This January, our hit show Not The Messiah is playing at Theatre503 – one of London’s top new writing theatres – followed by a quick tour to Derby and Belfast. It is a nice coincidence that this comes just after the announcement that the remaining living members of Monty Python are reuniting. Here, Tom takes a look at what we can expect from that…
I’ve spent my life watching the Pythons, writing about the Pythons and (both deliberately and, all too often accidentally) writing like the Pythons. But, like many of their newer fans, I feel incredibly distant from these historical comedy inspirations, who finished touring their live shows before I was born, and have only appeared on stage together once since.
Even for those original fans who experienced the Pythons in their true, groundbreaking context, the chances of having seen them live are vanishingly slim. Their stage tour had limited dates, and these all occurred before the greater fame brought by their film hits.
For the vast majority then, the Pythons are purely a screen phenomenon: a bunch of eternally young men from the 70s endlessly high-kicking, fish-slapping, coconut-clopping and Messiah-declaring their way across YouTube and DVD box sets for our delight. In this context, the prospect of a live appearance (by all of them who are not currently pushing up the daisies) seems ludicrously exciting.
But are we right to be so excited? For a start, despite it not being explicitly stated, I feel it’s unlikely the 145,000 fans attending their 10-date run can expect any new material. The team have acknowledged that most of their audience will be there to see the stuff they know, but even if they weren’t, it would surely be better to stick to it.
Monty Python are remembered for their best sketches and the best moments from their best films. To avoid cries that they have lost their talents and are now just old men trying to be comedians, literally nothing less than the funniest sketch ever written would suffice.
Originality and surprise were always key ingredients of the winning Python formula, ingredients people are always looking for with comedy. But surely there’s a problem of how to achieve these when your entire audience know what you’re going to say before you say it.
John Cleese remembers playing to complete silence at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982, before discovering the audience were too busy mouthing along to the sketches to laugh. This was the first time the Pythons had not been laugh-out-loud funny since their first TV recording, in front of pensioners who thought they’d come to see an actual circus – could London’s O2 arena in July 2014 be the third?
Add to this the constant swathe of people complaining about how miniscule the Pythons will appear from the lofty, yet expensive, perches, probably about 10- minutes sound -delay from the stage.
Certainly, seeing the Flying Circus stars in a dingy 50-seat upstairs pub room would be an infinitely more rewarding experience for all involved, but this would require ticket prices of £25,000 each. The O2 arena is perhaps the only place able to deliver retired comedy Gods, with the fees they expect to bother re-forming, at a price that pretty much anyone can at least afford.
But what does this say about live comedy? Are all these people, like with so many large-scale commercial shows, just paying for name recognition rather than the content? It seems, no one is expecting a groundbreaking show, superior performances or new material, they are simply expecting Pythons. No line that’s said will be more important than the person saying it. Does the Python reunion typify the worst of live comedy – designed to play to as many people as possible and trade entirely on celebrity status?
Tempting though that is, my feeling would rather be that it is a striking illustration of what makes live comedy unique and special. Film and TV may be the perfect medium to craft and tell a joke the exact way you want to, and deliver it conveniently and cheaply to the most people possible. The one advantage live comedy has is it can put you in the same space as that joke and the person telling it, making it immediate and making the audience an essential part of it.
This desire for live experiences, simply because they are live and immediate should be encouraged. The desire for immediacy is what drives live comedy and will allow it to survive in the face of its easily available screen-based equivalent.
As well as celebrating the work of five comedy legends next July, the Python reunion can also wave the flag for all live comedy – for the act of simply paying money to go and be in the same room as a person being funny, whether they mention dead parrots or not.
I’ll be there, to see my comedy idols and unashamedly mouth along all the sketches with the rest of them. But I hope some of us 145,000 will pop along to see some unknown comedians in a dingy upstairs pub room soon afterwards – after all, they might be the superstar-comedians-reuniting-to-pay-off-their-mortgage of the future.
This article first appeared on Chortle on 09/12/13