The Big Issue : Edition 504
THEBIGISSUE5–18FEB2016 17 A COMEDIAN ONCE said that the best heckle he had ever heard was: “Tell us a joke we know!” This deftly sums up a no-win conundrum. People tend to pay money to come to shows expecting reassuringly familiar material, but comedy depends on an element of surprise. The problem can be most acute for successful comedians: people want the jokes they’ve heard before; jokes that can be as old as they are. It’s a heightened version of the problem facing a musician whose audience only wants to hear the old stuff. Confronted with crowd requests for hits like ‘Circle Game’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ while performing in the US in 1974, Joni Mitchell told her audience that this was one of the differences between being a musician and an artist. Mitchell said: “Nobody ever called out to Van Gogh: ‘Paint another Starry Night, man!’” Then she played ‘Circle Game’ again... It was also in 1974, coincidentally, that the final episode of the groundbreaking comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast in the UK. It was a series as unique and absurd as its title. Now, well over 40 years later, material from the series is still being reprised. Two of the original Pythons – John Cleese and Eric Idle, both of them now gentlemen well and truly into their seventies – have found an ingenious way around the problem of meeting audience expectations while allowing themselves an element of surprise with the show they are bringing to Australia, John Cleese and Eric Idle: Together Again at Last...for the Very First Time. First of all, it’s not actually a show as such. Instead, the pair are mostly in conversation, sitting and chatting, with enough cues for each other that they have ready-made material at hand, and enough freedom to improvise and extemporise hilarious flights of fancy. The conversational format between these two guarantees laughter, but takes the pressure off the need for a laugh a minute, which is no longer Cleese’s bag. Occasionally they may dip into a script, as they did when they first got together on stage as a duo – as part of an LA Live Talks series in late 2014, when promoting So, Anyway... Cleese’s autobiography. It can be a clever sidestep: they may be reading the script of a familiar sketch, but the effect of estrangement – that they are not acting, not in costume, not moving about – changes everything. The jokes can actually be experienced, as opposed to remembered (or, worse, anticipated). Idle, the most musical of the Pythons, is seemingly liable to break into song at any given moment. And who wouldn’t mind hearing him do a version of his song ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, from the 1979 movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian? (Idle also performed the song at the London Olympics’ Closing Ceremony in 2012.) The Cleese-Idle show is rounded out with questions submitted in writing from the audience, although it’s hard not to suspect that these two shifty old stagers haven’t slipped in a few of their own. Their modest stage presentation is a far cry from the all-singing, all-dancing, all-animated mega-production that was the Monty Python reunion of 2014. Having not been together on stage for 34 years, the pent-up demand for the surviving ratbag Englishmen (plus the one token American, animator Terry Gilliam) was enormous: the 10 shows at London’s 16,000 seat O2 stadium sold out as quickly as computers could refresh. The audience had a jolly good time. Everyone got to hear and see the skits they love. Dead parrots were brought back to the pet shop, silly walks were walked and it was affirmed that nobody expects the Spanish Inqusition – except for all the people who knew every line. As Cleese said at the time, the audience knew the lines better than the performers. For a critic to carp that there was no new material is not unreasonable, but also a bit beside the point. A reunion is different to a comeback. A reunion, by its very nature, is all about looking back. The absence of Graham Chapman, who died in 1989, was acknowledged in the show’s title: Monty Python Live (mostly): One Down, Five to Go. The Python skits, however, are less front-and-centre for this Australian tour. The major source material comes from Cleese’s memoir, and his recollections of life before Python. Written with a gentle wisdom, and a genuine sense of generosity to the many people Cleese performed with throughout the 1960s, So, Anyway... is a gem. Cleese was born in Weston- super-Mare, a little known English seaside town, which Wikipedia helpfully locates as being between Worlebury Hill and Bleadon Hill. To the great surprise of its residents, it was bombed by the Germans during World War II, despite boasting no infrastructure of any military significance whatsoever. His father, an insurance salesman, is remembered with considerable fondness in the memoir, the only sadness being that when Cleese returned home after years away at Cambridge and then touring, his father still wanted to treat his son as a boy. And although Cleese gives due deference to his mother’s good qualities, it’s clear she was a difficult woman, thanks to an overriding sense of anxiety, which was an expression of her self-obsession. One consequence of this was a complete lack of general knowledge. ALMOST 50 YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE THE FIRST EPISODE OF MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS SCREENED ON BRITISH TV. IT WAS UNLIKE ANYTHING THAT PRECEDED IT. SINCE THEN THERE HAVE BEEN MOVIES, BOOKS, RECORDINGS, A HUGELY SUCCESSFUL SPIN-OFF MUSICAL AND – TWO YEARS AGO – A BOX-OFFICE- BONANZA SERIES OF REUNION SHOWS, DESPITE THE ABSENCE OF ONE OF THE ORIGINAL MEMBERS. THIS CIRCUS IS UNSTOPPABLE. AND IT IS A RARE COMEDIAN WHO WOULD NOT ACKNOWLEDGE THE INFLUENCE OF MONTY PYTHON. BUT AS TWO OF THE FORMER PYTHONS PREPARE TO APPEAR ON AUSTRALIAN STAGES, PERHAPS IT IS TIME TO ASK WHETHER THE CASH COW HAS BEEN MILKED DRY.