Every Spam is Sacred
Monty Python's Spamalot
BY STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS
Monty Python and the Holy Grail – the 1975 riff on Arthurian legend — is probably not the sharpest 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 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 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 anarco-sydicalist commune. We take it in turns to be a sort of executive officer for the week…
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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 that knows 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, assuring 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 an hysterically incongruous comeback:”You kit, I soiled my armor I
was so scared.” In the musical, however, we've seen Sir Robin clutching his
buttocks, as many references have already been made to his incontinence
in fear. So when his punchline comes, it's 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 (John
O'Hurley) 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, a somewhat forgettable entertainment, shrink-wrapping good ideas not unlike the way Hollywood studios often do. These are really the aesthetics of marketing. The result is bound to be 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 Avenue,
downtown; Through September 6. (213) 972-4400.
CHECK BACK HERE MONDAY AFTERNOON FOR REVIEWS OF: Kill Me, Deadly at Theatre of Note; A Midsummer Night's Dream presented by the Veterans Center for the Performing Arts & United States Veterans Artists Alliance; Justin Tanner's Wife Swappers at the Zephyr; Nevermore, starring Jeffrey Combs, at the Steve Allen Theatre; Paul Leaf's Mutiny at Port Chicago at Santa Monica's Ruskin Theatre; Howard Korder's Search and Destroy, at Hollywood's The Complex; also in Hollywood, Carved in Stone at Theatre Asylum; The Hostgage at Theatre Banshee in Burbank; Juliette Marshall's You Look Good on Paper at Improv Comedy Lab in Hollywood; and Diana Son's Stop Kiss, presented by Rogue Machine in Los Angeles.