The Tribeca Film Festival finishes strong this weekend with revival screenings of the best of Monty Python, showing “The Holy Grail,” “Life of Brian,” “The Meaning Of Life” and their new documentary, “Monty Python: The Meaning of Live.”
The celebration of all things Python kicked off last night at New York’s Beacon Theater with a screening of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” followed by a Q&A with John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, featuring John Oliver as host. It was a marvelous and deeply daffy event that not only celebrated the film’s 40th anniversary with a packed house — that applauded and cheered throughout the film’s most memorable set pieces — but also proved the Pythons may have aged, but they haven’t changed.
The Pythons still refuse to take anything seriously, even their own tribute event. “You’ve always had a fundamental, healthy disrespect for authority,” host John Oliver said, earning howls of laughter from the audience because by this point Cleese was sitting directly in front of him staring Oliver down, the entire top of a microphone lodged into Cleese’s mouth. This bit of silliness was preceded by fifteen minutes of mounting shenanigans, including purring into the mic, abruptly walking off stage at the 10 minute mark only to wander back on and off at will, occasionally waving from the wings, and starting a game of musical chairs where most of the Pythons moved their carefully positioned seats at will, some turning their backs completely to the audience.
It’s hard to get across exactly how hilarious this was. But events like these are usually so formal and frankly sycophantic that such silliness felt positively groundbreaking and deliciously ludicrous. Even Oliver lost his composure, stamping his foot and giggling as the Pythons caused chaos.
Once Gilliam had meandered off stage with Cleese, Idle apologized with a smirk saying to Oliver, “John, I’m sorry. Your career was going so well. It was so fucking great until you fell for this offer.”
“I always knew it would end like this,” Oliver replied. As the mayhem geared up, Oliver leapt from the stage to go “full-on Montel,” to field questions from the audience.
Cleese required Oliver’s submission before questions could continue. The audience could also ask questions via Twitter, but all those Oliver read were met with playful derision or ignored by the Pythons. So, the “Last Week Tonight” host announced he was returning to his own questions. But Cleese was too quick for him, snatching away his notes, causing Oliver to sputter, “Oh shit.”
“Say you love me,” Cleese demanded.
“This is a very aggressive come-on line,” Oliver answered, descending into giggle, “I-I love you. I respect you. That’s the best kind of love isn’t it? It’s what any dysfunctional marriage is built on.”
The “Holy Grail” we know is radically different from the first draft. Palin insisted the script was “fucking locked down” by the time the film finally rolled into production. But Cleese shared that “the very first draft of the script, 90 percent of it was thrown out. 90 percent! The fourth draft bore no resemblance to the first.”
Jones, “Holy Grail”s co-director (with Gilliam) added, “[The first draft] was happening in London in the present day.”
“They were searching for the Holy Grail in Harrod’s,” Idle interjected, spurring laughs from the crowds.
It all began with that swallows silliness. Palin recalled, “First when we started the Arthurian idea, the Holy Grail came from a sketch we’d already written, which was really the beginning sketch of the swallow and someone coming up with coconuts and all that. That seemed to be a good basis for comedy. I mean, we’d done 30 minutes at that time. Now we have to do 90 minutes. How do you sustain it? The idea of the ‘Holy Grail’ was great because we’re all knights; we could all play separate knights. And there was a sort of story — I mean no one knows the exact story so you can sort of go where you want with it. So it seemed perfect. That gave us a sort of map.”
Jones added, “And the coconuts got rid of the horses,” which helped keep the budget down!
Free coconuts were promised to audiences of “Holy Grail”s first screening in New York. Idle shared, “Here in New York we had a guy, an actor, going down as a knight with a little Patsy behind him, clicking coconuts and a banner that says, “Come and see ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’ The first 1,000 customers will be given free coconuts.’ They all turned up!” Idle joked that a similar promotion for “Life of Brian” offered a “free bris.” (Yowch!)
Camelot was only a model because their shooting permits were pulled last minute. Gilliam said, “Having chosen all the castles in Whales and Scotland and everywhere, to be told as we’re starting to shoot that the National Trust was banning us from the castles. And the Nation Trust had because we wouldn’t ‘respect the dignity of the fabric of the buildings,’ where the most horrible tortures, disembowelings, guttings had gone on! So we didn’t have castles to work with. And that’s why you see painted cut-out castles at points. Luckily we’re able to do jokes about it, ‘It’s only a model.’ But the fact was we didn’t have the castles we planned!”
“Holy Grail”s ending was also a matter of necessity. Asked if the Pythons ever considered a different ending to the film, Palin joked, “I think they’re all there. There’s about seven endings anyway.”
Idle added, “We could never do endings. My daughter hates me because of that ending. She said, ‘Is that the ending?…That was shit!’… But the fact is there were only about 200 extras and we’d set up for this enormous battle scene, which we couldn’t film because we didn’t have enough actors. So we were screwed anyway. The police (showing up) were a sort of handy device to end it somehow.”
Filming “Holy Grail” was a “miserable experience.” Cleese recounted, “You got up early in the morning, you got up on the hillside. It started to rain immediately and because it was April and it was Scotland. And the rain came down and we had so little money that there were about four umbrellas for the whole set. We had this nasty chainmail, which was knitted string, which started getting damp. By nine o’clock you were cold and wet. And then at six o’clock when there was a wrap there was this rush to the cars…because there was only about enough hot water for about 40% of the people at the hotel!… It was a miserable miserable experience!”
George Harrison paid the highest price ever for a movie ticket because of his love of Monty Python. Maybe you know that the Beatles member made friends with the Pythons, and helped fund their follow-up, “Life of Brian.” But the group shared that Harrison actually mortgaged his home to contribute $5 million to the production. “It wouldn’t have been made without him, ” Palin admitted, “It was odd. I said, ‘George, five million?’…And he said (affecting a pretty dead-on impersonation), ‘Well, you know, I just wanted to see it.'”
Collectively, the Pythons concurred this was in fact the most anyone has ever paid to see a movie.
John Cleese has had enough of political correctness. Early on, Cleese said, “If you make them laugh, you’ve won. And if you don’t make them laugh, you’ve lost. So you really listen to the audience because they are part of the show, and you say ‘why didn’t that work?’ They are the litmus test all the time as to whether it’s working.”
But when the topic of censorship of the series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” came up, Cleese added, “I think a huge difference was that in those days they were very, very tough on bad language and you weren’t allowed to say ‘cunt.’ They were definitely against that. But we could make more fun of things that now people would get upset with on the grounds of political correctness.” He punctuated this point by spitting at the word.
“I do a lot of — I don’t know if they are really racist jokes — like ‘Why do the French have so many civil wars? Answer: because they like to win one now and again.'”
The audience applauded as Oliver said, “That’s not racist; that’s a history fact.”
“I used to do these jokes,” Cleese continued, “And I’d say, ‘There were these two Mexicans,’ and suddenly the room would freeze. And I would say, ‘Well, why has everybody gone quiet?’ I mean, we did jokes about Swedes and Germans and Canadians and French and what’s the problem about the Mexicans? Are they not big enough to look after themselves? And I find a lot of that very condescending. You’re not supposed to make jokes about Mexicans. And I have a favorite joke about Mexicans. Alright, here goes: The United States patrol boat is going around the Gulf Of Mexico, they see a tiny little rowing boat. And so they say, ‘Oh we better check this out.’ There are four Mexicans in the boat. They say, ‘What are you doing?’ The Mexicans say, ‘Oh, we’re invading America.’ And the patrol boat says, ‘Just the four of you?’ And they say, ‘Well no, we’re the last ones; the others are already there.'”
Laughs rang out, before Cleese continued, “That’s a joke very much on the Mexican side… It’s not saying that they are like the French, nasty little smelly cheese-eating surrender monkeys… In comedy there’s two way of attacking something. One is just being rude about it and the other is taking on those attitudes and making them ridiculous, like Stephen Colbert (does).”
The Knights Who Say Ni was inspired Palin’s old teacher. “It was based on a school teacher called Mr. Lacaine,” Palin explained, rising from his chair. “And he had very tight trousers and he’d take us to the sixth form library… He would then go around the library looking for books to read, every time he went down, he’d go, ‘Ni!'” Palin demonstrated, squatting and letting loose the strange exclamation repeateldy, “So that’s where it came from.
After cheers from the audience died down, he finished, saying, “Many years later I met him and he said, ‘Palin, was it true that the knights who said Ni was based on me?’ And I said, ‘Oh no! Not at all.’ He said, ‘What a pity. I love them.”
“Monty Python: The Meaning of Live” makes its international premiere today at the Tribeca Film Festival.
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