“It Was a Miserable Experience!” Monty Python on Making ‘Holy Grail’ and Whether They Really Do Hate Each Other

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We heard them in the hallway, chattering and joking before the Friday afternoon press conference that launched Monty Python’s takeover of the Tribeca Film Festival’s second weekend. The festival folks were keeping the surviving members of the iconic British comedy troupe busy that weekend: after the press conference, they had a 40th anniversary screening of their classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail Friday night, a Saturday afternoon premiere of the new documentary Monty Python: The Meaning of Live (chronicling their smash reunion shows at the O2 arena last year), and revival screenings of The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. So in light of all that activity, the question that drifted into the room got a laugh: “What are we selling?” As did Eric Idle’s guess: “Ice cream? Cocoanut ice cream?” Or, as John Cleese would eloquently put it early in the press conference, “It’s very simple, it’s economic: Now that we’re no good any more, we’re trying to squeeze every last penny out of the days when we were able to do it.”

The Beacon screening marked the beginning of a big anniversary campaign for Holy Grail, and as Idle explained, New York was the logical place for it. “Well, this is where we opened it, 40 years ago,” he said. “They had a little guy — two guys, they paid two guys, two actors, out of work — were dressed in Arthurian robes, going up and down Fifth Avenue, with the guy with the cocoanuts behind. And they had signs: ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail, free cocoanuts for the first thousand guests that come to the screening,’ at 11:00 in the morning at the Cinema 2. And we were woken at eight, they said, ‘You’ve got to get up!’ They said there’s 2000 people surrounding Cinema 2, waiting for free cocoanuts.” When Idle retold the story that night, Palin added, “That actor was Robert De Niro.”

And moderator John Oliver came through with a topper: “Did you see that through for the next movie, for The Life of Brian? Did you give out free nails?” He also posed a key question about Grail, as it enters its fifth decade on this earth. “Why do you think this has lasted so well,” he asked, “other than being fucking great?”

Though they’re not certain why Grail is the film Americans like best (in England, Cleese said, the most beloved Python film is Life of Brian), they do have theories as to why it holds up. Palin explained, “I think they’re kind of modern characters dressed up as historical characters. There’s a great historical believability about it. It’s very well put together in the art department and it really does look very believable, all dirty and medieval, yet all the characters are present-day characters in some shape or form.” Gilliam, who co-directed with Terry Jones, agrees. “The key for us was to ground this very material in real mud, in the reality of the whole thing, and it made it funnier. It’s funny when you have them going, ‘Oh, how do you know he’s a king?’ ‘Because he’s not covered in shit.’ But you needed the shit to make the joke really work.”

And they’ll also credit some of the film’s timelessness to the fact that they weren’t under the thumb of a studio or pushy backers. “We didn’t have to sell,” Gilliam said. “We were able to do what we wanted to do.” Idle explained, “We were very lucky, because for The Holy Grail, we just got rock and roll friends, and people who were trying to lose tax money, and they paid for it. There were ten groups — Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Elton — they put in 10,000 each or something, and that was enough to make the film.” He maintains, after trying to work for studios and executives, that this is the only way to do it. “It’s hard enough to be funny. But people giving you notes is just the worst thing in the world. That’s why it’s so shit over here — trying to work with the studios, you’ve got people who came out of the William Morris mail room giving you notes on comedy! And the only possible response is, ‘Fuck off!'”

However, the fact that the resulting film was so successful — with audiences, with critics, with 40 years of fans — has done nothing to soften Cleese’s memories of the shoot. “It was a miserable experience!” he fumed Friday night, his voice rising (like, oh, a character in a Monty Python sketch) as he ran down the steady stream of inconveniences. “You got up in the morning, you got up on the hillside, it started to rain immediately because it was April and it was Scotland. And the rain came down, we had so little money there were four umbrellas on the whole set, and this nasty chain-mail which was knitted string would start getting damp, by nine o’clock you were cold and wet. And then at six o’clock when the first assistant said, ‘Wrap,’ there was this rush for the cars, because there was only enough hot water for 40% of the people at the hotel, so there was this scramble to get back. It was a miserable, miserable time!”

Cleese seemed to have a much better time during last summer’s reunion shows at the O2, chronicled in The Meaning of Live. Directors Roger Graef (who has some history with Python live shows — he directed several of the concert films for their Amnesty International benefits) and James Rogan use performance and backstage footage, as well as production and rehearsal clips, to tell the story of how the group got back together, live on stage for the first time since the Hollywood Bowl shows in 1980. The motives weren’t exactly pure; to their credit, they were totally honest about the fact that the show was a cash grab to pay off a pricey, long-running lawsuit over Spamalot profits. And thus, there are some self-doubts, which they confess to Graef and Rogan’s cameras — about embarrassing themselves and coming off as, in Gilliam’s words, “a bunch of old farts trying to scrabble away to get some money.”

But they came off just fine, and Meaning of Live is an entertaining and informative documentary, looking not just at the new shows, but also the role live performance has played throughout the careers. And as such, it includes priceless footage, photos, and recordings from those old shows and the tours surrounding them, interspersing the history with the present — and thus lending some real pathos to the struggles of the show and the personal dynamics that come to light (Idle always “feels like he’s got something to prove”; Gilliam was “always in awe of the other”). And, frankly, the juxtaposition of those young pups and the men they become is not just visually striking, but a testament to the power and longevity of what they created, lo those many years ago.

After the Saturday premiere, Cleese offered up his own review of the new film. “Thought it was rotten!” he announced, to the roar of the festival crowd. “Very disappointing. It missed the essential spite and rivalry between us. It’s just been airbrushed out of history, and comes off as a lot of people who quite like each other.”

He was riffing on one of the longest-running whispers about the group, one particularly beloved by the British press: that they all hate each other. I asked about those rumors at Friday’s press conference; they laughed and joked about them. Terry Jones laid it on thick: “We looove each other.” Palin, however, countered, “I think they underestimate how much we hate each other.”

But Cleese shrugged it off as international click-bait. “You’ve got to understand the British press write this stuff about everyone, not just about us,” he told me. “I think it’s because something like the Daily Mail, which is my pet hate, operate by trying to make people anxious and slightly depressed.” Palin chimed in, “So you can see, we hate the Daily Mail slightly more than we hate each other.”

Oliver brought up the topic as well that night, noting, “People don’t understand how comedians talk to each other.” And while the boys noted that disagreements over material are common among that type of group, the other stuff is just “taking the piss,” topping each other and knocking out little jabs, making jokes about how dull Palin’s travelogue series are. Such moments are particularly likely between Cleese and Palin; when Cleese began a story, “After the first series, I was asked to go to the Playboy Club in London by Victor Lowe,” Palin pulled a face and mused, “He was forced to go to the Playboy Club.” Later, when referencing a story Cleese had told in his book, Palin mentioned “your marvelous biography — slightly overpriced…”

But overall — and maybe this is due to the passage of time, or maybe it’s the sentimentality that sometimes comes with old(er) age — they came away from the reunion experience feeling warm and grateful. “It was like no time had passed,” Idle said. “I’m changing with Mike, we’re getting in these fucking costumes, we’re doing the camp judges, we’ve got these little leotards and terrible garter belts and stockings, and it just seemed like we’d been doing this all our lives!”

Which is not to say that they want to keep doing it for the rest of their lives. The O2 shows — and Meaning of Live — end with a graphic for departed member Graham Chapman (1941-1989), and then a matching one for Monty Python (1969-2014). For Cleese, maintaining a comic voice and perspective is difficult for one simple reason: “I don’t begin to understand contemporary society. I mean, nobody’s 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. And if you just don’t understand why they want to watch movies, where the director and cinematographer have spent ages setting up the beautiful shot, and then they watch it on these [gesturing to his phone], if you don’t understand your audience, the best thing you can do is to get out.”

Idle agrees. “I think the thing that I really loved most was just watching it come to an end, and how it was dignified and touching and moving,” he said. “And not going on and on and on… I think that’s right, I think it’s lovely. I think you want to finish on a good moment, and it was a great moment.”

And for Cleese, part of the greatness of that moment was realizing, in a rather profound way, his place in the world. There’s a lovely moment near the end of The Meaning of Live when guest star Mike Myers stands backstage as Cleese performs the “Albatross!” sketch, and this man — a comedy icon in his own right — is nothing but a fan, a comedy-loving teenager, mouthing along the words to a Monty Python sketch. “I never thought that comedy was terribly important,” Cleese confessed Saturday. “I thought it was nice to make people laugh, and it’s good for the body chemistry, and it sort of sends you to bed happy. But during that period, I suddenly thought, no, we’re actually doing something quite useful! There’s 16,000 people there, and they’re all happy! And they’re all liking each other! And there’s warmth and cooperation between them! And I suddenly thought, this is really a useful thing to do.” To which Palin chimed in, “And they all paid!”

But even if they’d flopped, the shows were a chance for these old friends and partners to hang out again — as was the film festival last weekend. “I love these things where we get together, because it’s just fun,” Idle said. “I hate to say it, and I hope the Daily Mail isn’t here, but it’s really fun to see everybody. To go through your life and get together for weird reasons with people you’ve known for over 50 years is really just a lovely thing. It’s a delightful thing. We’re very lucky for it.”