The (Not Quite) Full Monty At the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, the absurdity of Monty Python's Flying Circus once again took flight. So did hints of a coming tour -- and a late member's not-so-solemn remains.

March 09, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

ASPEN, Colo. -- It had been 18 years since they'd been on stage together and the Monty Python boys were having such a good time with each other after so long. And one could hardly consider it a bona fide trip to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival if one did not leave without a potential deal pending. So right there in the St. Regis Aspen, John Cleese came out with it: Why not get together for a reunion performance?

Why not? his four erstwhile comrades thought. The question has hovered like one of those nettlesome Python flying sheep ever since their fifth and last movie, "Monty Python's Meaning of Life" in 1983.

So in the spirit of the show-biz chatter that is the essence of the festival, the five remaining members of the six-man British comedy troupe -- Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and Terry Jones -- answered the question publicly late Saturday night: We like the idea. We'll get back to you.

That near news served as the capper to the fourth annual Comedy Festival -- four days of stand-up, sketches, movies and television retrospectives.

It came as the Pythons taped a 90-minute special to be aired on HBO, the festival's sponsoring network. The show, done in talk-show format and moderated by comedian Robert Klein, ended with Cleese -- erstwhile Minister of Silly Walks -- talking about the reunion idea.

"We decided this morning," said Cleese, at 58 a dignified fellow with a gray mustache and some gray hair. "We were enjoying each other so much, we thought we'd do the stage show."

Cleese said they'd like to perform next year, the 30th anniversary of the BBC television debut of "Monty Python's Flying Circus." He said the new show might take the form of a tour stopping in London and several American cities.

A sixth movie is out of the question, said Cleese, because it would take too long to make. Cleese said much depends on logistics and timing, as the troupers all are busy with other film, television, book and video projects.

"There still are a few 'ifs'," said Palin, 54, who made comedy history years ago as a pet store clerk who failed to recognize that a certain parrot, a Norwegian Blue, had quite clearly died. Passed on. Ceased to be. Expired. Gone to meet its maker.

Graham Chapman

As has the sixth member of the troupe, Graham Chapman, whose absence was always given as the obstacle to a Python reunion show. Chapman, the lanky fellow who frequently appeared on the television show dressed as a military officer abruptly halting a sketch because it was just "too silly," died of cancer in 1989 at age 48. His surviving comrades demonstrated from the start of the tribute show that Chapman's death will be noted in the spirit of his life.

"Graham Chapman would have loved this," said Klein.

"But he's dead," said Cleese. "Stone dead."

"It would be great if he could be here," said Klein.

"I brought him," replied Cleese.

Cue the butler, who entered from stage left carrying a polished brass urn on a brass tray, placing the tray down on a little trunk in the middle of the semicircle of stuffed chairs where the Pythons sat. A cut-out of Chapman's face was promptly affixed to the front of the trunk. And so the reunion was complete.

Of course, an urn in the first act always goes off in the third. In the middle of a Cleese anecdote about a tour through England, Gilliam lifted his left foot to cross his legs and knocked over the urn.

Ashes spilled out on the Oriental rug. Everyone sprang from their chairs to contain the disaster. Cue the butler, who entered with a Dustbuster. Palin grabbed a dustpan and broom. Cleese stepped between them and the audience to shield the view, out of respect to the deceased. In minutes order was restored. All present were seated, including Chapman, as the urn was placed on an empty chair.

"So then " Cleese continued, as if that little unpleasantness had not occurred.

Chapman "loved bad taste," said Cleese, recalling how the surviving Pythons did a bit of the famous Parrot Sketch at Chapman's memorial service. They swore and laughed a lot, "laughter on the edge of tears," says Cleese.

That would be typical of the troupe, who made their living in the crease between the quite humorous and the merely horrible, between the ingenious and the idiotic. Television critics at first did not know what to make of this bizarre melange of animated fantasy sequences, punchline-free blackout sketches and "teddibly British" gentlemen saying the silliest things. As in the very serious talk-show host interviewing a man with three buttocks.

The Pythons wrote their own material and relied upon their own judgment of what was funny.

"It was six people making each other laugh," Gilliam, 57, the only American-born member of the group, told the audience at the historic Wheeler Opera House. "No producers, no executives, no market research people."

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