dollar martinis.
In the end, Death comes for everyone. The salmon mousse, he tells them, and takes them up into Heaven, where it's Christmas every day. Could you imagine anything worse?
And what do we get for confronting these absurdities of everyday life? What do we learn from the horror, the violence, and the feeling of being hopelessly lost? What is the meaning of this?!
The presenter sits down, addresses the audience, and, producing an envelope, opens it to read from the letter inside:
Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. [Looks up from note.] And, finally, here are some completely gratuitous pictures of penises to annoy the censors and to hopefully spark some sort of controversy, which, it seems, is the only way, these days, to get the jaded, video-sated public off their fucking arses and back in the sodding cinema. Family entertainment? Bollocks. What they want is filth: people doing things to each other with chainsaws during tupperware parties, babysitters being stabbed with knitting needles by gay presidential candidates, vigilante groups strangling chickens, armed bands of theatre critics exterminating mutant goats. Where's the fun in pictures? Oh, well, there we are. Here's the theme music. Goodnight.
It's never changed. Probably, it never will.
And if I mean to convey anything by this digression about a film that creeps up on me at unexpected times, it's that Monty Python meant something to me, in all the ways I typically scoff at when I see fanatic cultural affinity in others. Perhaps saying so is uncharitable, both to myself and to everyone else. Finding a film or a book or, in this case, a comedy troupe that grabs your guts can be a special experience. Sure, excess remains a possibility always. Thumb through any Facebook newsfeed in the world, and you'll see the hideous product of a largely undiscerning populous obsessed with its culture carriers. It feels something like drowning.
Still, how strange is it? I was born ten years after Flying Circus ended, and one year after The Meaning of Life was released, their last major work together.3 I wasn't even alive for any of it. But there I was on Sunday, watching them sing us all off for the last time. When you're chewin' on life's gristle, don't grumble, give a whistle...
Really and truly, I felt sad. It's a sadness that lingers still, a little bit, and not just because Python is done. Yes, there is the nostalgia, if you can call it that, but something darker and more desperate lurks at the bottom, that unsettling existential angst again, a feeling of floating, of aimlessness.
Everything ends. We all watch our youths skip swiftly off into the past and then witness the slow decay of our bodies over time. I will never get over it. And often the best I can do, when pondering the "meaning" of life, is come to the same conclusion Gaston does after he leads the camera, weaving and serpent-like through the thick London crowds, off into the countryside to a quaint, little cottage sitting by itself in a meadow, smoke wafting lazily up out of the chimney. This is where he was born, he explains, where his mother sat him on her knee and told him to try to bring peace and to make people happy everywhere he went.
Whatever else they did, Monty Python at least did that much.
It's not much of a philosophy, I know, but, well, fuck you! I can live my own life in my own way if I want to. Fuck off! Don't come following me...
Update 7/25: Seems my memory was a little fuzzy. I originally claimed the poor lad who was sentenced to a rugby match would be condemned to play against older boys, but it was, in fact, the masters at whose hands he would suffer. Adults, in other words. Tweaks have been made to reflect these details. Rewatching the sex education scene, it has lost none of its punch.