When “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” finishes its 10-show run at London’s O2 Arena on July 20, the world probably will have seen the last live performance from England’s hilarious, eclectic, intellectual, silly, often naughty group of sketch absurdists. Or, to paraphrase from the Pythons’ “Pet Shop” routine: After that final show, which will be broadcast live in cinemas around the world, Monty Python’s Flying Circus — John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam (founding member Graham Chapman died in 1989) — will have expired and gone to see its maker. It will be bereft of life. It will rest in peace. It will have run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It will be an ex-comedy troupe, at least in name.
Oh, the guys, now in their 70s, will be around, writing, directing, and acting in films, plays, and television projects. In fact, they’ll all be together again next year when they provide voices for aliens from another world in Jones’s science-fiction film “Absolutely Anything.”
But, for the first time since 1969, they will cease performing live as a group.
That means no more real-time renditions of “Spanish Inquisition” — a particular loss since, hard to believe, the O2 show will mark the first time that sketch has been executed onstage. More well-worn classics include “Nudge Nudge,” “The Lumberjack Song” and, from Python’s raunchier regions, “Sit on My Face,” all of which will take their final live bows as part of the July 20 show, screening locally at the Fenway 13 in Boston, Legacy Place in Dedham, Patriot Place in Foxborough, the Framingham 15, Lowell Showcase Cinemas, Randolph Showcase Cinemas, and the Solomon Pond Mall in Marlborough. All shows begin at 2:30 p.m.
Although the Pythons toured only rarely during their heyday — their best-remembered US appearances were at City Center in New York in 1976 and the Hollywood Bowl in 1982 — I did manage to see them perform once, at one of those City Center shows. My clearest memory from that night is of the tall, stately, gawky Cleese ambling out from the wings, casually carrying an upside-down stuffed parrot, then suddenly “realizing” he was in the wrong sketch, and quickly exiting with the prop, to the audience’s knowing laughter.
My introduction to Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1972 was purely aural. WBCN played a sketch called “Spam,” which started with a couple ordering breakfast in a diner; spun out of control when a waitress suggested “Lobster Thermidor aux crevettes with a Mornay sauce served in a Provencale manner with shallots and aubergines garnished with a truffle paté, brandy, and with a fried egg on top and Spam”; and ended with a chorus of Vikings robustly singing about “lovely Spam.”
It was smart, funny, and insane. I found the album. The cover appeared to be a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, all marked up with black crayon and retitled “Another Monty Python Record.” I immediately became a fan, dazzled by the language, the timing, the wonderful madness. I tracked down their first album — only available as a British import — and was turned on to the dead parrot business. I was hooked, but I only knew them as a bunch of Brits who made comedy records.
It wasn’t until almost two years later, at a repertory cinema in Paris, that I discovered the movie “And Now for Something Completely Different,” which I had missed in its brief US release. There they were, five Brits and an American, tossing off one sketch after another: A Hungarian tourist (Cleese) had language problems with an English tobacconist (Jones); an irate customer (Cleese) tried to return a dead Norwegian Blue parrot to a shop owner (Palin); a polite diner (Chapman) asked for a clean fork in a restaurant, after which chaos was unleashed among the staff. Gilliam’s animations — a giant, atomically mutated cat temporarily stopped assaults on the public by “killer cars” — were bizarre.
This was all splendidly surreal, and very funny. I wanted more. But in those pre-Internet days, it took a while before I learned that the film was a string of comedy sketches that had been taken from the British TV series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and reshot for the big screen. That same year, 1974, shortly after the series had ended in England, it was first broadcast in the United States on PBS. Next came the release of the group’s first non-sketch film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), followed by “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979) and “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” (1983).
But by then Monty Python’s Flying Circus was finished as a group. Members went on to do solo projects. Cleese wrote and acted in management training videos; Jones and Gilliam directed films, among them Gilliam’s “Brazil” and “The Fisher King.” and Jones’s “Erik the Viking”; Palin wrote and starred in a series of TV travel documentaries (“Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure,” “New Europe”); Idle created “Spamalot,” the smash Broadway musical version of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
They often appeared in supporting roles in each other’s projects, but although no Python has gone on record to claim the idea for this series of final shows, it appears that there was an itch that had to be scratched, a desire to get up in front of adoring fans one more time, to make them laugh and to feel the love. After all, their last live show was in 1982.
Idle took the lead in assembling and directing “Monty Python Live (Mostly).” At a recent press conference in London, he said, “I asked each of the guys for their favorite sketches, compiled a list of them, sampled things, then we got together and read it, and read it again, and it evolved.”
Idle went on to say that since “The Meaning of Life” came after the Hollywood Bowl shows, “none of that material had been done onstage. So we’ll do some of that, and we’ve added some new songs. We’ve brought back a form of a musical revue.”
But this show bears little physical resemblance to their earlier live work. This one has big sets, lots of costumes, about 20 backup dancers, and large video screens that feature new and old Gilliam animations and participation from long-gone Graham Chapman. Ardent fans will be happy to know that troupe regular Carol Cleveland is still with them, but the Pythons have been tight-lipped about the participation of any other special guests, only hinting that there might be some. (Oddsmakers are betting on a Mick Jagger cameo, given his appearance in a promotional video for the reunion.)
The only truly downbeat news is that Cleese won’t be performing his Ministry of Silly Walks routine, as he’s had too many knee operations. But that’s tempered by good news: The bit is still in the show, now expertly choreographed and pulled off by all those backup dancers.