Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Monty Python, No. 4 - Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)

Monty Python’s most important output is the “Flying Circus” and their movies, but that is not all the group has done. Through a combination of troupe creativity, and moneymen milking the cash vole dry, the “Monty Python” brand name has also appeared on books, albums, a CD-Rom in ’95, what-have-you, and also live performances.

About some of those fringe elements, you could argue they are pretty tertiary – mostly an endless repackaging of skits, songs, and assorted Pythonesque bric-a-brac. Consider the lilies – no, titles: “The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “Contractual Obligation,” “The Hastily Cobbled Together for a Fast Buck Album,” “Final Rip Off,” “Ultimate Rip Off,” “A Complete Waste of Time.” At least the Pythons retain a jocular willingness to poke fun at such things, as they tweak the nature of the medium, whatever medium. Consider, they released LPs with C-sides (age-wise, I ought not to get that joke, but I do).

Oh, but then there were the live performances, and other whole-troupe projects with a bit more relevance. First, a non-live, actually-TV project, “Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus.” Seeing as the Germans have no sense of humor (by Eric Idle’s admission, and historical fact), the Pythons were rented out in 1972 to transfer their absurdism to ze Motherland. It’s telling, how British sketches can be run through a 1970s Babel Fish (ala “Funniest Joke in the World”), then performed pho-ne-tic-al-ly by non-Germans, and still they’re the funniest thing to come out of that country since gas warfare!

Zose lucky Germans, they didn’t just get recobbled “Flying Circus” sketches. No, they got recobbled “At Last the 1948 Show” sketches. (For the Pythons all had notable pre-Python experience, comedy edging towards the Python vein, which they could now cannibalize.) Ze Germans even got new sketches, like “Little Red Riding Hood.” Python was that prolific in the early ‘70s, their excess routines littered the airwaves of Germania!

But right, I said I was talking about their live performances. As a charity for Amnesty International, Monty Python kept busy in the latter half of the ‘70s with “Secret Policeman’s Ball” benefit shows, honing live performances of “Flying Circus” as well as ze German stuff. This is an odd direction for a television comedy team to go, as most live performers come from a musical background (see Amnesty’s other big names, Bono, Pete Townshend, Sting). But the Pythons held an unusual rapport with audiences, as a part of the cultural reclamation they claimed.

Then Monty Python’s Life of Brian comes out in 1979, employing well-phrased controversy to raise the troupe’s star even more. They planned a third film to be made of all-new original material, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, but that wouldn’t be out until 1983, the cost of writing and filming it alongside solo careers.

As a stopgap measure in the interim, the Pythons debated theatrically releasing their two “Fliegender Zircus” specials as a combined feature, German language or no. Hell, you can’t put it past Python to consider an all-German release in the English-speaking world, as a grand nose-thumbing exercise.

Of course such a notion was silly. Rather, the Pythons dredged up a live performance they’d done in 1980 at the Hollywood Bowl, a public gala that was the natural evolution of their charity balls. (As the Beatles of comedy, it makes sense to reuse a venue the Beatles once graced.) This show was caught on video by Terry Hughes. For a 1982 movie release, it was then transferred to film (which has now been in turn transferred to DVD, then internet screen cap…). (And the pre-filmed segments of the show have another cycle of transferences added!) The end result is Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, an incredibly minor piece of the Python filmography. Still, it did get theatrical release, of a most limited sort, making under $1 million total. Not that they expected anything more, for ‘tis a concert film – all the joys of a live performance stripped away in this new medium, done with the technical skill of any live telecast from 1980.

Still, the program is a fount of rare sketches, as much of the run time derives from non-“Flying Circus” efforts. Hence extensive reuse of ze German footage, redubbed back into English and sometimes just left in German for the hell of it. Thankfully, with the exception of the climactic “Lumberjack Song” (oh, and also “Nudge Nudge!”), none of the material here overlaps with the Python’s other anthological effort, And Now For Something Completely Different.

The most valuable thing about Live at the Hollywood Bowl, apart from serving as a sort of cinematic B-side, is how it acts as a snapshot of a certain time in Python history. The crowd’s reactions are invaluable. What a bunch of shaggy long-hairs! It’s the ‘70s reborn! These folk are clearly a bit anti-establishment, in a standardized sense. It’s even evident they’re enjoying themselves the reefer, as at one point John Cleese berates one: “You’re not supposed to be smoking that.”

But the ever-present haze of marijuana smoke is just part and parcel of the Hollywood Bowl, as I can attest from my few personal visits (I didn’t perform). It’s more interesting to see how the crowd engages with the Pythons’ comedy, much of it already memorized from “Flying Circus.”…Basically, it’s interactive. Laughter does not come out of sudden realization, but through recognition. The post-Python “Spamalot” partakes of this situation as well.

The Pythons, in their “Live at Aspen” special (on the same DVD Live at the Hollywood Bowl is now banished to), describe how bizarre these performances were, until they got the hang of it. The start of a sketch would be accompanied with riotous laughter, ditto the conclusion, but everything in between would be as quiet as a Swedish library. This troubled the Pythons, until they realized the audience was quoting along. They knew the sketches by heart already, this even before reruns and rereleases and book and albums and all that other nonsense gave audiences the chance to memorize, like my generation with “Simpsons” DVDs. Such was the Church of Python, a spontaneous cultural reaction that even the Pythons were largely unaware of. But once they caught wind of it, in 1976’s “Live at City Center” (a NY-based album), they ran with it!

Live at the Hollywood Bowl shows the boys toying with the live format to a significant degree, even while running through ceremonial verbatim sketches and taking time off (to change from one woman’s outfit to another) for German footage to befuddle American stoners. Take a sketch like the Bruces. A song is sung about all the philosophers being drunks (Cleese dedicates this to the 4 people in the audience likely to get the jokes – and I would be one of ‘em, thanks be to a hyper-classical liberal arts education.) But get it or not, the lyrics are posted upon a big screen, turning the hills of Hollywood into one giant potheaded sing-along.

Then there’re moments where the Pythons leave the stage and parade around the crowds, doing wholly new material. In a stated “INTERMISSION,” Cleese roams the aisles as a snack vendor, selling a single delicious albatross. Terry Jones attempts a purchase. (This is where Cleese and ganja fumes have a little run-in.)

Something similar happens at the end of their “Travel Agency” sketch, which results in Eric Idle’s Mr. Smoketoomuch fleeing Cleese’s whitesuit all throughout the land of the stoners, climbing over railing in a better version of something Roberto Benigni farted out at the Oscars.

But what’s the point of called a pre-filmed entertainment “Live” unless there’s the chance for accidental shenanigans? In the penultimate sketch, “Bishop on the Landing,” any great number of hijinks ensue, of a certainly unplanned nature. It’s quite alright, really, for the sketch is nigh-incomprehensible anyway, granted pride of position simply because it invokes every member of the troupe, plus one gigantic Terry Gilliam Hand of God.

The issues start as Terry Jones’ wig flies off, for Jones is playing a grotesque British housewife as is his wont – the audience loves this moment, mistake or no, for that is the weird phenomenon of live performances. Many of Jones’ fellow Pythons “block” the view as he re-wigs.

Then, the ball’s rolling having been started, Michael Palin cannot keep a straight face. His fellow performers start to lose their composure to lesser degrees as well.

The skit’s crackerjack cadence goes ker-blooey, as various Pythons simply scream things independently, sans concern for each other.

Microphone feedback takes poorly to Jones’ nasal, feminine shriek.

At least the God-hand finale goes well enough, which wasn’t always the case. God is supposed to finger – as in point at – a particular Python (Idle), and all take a bow.

But even seeing Monty Python at their most unprofessional, the Bowl’s energy remains high. The audience taking this as simply another wrinkle to the troupe’s inveterate deconstruction of everything they get their hands on.

Add to the production little respite performances from “seventh Pythons” Neil Innes and Carol Cleveland, to calm down the raucous Hollywood drug fiends, and to give the Pythons some much-needed pause. These songs (“I’m the Urban Spaceman,” “How Sweet to Be an Idiot”) garner the least response from the crowd, but no matter.

All in all, the show goes as follows: “Sit on My Face,” “Colin ‘Bomber’ Harris,” “Never Be Rude to an Arab,” “The Last Supper,” “Never Be Rude to an Arab” (reprise), “Silly Olympics,” “Bruces’ Philosophers Song,” “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” “Camp Judges,” an ANIMATED INTERLUDE, “World Forum,” “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” “Whizzo Chocolates,” “Albatross,” “Nudge Nudge,” “International Philosophy,” “Four Yorshiremen Sketch,” “International Philosophy” (Round 2), “The Argument Sketch,” “How Sweet to Be an Idiot,” another ANIMATED INTERLUDE, “Travel Agency,” “Comedy Lecture” (with interruptions from the “Travel Agency” leavings), “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bishop on the Landing,” “The Lumberjack Song,” curtain call.

The troupe’s final message to the audience: “Piss off.”

This is the third time I’ve seen “Nudge Nudge” within a week (reedit from the future – six times now). Each variation is a little bit different, timing tweaked and even dialogue altered.

The same goes for something like “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” which loses much of its pre-filmed, in-context “Flying Circus” charm. The stage version is not wholly successful on its own. Audience response, as noted, is in memory of the TV version, and the sketch’s overall importance. But the sketch in this form cannot work for the uninitiated, and that goes too for most of Live at the Hollywood Bowl. It is important from a historical perspective, to a Pythonologist and a completist, but it is not a substitute.

Related posts:
• No. 1 And Now For Something Completely Different (1974)
• No. 2 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
• No. 3 Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
• No. 5 Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

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