The last remaining members of Monty Python (left to right, above: Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, John Cleese and Michael Palin) funny walked into a rollicking press conference this afternoon to kick off this weekend’s Monty Python Celebration at Tribeca Film Festival, which will feature screenings of Holy Grail, Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life, and – most exciting – the premiere of a new documentary, Monty Python: The Meaning of Live, about their stage shows.
Among other things, the Pythons recalled their efforts to sell their Flying Circus series abroad: according to Palin, Pakistan was the first country to pick it up, but asked the BBC for a refund when they realized it didn’t have anything to do with the circus. “Now look what’s happening in Pakistan,” Palin deadpanned.
Efforts to sell it in the United States were similarly unsuccessful. In 1971, a film anthology of the sketches, And Now For Something Completely Different, premiered in the States, but it was an “absolute disaster,” according to Palin.
There was some trepidation about the film’s content – according to Gilliam, Columbia said it couldn’t guarantee its success if they kept in the “Upper-Class Twit of the Year” sketch. Idle recalled a note saying the fart had to be removed from the Hungarian “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch: “The producer said, ‘If you keep the fart, we’ll lose Disneyland.'”
“Of course, now it’s all completely different,” noted Palin. “You have to put the farts in.”
For more from the Pythons, watch the above video of their initial conversation and the below video of the q&a session. And read further for some more choice quotes.
Idle: “Spam is still funny but only if you eat it.”
Gilliam: “There were no executives and managers and everybody all over us. It was six of us, we got to do what we wanted to do. We were a big enough gang that we could beat up any of the executives.”
Idle: “We would meet at Terry Jones’s house in South London and read out a pile of material we’d spent two or three weeks writing and if it was funny it’d go in a pile saying that’s in the show and if it wasn’t funny we sold it to [BBC show] The Two Ronnies.”
Idle: “It’s hard enough to be funny but people giving you notes is just the worst thing in the world. I mean, that’s why it’s so shit over here. The times I’ve worked for the studio [inaudible], you’ve got people who came out of the William Morris mailroom giving you notes on comedy. And the only possible response is, ‘Fuck off.’”
Cleese: “EMI were going to put the money up [for Life of Brian] and then they took the trouble to read the script and they withdrew from the project and they paid us damages and included a secrecy clause – but not a secrecy clause about the secrecy clause.”
Cleese: “I don’t begin to understand contemporary society. I mean, nobody has yet been able to explain Facebook to me. I just don’t know why anybody would do it. And that’s quite scary because you’ve got to be in some sort of touch with your audience, do you see what I mean? And if you just don’t understand why they want to watch movies where the director and cinematographer spent ages setting up a beautiful shot and then they watch it on these [little screens] it’s insanity, so if you don’t understand your audience the best thing to do is get out. As we have.”
Idle: “SNL has been this university of comedy for 40 years – you know, amazing. The best training there can be is to just be out there live every Saturday doing rotten material.”
Cleese: “You’ve got to understand, the British press write this stuff [about the Pythons supposedly hating each other] about everyone, not just about us. And I think it’s because something like The Daily Mail – which is my pet hate – it operates on trying to make people anxious and slightly depressed because that’s how they sell more copies.”
Palin: “So you can see we hate The Daily Mail slightly more than we hate each other.”
Idle: “I feel always relieved that anything I write on a computer and send to anybody is being vetted by the North Korean comedy police. I’m wondering how things are going, you know, I want to call them up and say, ‘Did you laugh?’”
Gilliam: “I thought [Life of Brian] was a great ecumenical movement because we united Protestants, Catholics and Jews all against us, which was wonderful. We just left Muslims out, which I think was a mistake. They should be united against us as well.”
Idle: “I think we should now apply for tax deductible status on the grounds that we are funnier than Scientology. We could be a religion. ‘Briantology’ would be good.”