Monty Python and the Holy Grail — the 1975 take on Arthurian legend — is probably not the sharpest send-up in comedians Eric Idle & Associates’ body of film work, compared to their later, blistering satire on Biblical lore contained in The Life of Brian (1979) — Brian being Jesus — and on the existential quandaries in The Meaning of Life (1983).
The Holy Grail nonetheless contains what was for a generation of fans a blithely anarchistic and singularly British response to a constipated culture.
The brisk, cheerful lunacy emerges in small, sublimely idiotic spats of dialogue, such as a riff between King Arthur (John O’Hurley) and some peasants.
King Arthur: We are all Britons. And I am your king.
Woman: I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
Dennis: You’re foolin’ yourself! We’re living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working class ...
Woman: Oh, there you go bringing class into it again.
Dennis: Well, that’s what it’s all about! If only people would ...
King Arthur: Please, please, good people, I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?
Woman: No one lives there.
King Arthur: Then who is your lord?
Woman: We don’t have a lord.
Dennis: I told you, we’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to be a sort of executive officer for the week ...
Later, the King confronts a French solider (the French inexplicably occupy a castle in medieval England):
King Arthur: Can we come up and have a look?
French Soldier: Of course not. You’re English types.
King Arthur: What are you then?
French Soldier: I’m French. Why do you think I have this outrageous accent, you silly king?
Sir Galahad: What are you doing in England?
French Soldier: Mind your own business.
By scene’s end, the Frenchman is taunting the Knights of the Round Table:
French Soldier: I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal-food-trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.
Sir Galahad: Is there someone else up there we can talk to?
French Soldier: No, now go away or I shall taunt you a second time.
Idle and John Du Prez’s long-touring musical, Monty Python’s Spamalot, is lifted mostly from The Holy Grail and is at its best when filching such dialogue from the movie, with performances that replicate the dry, wry humor of faulty assumptions taken to their most idiotic conclusions. There’s nothing subtle about the Python juvenilia. In The Meaning of Life, an organ-transplant team arrives at a man’s house to remove the occupant’s liver, over his objections, with a large pike and what look like hedge-clippers. Again, there’s that brisk British good cheer as the surgeon shields himself from sprays of blood, while the wife of the howling victim chatters benignly in the next room. Or the 800-pound diner in a posh French eatery, who explodes from a dinner mint, leaving the restaurant saturated in barf. The cleaning woman philosophically expresses her gratitude, while shoveling vomit into a bucket, that “at least I don’t work for Jews.”
Such scenes are literally, explosively grotesque, but they’re not redundant. They possess a standup’s keen timing and they know when a joke has been exhausted, and when to move on. The failure of this instinct is the failure of Monty Python’s Spamalot.
In the film, there’s a plague sketch in which the city corpse collectors go ’round with a cart calling, “Bring out your dead.” One ill fellow protests that he’s “not dead yet,” and that, in fact, he’s feeling better. This leads to bickering with the officials until his owner bonks him on the head with a shovel, ensuring that he is dead. In the musical, that scene gets played out in a song called “I Am Not Dead Yet,” wherein the clout with the shovel occurs twice. Evidently, the joke told once isn’t sufficient.
In the film, there’s an absurdist, melodramatic build-up to the appearance of a terrifying fellow named The Enchanter, who quickly introduces himself as “Tim.” This is a very funny line. But in the musical, Robin (James Beaman) then adds the sarcastic remarks, “Oh Tim, that’s a very scary name.” So now it’s not enough to tell jokes, they have to be explained as well.
In the film, The Enchanter makes a fierce threat, to which Sir Robin has a hysterically incongruous comeback: “You kit, I soiled my armor I was so scared.” In the musical, however, we’ve seen him clutching his buttocks, as many references have already been made to his incontinence in fear. So when his punchline comes, it’s just another redundancy. With that kind of repetition throughout the musical, the film’s brisk tone shifts from the pinpoint sparks of standup comedy to the comparatively lumbering reprises of musical theater.
But the larger issue resides in the motives of creation. Monty Python created comedy in reaction to, and as a comment on, the absurdities of life in Britain, and beyond. In the musical, King Arthur seeks — in addition to the Holy Grail — a way to get onto Broadway. So this is no longer a vicious comedy about the world, it’s a far gentler homage to Monty Python, filled with Sarah Palin jokes and mock Academy Awards. The idea has undergone a tectonic shift from being pointedly silly to generally silly — most clearly illustrated in the song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” That song originated in The Life of Brian, and was sung by Christ and his fellow condemned, as they hung on their crosses. Here, it’s sung by Arthur because he’s lost in “a very expensive forest.” That’s a very big plunge in the quality and purpose of the humor.
What was satire is now just parody, and this is just another Broadway show, shrink-wrapping its gags the way Hollywood studios often do good ideas. These are really the aesthetics of marketing. The result is far more popular than penetrating, interesting or important.
The company is unimpeachable, as is Casey Nicholaw’s splendidly stupid choreography and Tim Hatley’s deliberately cheesy set and costumes.
MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT | By ERIC IDLE and JOHN DU PREZ | Presented by CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the AHMANSON THEATRE, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; through September 6.