Monty Python's Spamalot Photo by Joan Marcus

Every Spam is Sacred
Monty Python's Spamalot

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.  



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.

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