Don't flog a dead parrot - leave Monty Python in the past

They were funny once. But the revival is a dreadful idea

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

You can’t go home again, as the Americans say. It’s worth running that adage, taken from Thomas Wolfe’s unfinished novel of 1938, past those zealots who snapped up 20,000 tickets for Monty Python’s reunion at the O2 Arena in 43 seconds when they went on sale this week. Four more dates were immediately inked in, with more to follow, one feels certain, as Python fever covers the globe. What a horrible prospect.

The Python team are not horrible. Goodness gracious, no. In four BBC series between 1969 and 1974 they were often outstandingly funny, in a way that nobody had been funny before. Many of the old sketches do not work well now, and some were overrated in the first place — yes, I’m thinking in particular of that dead parrot, which is pretty Third Division. But the good stuff — novel-writing from Dorchester, Oscar Wilde and friends in Tite Street, the Australian philosophers — still stands out like a shag on a rock. As Terry Jones, playing the Prince of Wales, told Graham Chapman’s Wilde: ‘Extremely funny! We’ll have to have you up the Palace some time!’

Photo of Monty Python

It is precisely because the Pythons were so funny that many of us who used to be word-perfect followers wish they had resisted the urge to return for one last fling, though, as Frank Zappa said: ‘When money talks, nobody questions the accent.’ As the five remaining members (Chapman died in 1989) have all made millions several times over, that is sad. Any reunion can only be an unconvincing victory lap for a battle that was won four decades ago. The sketch suited them best. Their films, while intermittently funny, did not represent their strong suit, and the end of the overrated Life of Brian, with that infantile song that has somehow gained common currency, was the worst thing they ever did. No wonder Eric Idle was entrusted with the job of singing it. He was only ever quite funny, and since he went to live in California he has ceased to become even that.

Still, we can forgive him for being there when the bang-shoot started in 1969, and what a bang it was. A controlled explosion, more like, as three Cantabrigians and two Oxonians were thrown together to make a series of exploratory late night shows. Chapman and John Cleese had worked on At Last The 1948 Show with Marty Feldman — it’s where the Four Yorkshiremen came from. Jones and Idle had collaborated with Michael Palin on Do Not Adjust Your Set. Terry Gilliam, an American, was brought in to add a layer of visual nonsense, and almost overnight a team had taken shape: a Real Madrid of comedy, with Cleese, the most striking performer, cast as Alfredo di Stefano.

The most extraordinary aspect of Python’s international success is the Englishness of the humour. More specifically it is the humour (‘Who threw that slipper?’) of the English public school. Cleese went to Clifton, Palin to Shrewsbury, and the other three were scholars at old-fashioned grammar schools. Jones and Idle were head prefects. They had all grown up in a small-c conservative world, very unlike the one today’s ‘liberated’ jokers inhabit. Python was a middle-class thing, rooted in college quad and JCR. Even now, 44 years since the balloon went up, you will find very few working-class people who get it.

So when people talk about the Python gift for subversion, it is a very English subversion, expressed in many forms down the years. It belongs to the time-honoured tradition of sending up those institutions and people that we hold (generally) in affection. In that respect they were successors not only to the Beyond The Fringe team, who had opened up new ground, but also to Gilbert and Sullivan. It isn’t such a big step from I Am The Ruler of the Queen’s Navee to the Upper Class Twit of the Year Race. Except Gilbert is sharper.

In contrast to so many modern comedians, shoehorned into television careers after a few nights on the Edinburgh fringe, the Pythons were not angry people trying to right wrongs. They did not assume political or social positions. They were about as apolitical as it is possible to be, in costume and out of it. They were licensed fools who, like the Beatles before them (and for once that much-quoted parallel is appropriate) found themselves at the heart of a phenomenon they may not quite have understood. They did not seek to change the world, but the world changed around them, and they have our gratitude.

Which is why they should have stayed apart, and left us with our memories. Already you can hear people quoting Python sketches verbatim, and however funny they were they were only ever funny in the mouths of the five people who wrote them. Some of the showbiz tributes showered on them in the past week have churned the stomach, too. If they invite the likes of Eddie Izzard to swell a scene or two when the show hits Docklands next July, it really will be time to send for the water cannons. You should have organised a nice dinner in Primrose Hill, chaps, and thrown food at each other. You can’t go home again.

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Show comments
  • manonthebus

    Some humour lives on, somehow. I listen to re-runs of ‘Round the Horne’ on Radio 4 Extra and it is still funny – to me. On the other hand, The Goons is less successful, 60 years on, except for certain characters like Major Bloodnok. Spike is predictable and usually not funny. Secombe is OK and Peter Sellers quite good. A re-run of Monty Python won’t be funny, just like Fawlty Towers was mostly execrable. Python relied on shock value and mania. It doesn’t travel well.

  • Eddie

    I tend to agree. But then, money is the motivation here – all those divorced wives Mr Cheese has to keep in therapy etc…
    I never found Monty Python’s TV stuff all that funny, but then I was not a teenager in the 70s. As a child I found Dick Emery and The Goodies hilarious, and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, not the clever-clever Pythons. Those TV shows have dated badly too.
    I love the films however and could watch Life of Brian 1000 times. Incredibly, it was banned locally until 1997!
    I also have a soft spot for Eric Idle’s music hall tunes.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Where`s your sense of humour, Infidel?

      • Eddie

        Sense of humour all well and good here.
        It’s just, I don’t find dated sketches about Home Secretaries in 1973 very funny.
        Try watching those old Goodies shows, or Dick Emery or Frank Spencer. Now THAT’S funny!
        This revival is all about greed and making dosh – just like all revivals – and is an example of people unable to let go of their biggest success that defines them.
        It is well known that all the Pythons – esp Cheese – were seething with envy at Eric Idle’s £5 million+ windfall for Spamalot. This is a way for them all to make 7 figures. Glad to say, however, that not a penny of it will be from me.

        • George Smiley

          Easily half of the biggest fans of Monty Python are in fact Australians, Americans and other foreigners. If you are British, you would be able to see that Pythons’ slapstick act started to become tired after a while.

          • Eddie

            Yes, I agree – it’s bit like the Royal Family, esp the minor royals. We think they’re all irritating parasites, yet the Americans are desperate to genuflect in front of any ginger Sloane who’s got some tat to flog.

            I do adore Life of Brian though…

            Maybe the Pythons could do a Muslim version:

            The Life of Mo?

            They shouldn’t worry about repercussions – they’re all so old they’ll be dead soon anyway, and maybe all crew on the Mo movie could be equally ancient? Makes sense, innit?

  • Swanky

    “Quite” means “fully, completely”. So when you say “he was only ever quite funny”, I take it that you are inverting the meaning, i.e. you really mean “slightly”.

  • Twenty Rothmans

    When I was a boy, my father would sneak me out of bed to watch MPFC. It was humour that my mother would never comprehend and at that young age, some of the nuances escaped me until much later.

    MPFC was their creation. If they unanimously embark upon a new venture, what gives us the right to interfere? So what if they repeat the DP sketch ad infinitum? You don’t have to watch.

    As for the working class not ‘getting it’ – well, there’s a far bit they don’t get, voting Labour for a start.

    • Andrew Sutton

      well 50% of them vote Tory don’t they ?

  • Stef

    Oh do lighten up… this smacks of a journo looking for an angle to get themselves noticed rather than someone attempting to offer any serious comment and while many of the sketches haven’t stood the test of time (it’s been 40 years after all), what paucity of spirit to deride them for taking one last bow.

    I somehow managed to get hold of a pair of tickets and frankly I can’t wait. I can’t speak for anyone else but the reason I’m going is so I can see the five guys whose humour had such a massive effect on me in my formative years, enjoy the evening and show my appreciation.

    It may be for the money, it may not be. That’s kind of irrelevant. There’s a whole generation of people who grew up quoting python at each other at school – and whatever you say, it *was* funny, side-splittingly so – who never had the opportunity to see them perform live.

    So, Mister, take your curmudgeonly angle and shove it 😉 Life of Brian was (and is) hilarious, the Cheese Shop sketch is wonderful, The Holy Grail is a work of comedy genius and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life is as fine a piece of satire as you’re ever likely to come across.

    Cheer up you silly bugger – you’ll feel all the better for it.

  • Persuasive

    The old stuff is in many ways the best. While the new tries to recreate the old packaged for a modern audience. http://www.couragetolaugh.com

  • Peter Thomas

    What have the Pythons ever done for us?

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “I said, you wouldn`t have much fun in Stalingrad.”

  • IanHills

    Python moulded my young psyche, and I haven’t been the same since. Even the words “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” still make me laugh.

  • Fergus Pickering

    The funniest thing I’ve seen lately is Eddie Cantor singing ‘Stay Young and Beautiful’. You can find it on you tube. Not very PC since he’s blacked up.

  • Ninja Beaver Uncut

    Whenever I see an article like this I just think: “Mmm, couldn’t get tickets, could you”

  • Son of Hayek

    Does comedy work in a big arena? Give me this 1970s working class bloke everytime (and his parrot joke is much better 1.10 in).


    And he could hold his oven against wet liberals – see him against Rantzen, a joy to behold.

    • Twenty Rothmans

      Thanks, Son of Hayek. The last joke was the best clean joke I have ever heard. I shan’t spoil it for others.

  • George Smiley

    Bernard Manning was a greater comedian.

  • Swiss Bob

    I wonder how well Mr Henderson’s writing will stand the test of time.

    Somehow I don’t think in decades hence many people will be quoting him.

    Rule No 1.


  • zeltia

    I was wary but I think some of the comments here make me realize that we have to give them a chance…they have a life time of new experiences on board … we all need a good laugh so fingers crossed!!

    • naoma

      One of my favorites was “Every Sperm Is Sacred.” Still laugh at that one.

  • I wonder if Michael Henderson is paying good money to see Placido Domingo at the moment. I suspect that he is. Is Mr Domingo as good as he was? “Worn and much-travelled” one reviewer called him. But we still pays our money and takes our chance – up to £230 of it at the Royal Opera House for Nabucco

    Now the Pythons at the O2 won’t cost you as much as Domingo at the ROH – unless you go into the resale market that is. And maybe like the great tenor (now a baritone) the Pythons won’t be like they were in their prime. But who knows? After we have actually seen the show we can write a review telling it as it was. Good, bad or indifferent. But unless we actually go we won’t know. And unless we actually go we won’t have seen the Pythons live when we had a chance. Back in the 1980s they did a few shows in California but they have never performed live in Britain – the odd charity cameo aside.

    I will be going to see the Pythons. It cost me a lot less than Nabucco. It is still a lot to pay maybe but for a fan it’s worth it – a far from a “horrible prospect”. Why would the reunion have to be an “Unconvincing victory lap” ? How does Henderson know? And it’s certainly not for him to tell me not to go. Nor is it for him to make such scabrous remarks about the Pythons as he has here. He may not like the Dead Parrot sketch but I suspect that he is in a small minority in taking that view. Was “Life of Brian” overrated? It scores 8.1 (out of 10) in the International Movie Database ratings despite the bible belt folks who thought it blasphemed! And how on earth does Henderson know that “… very few working class people get [Python]”? What an unbelievably snobbish and elitist remark. How does he know that – or did he just make it up?

    I hope that Mr Henderson goes to the O2 – perhaps some generous person will offer him hospitality to do so. And that if he does that he’ll share his experience with us and forget how a few months earlier he effectively tried to rubbish something which hadn’t yet happened!

  • naoma

    Our daughter used to do improve pieces at school and one of the favorites the kids
    did was “The Parrot” which always had me in stitches. “He’s dead.” “No, he is just resting.” You had to love it.

  • antiutopia

    Dear Michael Henderson:

    You know as well as I that when they take the stage, they’ll still be very funny. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been together 40 years or 40 days, that’s all the justification that you need to run a show.