The surviving members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus recently performed some well-attended and high-priced “reunion” shows at London’s O2 stadium. At their best the Pythons were a brilliant comedy team, and like many fans I have favorite bits from their repertoire: Arthur Pewtey and his ravishing wife Deirdre, the senile delinquents, the restaurant sketch, looking for an argument, and the twin peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro. There are also the individual lines that have become part of our social lexicon and the English language: “Nudge, nudge,” “This is an ex-parrot,” “Right, this is getting a bit silly,” “Get the bucket,” “Spam, spam, spam…” Monty Python are great.
Yet how disappointing it is that the troupe have turned themselves into a greatest-hits act. Python were for a long time a wonderful antithesis of the sentimental, self-congratulatory showbiz love-ins between entertainer and audience that were the dreary domains of Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and their ilk; the usual adjective applied to the Flying Circus is “irreverent,” which their vast, worshipfully covered O2 shows were assuredly not. Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam can do what they like with their material and their reputations – uncontrollable flatulence – but the living Python of forty-five years ago would have mercilessly satirized the enshrined Python of 2014. If you doubt me, check out Eric Idle’s torrentially teary parody of Richard “Dickie” Attenborough from 1973: “There can be no finer honor than to welcome into our midst tonight a guest who has not only done only more than not anyone for our Society, but nonetheless has only done more. He started in the film industry in 1924, he started again in 1946, and finally in 1963. He has been dead for four years, but he has not let that prevent him from coming here this evening…”
Squirrels at War: The Sacrifice, the Savagery. Critics have coined the term “comfort rock” in reference to the set-in-stone playlists of classic rock radio, and indeed the O2 shows of the Rolling Stones in 2012 and the reunited Led Zeppelin in 2007 were characterized by eruptions of nostalgic applause at the first notes of each beloved tune, followed by an expectant wait for the song to be over so the next all-time anthem could be sounded. The same Pavlovian response greeted the latest renditions of Monty Python’s “The Lumberjack Song” (Mick Jagger, to his credit, provided a self-mocking promo for the London events from just this perspective). Monty Python have already given themselves a Beatles’ Anthology-style treatment in a 2003 documentary, The Pythons: Autobiography by the Pythons, wherein the elder statesmen of zaniness and various celebrity disciples commented thoughtfully on the Python genius – and now for something reassuringly predictable. Again, the men of Monty Python are free to reunite and celebrate their achievements however and as often as they wish, but they must know that each celebratory reunion undermines the very qualities they are celebrated for.
There’s a book by Simon Reynolds called Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (not to be confused with Lesbian Oil Wrestling Illustrated), which I haven’t read but would like to. Reynolds’ argument, as I understand it, is that a culture which constantly reexamines and recycles its former glories risks losing the inventiveness and creativity on which a viable culture must build. Our fetish for reissues, reunions, and endless farewell tours may signify a stagnating society, or a self-obsessed Baby Boom generation, or the global tipping point of peak ear wax, but whatever its implications, I’m sorry to see that Monty Python’s Flying Circus, of all people, have been caught up in it.