An Evening With John Cleese and the Holy Grail
It Was a Silly Place
Last year, a dear friend of mine treated my wife and me to a screening of Monty Python and The Holy Grail. I thought it was going to be the last stop on his tour. It turned out that it wasn't. In light of that revelation, I would like to share my thoughts on the experience for those who have yet to see it.
On Sunday night, January 29th, 2017, I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Count Basie Theater. Originally released in 1975, this cult hit has been a Monty Python fan favorite for decades. It is a comedy full of nonsense and would make Sir Thomas Mallory pull his hair out and run screaming off of a cliff.
Strangers to this movie should know that it has very little to do with the legend of Camelot, although fans will readily admit that Camelot is a silly place and that aside from being a model, you shouldn’t go there.
With a running time of ninety-two minutes, this movie gives Monty Python fans the disjointed skit humor they made famous in their television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is filled with cartoons, naughtiness, eight score of women lighting grail-shaped beacons, killer rabbits, holy hand grenades, monsters, knights who say “Nee”, castles in swamps, the French, and witches that weigh the same as ducks.
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Watching the Movie
I can’t describe this experience to anyone who hasn’t seen this movie on the big screen in front of a live audience. All I will say is that viewing this alone on the small screen simply does not make the viewer cognizant of many of the things intentionally done for comedic timing.
For example, one of the first scenes within the movie is an argument between King Arthur (played by the late Graham Chapman) and a man and his wife played by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, respectively. The man, Dennis, is a member of an anarcho-syndicalist commune who doesn’t believe in King Arthur’s right to rule. When Dennis asks Arthur how he became king, Chapman speaks reverently about his divine experience of receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. The moment he was done with the line, Dennis shatters the spell by telling Arthur the reality that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government and that supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses – not some farcical aquatic ceremony. Then it gets even funnier as Chapman gets more and more frustrated with Palin’s natural rebellion against his God-given royalty.
I can’t do this justice – only that the Pythons do a perfect job in poking religion, philosophy, and royalty in the eye with a piece of fruit or a pointed stick.
Over the last thirty years, I must have seen this movie forty times on my DVD and VCR. I’ve seen the Tony award-winning Broadway musical, Spamalot, based on the movie. I know when the punchlines are coming. There are no surprises in any of the bits for me because I know the lines by heart.
Yet, this time, I could see the comedic beats between the lines. I could see where the audience was supposed to sit, digest, laugh, and then laugh again. The silences and the pauses are planned and executed with a perfection that only comes from a troupe of comedians that know each other as well as the Pythons.
The Count Basie Theatre is a landmark on the Jersey shore. Built in 1926 as the Carlton Theatre, it was renamed in 1984 after Red Bank native and jazz band leader William “Count” Basie. Today, The Count Basie Theatre hosts performances ranging from local bands to internationally famous acts. Every so often they host an event like this where they’ll show a movie and then have a guest there for questions.
Tonight’s guest was one of the surviving Pythons, comedic legend, John Cleese. This would be the last stop on his tour.
John Cleese’s comedic career spans five decades as a performer, screenwriter, producer, comedian, and voice actor. Aside from his work with the Pythons, his works include Fawlty Towers, The Frost Report, How to Irritate People, and countless movies including A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures, two Harry Potter movies, two James Bond movies, as well as two of the Shrek films.
The seventy-seven-year-old Python was greeted warmly by the audience and told stories about the film. While it’s hard to divorce his typically British curmudgeon personality from his warm laughter, he did have some painful stories about the film.
He wanted the audience to know it wasn’t his favorite of the Python films. He spoke of the limited budget ($400,000) that left many of the actors and the crew to make many sacrifices. The weather was quite cold and more than anything else he said that from the moment the last scene of the day was wrapped up there was a race back to the hotel to get the first of the hot showers. The hot water heater was half as big as it needed to be for everyone.
The running gag of the “coconut horses” came from them not budgeting for them. Fans know the bits where all of the knights are pretending to ride horses while their squires follow them with coconut halves making horseshoe Foley sounds is a running gag that led to one of the funniest lines in the movie.
His biggest complaint was that the movie had no plot and therefore had to end the way it did. He preferred the film Life of Brian. He said that movie had a running plot and more than anything else, it was set in a warm place. Contrasted to the overcast skies of Scotland, working in Tunisia where he could wake up to a nice warm set and fresh orange juice.
One of the other reasons they did Life of Brian was because a reporter had asked Eric Idle what they wanted to work on and he replied the next project would be Jesus Christ – Lust for Glory. Cleese was proud of the controversy and loved the fact their movie marketing in Sweden could read, "So funny, it was banned in Norway!"
When asked to give a one-word description for each of his fellow Pythons he said Michael Palin is “dull”, Terry Jones is “Welsh”, and Graham Chapman is “dead”. Of Terry Gilliam, he just spoke about how Gilliam couldn’t make decipherable words with his mouth.
When asked about who he got his sense of humor from he said his mother – a woman who worried incessantly throughout his childhood. According to Cleese, it had gotten so bad that he had once made her laugh when he said that there is a man a few town away and, if she wanted, he could pay him to kill her.
For more stories about Cleese and his life, I recommend reading his autobiography entitled, So, Anyway… You will laugh out loud.
The thing John Cleese spoke about most was his approach to humor and writing humor. He said that humor comes from all of the negative emotions; you rarely see funny things with love and joy. So you have to allow yourself to understand pain, awkwardness, and cruelty – then make them funny. He said he took what he could from what he knew watching not only British comedy but from early silent film humor such as Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton. In Cleese’s opinion, it is political correctness the kills comedy. His irreverence toward social norms can clearly be seen in his work like Fawlty Towers and How to Irritate People.
Near the close of the evening, he ended with an old joke to illustrate how political correctness could be funny.
Two Jews were walking down the street when they both see a sign in front of a Roman Catholic church that read, “Convert today and we’ll give you one thousand dollars.”
So, the one says to the other, “I’m going to do it.”
His friend said, “Really?”
And the first Jew said, “It’s a thousand dollars.”
The Jew went to the church for the conversion and after a few hours, he came out to see his friend. His friend looked at him and said, “Did you get the money?”
He replied, “Is that all you people ever think about?”
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© 2018 Christopher Peruzzi