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Monty Python's not dead, it's just restin'


'The next time you care to sample proper British humour," scribbled my high-school English teacher in the margin of my neatly typed midterm essay, "I strongly suggest you explore the works of P.G. Wodehouse. Stop wasting your time with this Monty Python idiot."

Mr. Gomes was, of course, both right and wrong. Jeeves & Wooster was indeed ripping good stuff, but completely lost on a high-school student back in the early seventies. And Monty Python was not a single person, but a comedy movement.

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The CBC, bless its heart, had begun airing Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1971, two years after its arrival on British television, and in a matter of months most of the student body, or at least the males, could faithfully recite every line of the Dead Parrot sketch or the Cheese Shop sketch with letter-perfect inflection.

In art class, some of us tried in vain to recreate the clever animation of Killer Cars. Rambunctious types practised the Silly Walk in the hallways and everybody knew the words to the Lumberjack Song.

In my enthusiasm, or naivété, I believed a 500-word dissertation on Monty Python's Argument Clinic routine (a man pays to have an argument, which turns out to be an argument over whether or not he paid) would be well-received by Mr. Gomes, who was English himself. Though clearly unimpressed, he grudgingly allowed me a B-minus.

Forty years hence, kids still don't appreciate the finer points of P.G. Wodehouse, but most are familiar with Monty Python, which has its own channel on YouTube.

Anyone who grew up under the Python ensemble's absurdist influence will likely want to put time aside for the six-hour retrospective Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut), which airs in two-hour blocks over three consecutive nights (Bravo!, Saturday, Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m.). This is Monty Python, deconstructed.

Looking back, it's remarkable that Monty Python's Flying Circus consisted of only 45 episodes, which the troupe followed with five feature films. In addition to clips of the classic Python sketches - and some that never made it to air - Almost the Truth boasts extended reflections from surviving members Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, with the late Graham Chapman (he died in 1989) appearing posthumously in several TV interviews.

Even for a non-believer, the story behind Python makes for brilliant viewing. The first chapter covers the family backgrounds of the cast members, with each offering recollections of growing up in stuffy postwar Britain, save for Gilliam, the sole Yank in the group, who grew up in rural Minnesota.

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Early comedy influences cited include radio broadcasts of The Goon Show and the stage revue Beyond the Fringe, starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Then, in their early 20s, the Pythons absorbed the new, offbeat English humour.

In the swinging London of the mid-sixties, as though guided by unseen hands, the group of six all slowly came together. Cleese, Palin and the others began writing for and appearing in the irreverent current-affairs program That Was the Week That Was, hosted by David Frost, and did likewise on The Frost Report. Back in America, Gilliam became a regular contributor to the humour magazine Help! and began developing his unique animation style.

Then came Python. Once assembled, the group proposed a weekly comedy program to the BBC. The network sanctioned the show without ever realizing what they were putting on the air. "The BBC was like the RAF in those days," chuckles Idle in the film.

Monty Python's Flying Circus surfaced inauspiciously on BBC's late-night lineup in October, 1969. As related in the second episode, the show was over the heads of the matron-types who attended the live tapings, but registered with younger viewers. "I was exposed to it at a young age, and like a kind of inoculation, the virus grew in me as a child," says comic actor Russell Brand, one of roughly two-dozen celebrity Python fans interviewed in the film.

At its peak, Python was spot-on satire. An equal opportunity offender, the show skewered the English working class and the priggish English upper class. In either case, it was utterly ridiculous. Most of the time, says Cleese, "it was the sort of stuff that you saw when you went to a pantomime."

Flying Circus ran on BBC until 1974, and those same 45 episodes have since appeared ceaselessly in reruns. The latter chapters in Almost the Truth cover the Python films, some of which were very good ( Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life) and some of which left both fans and the Pythons themselves wanting ( Monty Python's Life of Brian).

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In the end, it's grand to simply see the Python players again. Now older and wiser, the remaining five seem grateful for the opportunity to reflect upon their time in the spotlight. "This is the documentary I always hoped would be made," said Jones in a recent interview. "Something so complete and so faithful to the truth that I don't need to watch it."

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