I’m an old Monty Python fan. Hard to believe Monty Python’s Flying Circus first appeared on American TV in 1969 — more than half a century ago.
That’s why I checked out a six-part documentary I stumbled across on Netflix called “Monty Python Almost The Truth.” As the doc’s opening song reminded me: “At last the truth can be told/ Now they’re all (blank)ing old.”
There were six members of the British surreal comedy team – John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and the late Graham Chapman.
Looking over my shoulder as I watched the doc, my wife commented that she had never seen all their movies. So, I did a quick search on my Roku TV and found “And Now for Something Completely Different” (1971), “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975) and “Monty Python’s The Life of Brian” (1979), among others.
“And Now For Something Completely Different” was not completely different, more of a compilation of comedy sketches like you’d see on their TV show. The boys hated this movie because they had no control over it, and it broke no new ground. But its modest success convinced them to do a movie on their own.
That led to my favorite, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — a takeoff on the Arthurian legend. It was a knee-slapping, laugh-out-loud send-up. Sir Lancelot and all the Knights of the Round Table clopping about on imaginary horses. This was the basis for the Broadway musical comedy “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
Perhaps their best movie was the semi-sacrilegious “Life of Brian.” That idea sprang from a stray remark by Python member Eric Idle, who when asked about their next movie quipped they were going to do “Jesus Christ, Lust for Glory.”
Turns out, Beatle member George Harrison was a big Monty Python fan. They could hardly believe someone as famous as a Beatle even knew who they were. Harrison offered to back “Life of Brian.” Little did they know, he mortgaged his house to come up with the $5 million.
Why did he do that? “Because I wanna see it,” George Harrison said.
Eric Idle opined that this might be “the most anybody ever paid for a cinema ticket in history.”
Although set in Biblical times, “Life of Brian” is NOT about Jesus. It follows a contemporary named Brian Cohen, a hapless fellow who gets mistaken for the Messiah. No, it doesn’t end well for him either, but Brian and his fellow crucifixions end the satirical movie singing “Look on the Sunny Side of Life.”
As Terry Gilliam explained it, the movie was “not really about Jesus. It’s about prejudices, it’s about unions, it’s about, you know, terrorists, it’s all that nonsense.”
Political writing, he called it.
Comedy historian Roger Wilmut added, “What the film does do is place modern stereotypes in a historical setting, which enables it to indulge in a number of sharp digs, particularly at trade unionists and guerilla organizations.”
Or as director Terry Jones put it, “The movie is not blasphemy … What was funny isn’t what Jesus says, it’s about how people misinterpret that.”
Even so, the boys knew “Life of Brian” was treading “on delicate ground.” Sure enough, the film was banned in several countries. They promoted it, “So funny, it was banned in Norway!”
To everyone’s surprise, “Life of Brian” was a box-office success, the fourth-highest-grossing film in the United Kingdom and highest grossing of any British film in the United States that year.
A number of magazines and TV networks have named it “greatest comedy film of all time.”
It scored 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
George Harrison had a walk-on part in the movie.
The collaboration between Beatles and Pythons paid off. George Harrison and Eric Idle collaborated on another film, “All You Need Is Cash,” aka “The Rutles,” (1978), a mockumentary about a rock group not unlike the Beatles.
Another film called “The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch” (2002) followed, helmed by Eric Idle himself. And then came “Spamalot,” another brainchild of Idle. He topped it off in 2007 with “Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy),” a comedy orator based on “Life of Brian.”
We think Idle is the very naughty boy.