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Despite the fact that I grew up in the same state from which Python member Terry Gilliam hailed before a continental change found him joining up with the rest of the Flying Circus, Monty Python wasn't a big part of my introduction to comedy... at least not directly.
Yet as I discovered in this incredibly thorough six part documentary celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the legendary comedy team, the influence of the men from The Ministry of Silly Walks who brought us a Fish Slapping Dance and "The Lumberjack Song" was everywhere. Although due to the fact that this reviewer was merely a Minnesotan toddler when the Pythons abandoned the Spanish Inquisition to go their own separate ways amidst a trail of Spam-crumbs, it's no wonder that the term Pythonesque wasn't part of my early vocabulary.
Although as my interest in comedy grew, so did my interest in the Pythons, most notably when I stumbled onto John Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda co-starring his Python cast-mate Michael Palin and laughed so hard that my dad kept yelling from the floor below to “keep it down.” Needless to say, with Wanda as my gateway drug, I became hooked on humor-- the more obscure or least-mainstream the better-- and must admit to a certain love of “finding things first” to this day whether it's jumping on a bandwagon before it becomes trendy or the experience of relishing in something from the past that is no longer in popular discussion.
Still, I must confess that my initial encounter with Monty Python via one of their films left me thoroughly confused the first time around. Yet the classic sketches in this set and the group's deep admiration and exploration of the boundaries of humor further analyzed by their fans including Dan Aykroyd, Stephen Merchant, Steve Coogan, Simon Pegg, Tim Roth, Russell Brand, Seth Green and others made me eager to see more of the original series.
Although it recently screened in nightly installments on the Independent Film Channel, which produced the documentary alongside Eagle Rock, viewing all six parts on disc form can be a bit of an exhaustive and daunting venture. However, the format tries to keep things fresh by combining together the one-on-one Python interviews with archival footage and intercutting it with reactions from those whose careers were heavily influenced by the group which is often compared to as the comedy version of The Beatles.
Ironically the fab four who brought viewers The Magical Mystery Tour were fans of The Flying Circus as well, as the documentary cites that Paul McCartney would stop recording sessions when they were on and George Harrison (along with other musicians including Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd) helped fund their cinematic endeavors. Bouncing back from an overly long and poorly edited but vital origins episode that some may actually want to skip just to visit the days of the Circus, the documentary is a must for fans yet a bit repetitive and no doubt could've been restructured and shortened to its advantage.
It begins to unravel once it passed the midway mark as sadly in a few places I wished we were witnessing more vintage Python material and less filler of the surviving members making some remarks about one another that ran the gamut from passive aggressive to bitter as in “___ didn't think it was funny so I kept the original script at the end” or “__ was really difficult at times” or “the reason _____ worked is because of ____ and not ___.” While they're all very professional and justifiably proud of their accomplishments you still get the sense that there's some hard feelings and disagreements regarding what happened and why in their very own “Cheese Shop” in which Cleese reveals his real family name is actually Cheese.
However, the documentary excels when it includes the background of certain sketches and the way they worked from rhythmic pseudo-intellectual approaches to sight gags, the history of censorship battles and Gilliam's need to rescue the tapes of the show from the BBC, along with some wonderful analysis from comedians of our generation. Well worth the viewing is Steve Coogan's near Python audition as he displays his gift for impressions, memorization and obsessive mimicry or being a one-man VCR to reenact skits verbatim complete with stage directions.
Likewise, I enjoyed Simon Pegg's beautiful comment that as a teen he loved a skit wherein two Pythons had to look away from one another to try and keep it together since watching the men enjoy humor while being humorous made it all the more memorable. Further footage finds others discussing the way they poked fun at Upper Class Twits and the reactions alone and subsequent footage could've been its own portion of the set. For in the end, while you need to hear the history of the Pythons from the Pythons, the reason the Pythons are still going strong at forty is because of its groundbreaking effect of outside-the-box thinking of playing with our expectations in a way that's influenced comedy ever since.
So despite some of the gossipy digs, which actually-- in my mind-- took a little of the pleasure away from the idea of celebrating the source, the documentary which includes some cutting room floor footage, more interviews (which were left out for a reason), very few sketches along with Gilliam's photo gallery serves as a gift to enthusiasts as well as comedy buffs who want a far more in-depth definition of Pythonesque than you can find in the dictionary.
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