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Monty Python DVD chronicles the troupe's "sweet goodbye"
John Cleese doesn't really know who fellow Brits One Direction are.
"I know less about music than anyone you've ever spoken to," the comic actor and writer confesses over the phone from Chicago the afternoon before he's slated to make an appearance in nearby Naperville, Ill.
But when Monty Python did smashing business at London's O2 Arena last July, selling out 10 shows -- captured on the new home video "Monty Python Live (mostly) -- One Down Five to Go" -- in minutes each, the veteran comedy troupe caused the same kind of furor as 1D, which left Cleese and his mates surprised to say the least.
"Oh, well, we were terribly tickled and puzzled," recalls Cleese 75, "and I think we were partly puzzled because in England the media has tended to treat most of us as history for a long time now. They're like that about anyone, so we're not taking it personally, but the picture that had been painted was of these people who everyone thought were very funny 40 years ago but maybe it wasn't all that good anyway and they haven't done anything interesting since.
"We'd picked that up from the papers a bit, so to discover there was a reservoir of affection and fandom and people wanting to laugh was a very pleasant surprise -- but a big surprise as well."
A true Python fan would be surprised by the group's surprise, of course. More than 30 years after it ceased to be an active concern, Monty Python remains one of the reigning kings of comedy. It was a supergroup of course whose members -- Cleese, Eric Idle, the late Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and animator Terry Gilliam -- all had substantial credits in the British comedy scene, including David Frost's "The Frost Report," before they were brought together by ITV to create their own program. The "Monty Python's Flying Circus" series aired for four seasons of absurdist satire, spawning scores of enduring sketches such as "Dead Parrot," "Nudge Nudge," "The Spanish Inquisition," "The Ministry of Silly Walks," "The Lumberjack Song" and "Cheese Shop" and favorite characters like the Bruces and the Gumbies.
After the show ended the Pythons moved on to films, and no one was laughing at the success of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "Monty Python's Life of Brian" and "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life," as well as an enterprise of books, albums, games and live productions. By the time the troupe split up in 1983, its place in popular culture, and pop culture vernacular, as well as its influence on subsequent programs such as "Saturday Night Live," was cemented.
"We came out of an extraordinarily creative period, when you look back at the amount of great music and other stuff," explains Cleese, who chronicles his early and mostly pre-Python days in his new memoir "So, Anyway..." "Don't forget, it was a time of (cultural) revolution and the Vietnam War and the Paris riots and the Cold War and imminent mutual destruction and terrible things like that.
"There was a period like that as well at the end of the first World War that was also immensely creative, and there was a hugely creative period about 1850; there's just times when there's an enormous amount of creativity in all areas and that seems to be accompanied by political instability."
Despite the turmoil, however, Cleese theorizes that, "I think people on the whole were more relaxed and happier back when we started then they are now, and I think creativity is very much a function of relaxation. I don't think anybody had a great idea while attacking a machine gun post. And if you're banging around doing a lot of things and constantly being interrupted by your IT technology like people are now, you're not likely to be in that slightly dreamy mood when you're going to come up with good, creative stuff."
But when it comes to Monty Python's lasting appeal and impact, Cleese simply shrugs its shoulder.
"It jsut seems to be that it happens that way," he says. "We never looked that far ahead. There was no question we wanted to do something new, and I think there had been a very stuff atmosphere in England for a very long time, and people began to break through in the early 60s with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and after that David Frost, and there was this burst of satire from about '62 to probably '66. And after everyone got fed up with that we back off the political satire, which is why I think the ('Flying Circus') shows have remained fairly timeless.
"So we certainly wanted to be original, but we had no idea, not even the glimmer of an idea of the impact we would eventually make."
The Python members each carved out their own niche after 1983, with Cleese -- who had starred in "Fawlty Towers" during the mid-70s -- appearing in "A Fish Called Wanda" and other films, Idle launching the Beatles parody The Rutles and turning "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" into the Broadway hit "Spamalot," and Gilliam directing films such as "Time Bandits," "The Fisher King," "12 Monkeys" and more. There were some animosities between them, but Cleese acknowledges that"when we got together we always laughed a lot. We always said that we laughed more together than we did, really, at any other time."
That was the case in 1999, when the Pythons convened to be interviewed by Robert Klein at the Aspen Comedy Festival. That almost led to a reunion tour, but Cleese says that Palin "rather dragged his feet and eventually said he just didn't want to do it. So we forgot about it." The O2 shows, however, were inspired by necessity; the group lost a nearly $1 million lawsuit to "Holy Grail" producer Mark Forstater over royalties for "Spamalot," and good friend and Queen manager Jim Beach suggested they put on a show to raise the money.
One show soon became 10, however, and with Idle taking the lead -- "If all of us tried to do it together it would never have come together," Cleese admits -- the production was nothing less than a smash.
"When we started to think, 'Why? Why were we news?' we suddenly thought, 'Well, bands getting back together isn't news. It happens all them,' " says Cleese, who resides in the U.K. with his fourth wife. "But we're the only comedy group, you know? There's masses of musical groups -- fours, fives -- but who else is there in comedy? The Marx Brothers, maybe. There's lots of duos, but not many groups. Something like Second City, the personnel are changing all the time, so it's a different kettle of fish.
"So that's what's unique about us. It's the kind of thing that can be thought of like a rock band in terms of a reunion and whether it's newsworthy."
Don't expect to see it happen again, however -- even if rock bands have a tendency to say goodbye without meaning it. With Palin again bowing out of any future activities, Cleese promises that, "you can be quite sure we're not going to do it ever again. First of all, none of us wants to, and the second is we could never agree on anything if we did.
"So in the end it seems to me that the O2 shows were, as Eric puts it, a sweet goodbye. There was something about the occasion that was extraordinarily satisfying and appropriate. We've said our goodbye. You can't do that twice."
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