Viewed from the distance of two or three decades, it is hard now to appreciate how deliciously subversive was the comedy of Monty Python. Whatever their targets, this British gang of nutbars stretched the limits of social satire, creating an unforgettable repertoire of songs and sketches.
In order to make sure that we do not forget, one of the original brethren, Eric Idle, is now gallivanting around North America with a live two-hour show that, in the best Pythonesque manner, steals shamelessly from the canon.
In the absence of an authentic reunion of the troupe, which for now seems out of reach, this is not altogether a bad idea. Still, one is constantly aware that it is not and cannot be the real thing.
Complete with a band and The Swallows, a trio of dancers and singers, the show is in Toronto for two nights at the Hummingbird Centre, before moving on to Carnegie Hall in New York and, next month, to Montreal for the Just For Laughs comedy festival.
To be fair, Idle steals mainly from himself, re-enacting some of the skits he actually had a hand in writing or in which he first appeared. Among the best purloined bits, of course, is Idle's visit to the travel agent. Ostensibly there to book an adventure tour to India, he begins and never finishes a long rant on the dark underside of tourism that eventually brings in the man in the white coat.
But the large crowd of Pythonites in the audience last night were utterly forgiving. They came to see the old material resurrected: to see Gumby stuff flowers in the vase backwards; to see the three Bruces, all philosophy professors from Australia, sing their silly song ("René Descartes was a drunken fart. . . . I drink therefore I am."); to see Idle pay money for an argument with a man who will only contradict him.
They came to hear Every Sperm is Sacred and his faux tribute to the Rutles, Idle's classic parody of the Beatles.
Inevitably, this sort of evening becomes an exercise in mass nostalgia, with members of the audience tempted to call out the next line even before it is delivered.
There are some new bits, including a lovely politically incorrect piece that trades on our reflexive anti-Americanism and the not exactly generous sentiments that some Canadians may hold for Quebec. And he adds a conversational opening to the second act,
at once thanking and gently spoofing his former Python pals. (In referring to John Cleese, whom he calls the most gifted comic of his generation, Idle remarks that Cleese is probably off shooting a commercial.)
And if there's any problem here, that's probably it. From Spam to the Spanish Inquisition to the Boy Called Brian, this is essentially a trip down one of comedy's memory lanes. It generates no shortage of familiar laughs, but inevitably leaves one wishing that Idle was not essentially flying solo up there and that the original talents could somehow converge again, and rekindle their brilliance.