Monty Python analyzed by Dave Eggers

Spamalot on Lake
The New Yorker interviews Dave Eggers about Spamalot and Python legacy

The New Yorker:

How would you characterize you and your friends who hit it off with Monty Python? In my experience, it was always the clever, creative smart-asses who identified with them.

Yeah, you know, Hank Azaria, who’s in “Spamalot,” put it well. He went to a prep school in New York somewhere. He said something to the effect that Monty Python sort of made it O.K. to be smart. They rewarded you, I guess, for having studied in history class. To be able to take that kind of material and completely make it ridiculous was—it’s something that nobody else did, or does, really. Everything else humor-related, every other kind of show, and certainly any movie comedy, is based on things that we all know, like love or kids or work. The sketch shows are usually based on celebrities and current events, or characters who have some specific tic. But it was incredibly rare to see Python do anything topical or timely, really. It was a lot of historical stuff, a lot of religious stuff. They were dealing with bigger issues than most comedy shows do. Being a smart-ass? Definitely. I mean, my Eric Idle-reincarnated friend and I, we had a column in our high-school paper called “And Now for a Bit of Fun.” The anarchic form of the show was really my first look into how you can break something down, break down the fourth wall and take it all apart, and then be left with not less but more.

So it influenced your writing directly?

Yeah, absolutely. Later on I found what they were doing in book form. The year after we found “The Holy Grail,” we read “Don Quixote,” and you see how Cervantes is doing sort of fourth-wall stuff, addressing the reader, and acknowledging the artifice of the first half of the book in the second half. But Monty Python was really my first taste of what I guess we would call deconstructionism.

Are there any modern heirs to this kind of comedy? “Saturday Night Live,” or any of the movies that the Python members have done?

Not as much as you’d expect. I did talk to David Cross for this article, because I think that “Mr. Show,” which was on HBO, is sort of the closest thing we’ve ever had in America to Python. It was a sketch show, and they would do a lot of the same things that Python would. They did filmed clips and skits in front of a live audience. They also weren’t afraid to end a sketch whenever it needed to be ended, as opposed to waiting for some gag to close it out. The thing is, no one knows how to end a sketch well; you see “S.N.L.” struggle with it, when the solution is to just quit and move on. Cross said that he remembered being really young and seeing the Pythons do a sketch, and then talk about the sketch in the middle of the skit, and then continue the sketch, you know, and then end the sketch without an ending. All of these things completely exploded the form. Cross is on “Arrested Development” now, which is really the only American show today that’s in touch with a true sense of absurdity, I think—outside of “The Swan,” maybe. That’s Cross’s joke, by the way. “The Kids in the Hall” was another great sketch-comedy show that was pretty close to Python in a lot of ways, starting with the cross-dressing. But over all it’s pretty rare in comedy to see anyone addressing the form itself, or to be pretty brazen about being smart. That’s another point that Cross made: that the Pythons weren’t afraid of looking smart, which isn’t allowed so much in the U.S. We like our elected leaders dumb, and we like most of our comedy dumb. Python did plenty of dumb comedy, but it had a context. They’d be talking about Genghis Khan and Marat one minute, and the next there’d be a sixteen-ton weight falling on someone’s head. Given the erudition, it actually made the stupid stuff funnier. In terms of the fourth wall, maybe everybody feels like it’s been done, and to do it again would be redundant or irrelevant. But I think that there’s still a lot you can do with the structure itself. That’s one of the main things that attracted me to Monty Python. For me, it transcended being just a comedy show. I really felt that with so many of the shows, and definitely with the movies, especially “The Meaning of Life,” you were really watching an important piece of art.

Spamalot looks like it will be hard to get into, here in Chi-town. Still, am trying to get D enthused: she less of a die-hard fan. Me on the other hand can quote most of the skits, verbatim. I also watched with my dad, back in high school, on the Austex PBS station....

They’re starting it in Chicago?

Yeah, it sold out. I guess it’s running for five weeks in Chicago. But they sold out the run quickly, which made me very proud of my home town. It’s a great theatre town, obviously.

And the clever, creative sixteen-year-old smart-ass in Chicago who goes to see this show with his parents—are they likely to go back and dig up the old “Monty Python Flying Circus,” and what will they think?

You know, I re-watched most of the forty-five episodes, and they’re way stranger than I’d remembered. And as they went along the show became much harsher and weirder. I think that everybody would benefit from looking back at this stuff. “The Meaning of Life” is far darker than I’d remembered. I can’t remember anything since being that dark. I mean, nowadays, only animated stuff, like “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” can get away with that level of anger and bile and that sort of dim world view—but with them it goes down easier because they’re cartoons. In “The Meaning of Life,” there’s Mr. Creosote, who blows up, and then there’s the part where they show up at Terry Gilliam’s door, and he’s dressed as a Jewish Rastafarian, and they ask for his liver, because he signed up on an organ-donation list. But he didn’t read the fine print, and they get to take it whenever they want, so they do a live liver extraction. It’s the most disgusting thing. I don’t know if I’ve seen anything like it, especially not in a comedy. Then Idle steps out of the dead guy’s fridge and goes directly into “The Galaxy Song,” which is really humbling and beautiful at the same time. It’s really about the nature of the universe, in about two and a half minutes.

As opposed to being just about newsy buzz topics.

Well, exactly. It’s completely timeless. There’s not one minute of it that seems dated. Their stuff is a lot more sweeping and lasting than almost anything else, because they weren’t taking on current events—they were addressing history itself. History and sheep

--update, more archived here

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on December 15, 2004 9:34 AM.

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