You don’t know how adorable it can be for a 10-year-old girl to impersonate a Spanish Inquisitor until you’ve seen it in person. Last night, as the five surviving members of Monty Python reunited on stage at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York City, they were temporarily upstaged by Talia, a girl they invited onstage to perform her rendition of the classic “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” sketch.
Which she did, admirably if nervously, stumbling a little over the phrase “ruthless efficiency,” as the five comedians looked on and applauded like proud grandpas. Quipped Michael Palin, “We just need four more like her and we can all piss off!”
There was a ruthless inefficiency to the stage reunion, which followed a screening of a cut-down version of the Python documentary Almost the Truth, whose full version starts airing on IFC Sunday. The five men (joined later by female foil Carol Cleveland, looking stunning) simply took the stage in jackets and sweaters, reading each other questions audience members had jotted down on index cards. (The late Graham Chapman was represented by a cardboard cutout, dressed in military uniform.)
The half-hour exchange started off creakily, with the Pythons giving clipped answers. (Although John Cleese, asked the death date of Cardinal Richelieu, nailed it: 1642. Of course, I never actually saw the index card he claimed to be reading from.) But as the bit went on and the audience cheered, the entertainers warmed to the mutual interview, which became a kind of nostalgic jam session. Perhaps a surprisingly funny one, since, as Eric Idle noted in response to one question, the Pythons improvised very little in their skits.
Not that the answers weren’t also revelatory of the group’s comic relationship, in some small ways. Cleese, asked to describe the different comic writing styles of the troupe, said that he and Chapman (who wrote as a team) specialized in skits where people ended up screaming at each other, and in what he called “thesaurus” sketches. One example, added Terry Jones (whom the documentary shows constantly butting heads with Cleese creatively), was the famous Cheese Shop sketch (in which Cleese asks a cheesemonger played by Palin for a long list of cheeses that he does not carry). “All you really did was get the book on cheese,” Jones said.
As the group got comfortable with the exercise, the jokes flew faster. “What was the biggest regret of your career, Michael?” Cleese asked Palin. “I wish I’d been born a man,” Palin replied. Idle launched into a raunchy story about “The Boston Startler,” the name that Chapman—who was gay and who Idle said like to scandalize the rest of the cast with sex stories—gave to the male appendage of a particularly fortunate acquaintance from Massachusetts. Then came an inquiry that you’d think could not possibly have a funny answer: “What about that very funny thing that happened at Auschwitz?”
“On a point of information it was actually Dachau,” Idle replied. It turns out the Pythons were working in Germany when they had a chance to visit the concentration camp. When they were brought there, though, the site was closed. “So Graham said, ‘Tell them we’re Jewish!’” (Chapman, though dead, ended up being one of the funniest presences there. One question asked about his remark in his autobiography that he believed that Cleese was especially fond of Palin. “I have never fancied Michael Palin,” Cleese deadpanned. “I find him physically repellent.”)
The loveliest moment came last. An audience member asked Idle if he could explain the inspiration for writing The Galaxy Song, from the movie The Meaning of Life. He didn’t; instead, he reached behind his chair, pulled out a guitar and began singing, accompanied on harmonies by the other Pythons. Sadly I didn’t have the presence of mind to record it, so I’ll leave you with the video, below, and a thought:
Remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.